BY CAROLYN O’NEIL
How about some good news about kids and what they’re eating?
Turns out all that encouragement to “eat your vegetables” might be sinking in because a new survey found that children are making more of an effort to do just that when dining out.
The Kids and Moms Consumer Trend Report conducted by Technomic asked 1,200 kids ages 6 to 12 about their dining habits.
Results might surprise parents who assume their kids will say no to substituting fruit for fries. About 80 percent of the children surveyed said they have tried to eat more fruit in the past six months, and 77 percent said they tried to eat more vegetables. One-third said they consider health information when dining out. Salads are leading the pack in popularity on kids menus, and older children are skipping the chicken fingers and pizza and opting for healthier items from the adult side of the menu.
Once upon a time it was a special occasion to eat out with your parents, but now it’s part of everyday life, and that means restaurant foods have a bigger impact on health and nutrition. Mother of two and registered dietitian Janice Bissex, co-author of “The Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeovers,” says, “If eating out is a frequent occurrence, some ground rules should be set.” Bissex recommends limiting soft drink consumption and encouraging water, low-fat milk or juice as healthier beverage options.
Kids menus are generally a disappointment to dietitians because the standard selection of fried chicken nuggets, grilled cheese and burgers with fries doesn’t encourage eating a variety of foods and can be too high in fat and calories (especially for inactive kids). But what concerns Bissex most is what is not offered on kids menus. “I’d like to see more whole-wheat bread for sandwiches, cut up fruit and baby carrots. And instead of pasta in butter, I’d prefer to see pasta and marinara sauce with broccoli.”
The good news is that family-friendly restaurants are listening and working with nutritionists to add more healthful options for children. The Technomic report recognized a growing presence of fruit and vegetables on kids menus. Bob Evans’ Farms offers a low-fat strawberry yogurt with fresh fruit, Jason’s Deli serves organic carrots and apples, and even IHOP has a tilapia entree served with steamed broccoli and lemon.
But no matter how healthful the menu option, it doesn’t mean kids have to eat it all. One of the most important lessons in lifelong nutrition is recognizing when you are full. Jo Anne Lichten, registered dietitian and author of “Dining Lean,” says, “We all know that restaurant meals are getting bigger than we need. It’s no different for kids meals.” Lichten does the meal-time math and concludes: “So, don’t ever make a kid finish everything on their plate.”
Hey, Mom was right!
Don’t wolf it down. Teach kids to savor flavors and slow down. The faster you eat, the more you are likely to consume. That’s the key to winning a pie-eating contest, not to developing lifelong healthful eating habits.
Don’t spoil your appetite. If a meal includes a soft drink, ask that it be served with the meal so children don’t fill up on high-calorie sugar water. Ditto on diving into the bowl of tortilla chips or bread basket before the meal arrives.
Don’t be afraid to try it. Some kids are more adventurous — say, sampling sushi at age 6 — and others stick to the basics. But it’s important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety, the more types of nutrients provided.
Learn to share. Whether it’s showing kids how to split a platter of pasta as a first course for the whole family or ordering one slice of cheesecake with four forks, dining out teaches proper portion control when you share.
Go out and play. Kids need to be active to be healthy and burn enough calories to stay fit. Kids who are considered very active (60 minutes or more of physical activity per day) need only 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day. Because most kids eat four to six times a day (including snacks), a meal of 400 to 500 calories is more than adequate.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@ carolynoneil.com.