Over the past thirty years, the rate of childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled. Currently, approximately 30 percent of American children ages 2-19 are classified as overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk for a host of health problems, including asthma, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and joint pain.
Many health experts attribute this dramatic increase to societal changes. Families live life at a faster pace than in previous decades, and many households have single parents or two working parents, causing families to depend more heavily on restaurant and convenience foods. Most restaurants, in turn, have increased portion sizes 100 percent or more, and often do not provide nutritional information on the menu.
For many families, fast food is a regular menu item rather than an occasional treat. According to licensed dietitian and father of three Mike Bowles, “America is like no other culture inthe world as far as the fast-paced lifestyles we maintain. We’ve become used to the instant gratification idea for foods that sound good, but aren’t nutritionally sound. Our poor health is the result.” He encourages his clients to involve their kids in all aspects of food preparation, and limit the amount of restaurant food in their diets.
The Good, the Bad and Better Choices
Although most kid’s meals often come with a fun toy, those meals may also come with lots of calories and fat grams. A typical fast food meal of cheeseburger, small fries and chocolate milk delivers almost half of the recommended daily caloric intake for a 7-year-old child, and about 65 percent of the total fat. It also lacks a serving of fresh fruit or vegetables, meaning those 5-7 servings are going to have to be made up elsewhere. Chicken is only slightly better. For example, at McDonalds, ChickenMcNuggets have 580 calories and 26 grams of fat. Substituting apples for fries provides an added fruit serving and cuts calories and fat, but includes a host of preservatives.
Casual dining restaurants boasted numbers that were even worse than their fast-food counterparts. At Chili’s, a Little Mouth Cheeseburger and french fries delivers 670 calories and 33 grams of fat, and that’s before you add the drink. Switch that cheeseburger for a grilled cheese, and you’re up to 760 calories and 51 grams of fat, and still no drink. On the bright side, Chili’s menu does offer some healthier options, such as a grilled chicken breast at 150 calories and 3 grams of fat, which can be combined with fresh grilled vegetables or fruit instead of fries. At On the Border, a kid’s cheese quesadilla boasts 850 calories and 67 grams of fat (27 saturated) all by itself, without sides or a drink. While they also offer some healthier options such as soft chicken tacos (240 calories and 11 grams offat), and grilled chicken (90 calories, 1 gram of fat), their mixed vegetable side was actually more fat-laden than the French fries, with 14 fat grams.
Restaurants such as Quizno’s, Panera Bread, and Subway had healthier menu options, and featured fewer “menu shockers.” While these restaurants offer healthier nutritional content by the numbers, it’s still important to really look at what is on the menu. How many food groups are represented? Are the bread products made from whole grains? It’s a good idea to add a fruit and/or vegetable serving if possible, and that doesn’t necessarily mean fruit juice. “It’s okay to substitute one or two servings of fruit with 100% juice sometimes, but it doesn’t replace the other nutrients found in fresh fruits and vegetables,” cautions Bowles.
What Parents Can Do
Obviously, the best choice is to limit eating out. As a busy working mom, I know that sometimes practicality wins and we do grab food on the go. Here are some tips to encourage healthier restaurant eating:
- Can you really insist that your kids order fruit instead of fries when you do eat out?
In my experience, yes. As long as choices are offered, I’ve experienced relatively little resistance to shifting my family to a healthier diet. I always challenge them to get (and eat) as many colors on their plate as possible, so they’re always willing to get vegetables or fruit.
- Before heading to the restaurant, try providing an easy vegetable or fruit snack (think apples or carrots). The strategy is to get started with nutritious food, and try to reduce the high calorie and fat temptations.
- Check the menu for healthier items. It’s always smart to know what you’re eating, so ask for the nutrition information if it’s not posted (See sidebar for more healthy eating tips).
- Remember that moderation is key when it comes to restaurant dining. The only way to include foods with a high fat and calorie content in a healthy diet is to consider them a treat rather than a staple menu item.
- Greatly limit processed food,whether at a restaurant or the grocery store. “The less processed your diet, the better,” said Bowles. “Refined foods dominate in the American diet at home and in restaurants, and they are void of any nutrition.”
The new health care reform requires chain restaurants (with 20 or more locations) to display nutrition information, which may help when making your choices. A few suggestions:
- Hamburger, Apple Dippers with low fat Caramel Dip,1% lowfat white milk (460 calories, 12 grams of fat)
- 4-piece Chicken McNuggets, Apple Dippers with low fat caramel dip, 1% low fat white milk (390 calories, 15 grams of fat)
At McDonald’s, avoid:
- Cheeseburger, small french fries, 1% lowfat white milk (640 calories, 25 grams of fat)
At Wendy’s, choose:
- Hamburger, Mandarin oranges, Nesquik lowfat chocolate milk (470 calories, 11 grams of fat)
- 4-piece nuggets, Mandarin oranges, Jr. Vanilla Frosty (420 calories, 17 grams of fat)
At Wendy’s, avoid:
- Crispy chicken sandwich, Hi-C Fruit Punch, kids meal french fries (630 calories, 25 grams of fat)
At Burger King, choose:
- Hamburger, apple fries, fat free milk (430 calories, 11.5 grams of fat)
- Macaroni and cheese, apple fries, apple juice (330 calories, 5.5grams of fat)
At Burger King, avoid:
- Cheeseburger, French fries, Sprite (420 calories, 26 grams of fat)
Think outside of the kids meal box—sometimes it can be more cost-effective and healthier to order for your children off the regular menu. Get a side salad to pair with a small order of French fries or a burger to satisfy both the desire for a treat and nutritional needs. (Menu information found at mcdonalds.com, wendys. com and bk.com.)
For more information on creating a healthier diet for your family, talk to a healthcare professional or a dietitian.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.