By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
Once upon a time, it was a special occasion to dine at a restaurant with your parents. Everyone could splurge. I always got the cheesecake.
Now, eating out with the kids is part of everyday life, and that means restaurant food choices have a greater effect on health and nutrition.
Registered dietitian Janice Bissex is a mother of two girls and writes a family nutrition blog (www.mealmakeover moms.com) with dietitian Liz Weiss, who has two boys.
“If eating out is a frequent occurrence, some ground rules should be set,” Bissex said. She recommends limiting soft drink consumption and encouraging water, low-fat milk or juice as more healthful beverage options.
If french fries are a family favorite, “I’d suggest just one order at the table to share with everyone.”
Kids menus are generally a disappointment to dietitians.
“I’d like to see more whole-wheat bread for sandwiches, cut up fruit and baby carrots,” Bissex said. “And instead of pasta in butter, I’d prefer to see pasta and marinara sauce with broccoli.”
Fortunately, more eateries today are serving vegetables that are fresh, seasonal and often deliciously prepared, so you’ll have much better luck getting the kids to try them.
Marlow’s Tavern, with several Atlanta locations, offers carrots and celery sticks with hummus — a popular choice that just happens to be nutritious, too.
Atlanta dietitian Terry Till recommended having some fun finding nutrition on the menu: “The more colors, the better. Kids can often get into that as it may feel like a game to them.”
But no matter how healthful the menu options offered at restaurants, that doesn’t mean kids have to eat it all. One of the most important lessons in lifelong nutrition is recognizing when you are full.
“We all know that restaurant meals are getting bigger than we need,” said registered dietitian Jo Anne Lichten, author of “Dining Lean.”
“It’s no different for kids meals.”
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 lifelong healthful eating habits. “Parents should model normal eating speed, teaching kids to eat more slowly,” said Atlanta dietitian Page Love, an eating disorder specialist.
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. “If there’s a bread basket on the table, wait and eat your side bread last to see if you really want it or need it to feel full,” Love advised.
Don’t be afraid to try it. Some kids are more adventurous than others, sampling sushi at age 6, while others stick to the basics. But it’s important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety in the diet, the more types of nutrients are provided. “Research shows it can take 10 to 20 tastes over the course of many meals before a child eventually learns to actually like a new food,” Weiss said. “The more often the food is offered, the better the odds that your child will taste it and add it to his or her list of favorite foods.”
Learn to share. Whether it’s showing kids how to split a platter of pasta as a first-course sampling 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. How about choosing a restaurant because it’s in a nice neighborhood for walking? The Virginia-Highland area of Atlanta, downtown Decatur, historical Roswell, the Marietta Square and many locations are perfect for parking the car and walking before or after dinner.
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.