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5 Ways to Navigate Unhealthy Children’s Menus at Restaurants

unhealthy children’s menus

How do you feel about a side of bad news with that not-so-happy meal?

More than one third of America’s children are either overweight or obese, and too few restaurants are offering menu items that meet nutritional standards.

It should come as no surprise, really. The writing has been on the wall – or, more to the point, those unhealthy children’s menus – for some time. Most parents dining out with their kids are repeatedly regaled with the same four options for the little tykes: chicken tenders (or fingers), personal pizzas, burgers, and hot dogs – all served with fries. All fried, to some degree, and promoted alongside a colorful, fizzy beverage. And all, more or less, synonymous with sodium, saturated fats, and sugar.

Case in point, many so-called “kids meals” top out at around 1,000 calories, when the daily standard caloric intake for school-aged children is only 1,600 to 2,500.

While improvements are gradually being made to children’s menus nationwide, progress is slow-going. In addition to being nutritionally questionable, the kids’ meal routine, some say, creates an unrealistic idea of what a child’s diet should be, and can negatively influence eating habits at home.

So what should you do when taking the family out for a meal?

Here are five quick suggestions for navigating those unhealthy children’s menus.

Opt for fruit or veggies: Increasingly, restaurants are offering alternatives to that ever-popular, fried-and-true potato side dish. If you have to go with the chicken fingers, at least grab a handful of grapes, broccoli florets, or carrot sticks as an accompaniment.

Insist on low-fat milk, water, or apple juice: We’ve all seen those neon blue, cotton-candy-swirled soda specials, topped with a gummy-candy shark, and served in an oversized collector’s cup with a straw that doubles as a kazoo. Stick with the basics for a beverage. Milk, water, or fruit juice quenches thirst just as well, and – better yet – most children love them.

Get the sauce on the side: Whether mayo, ranch dressing, or a restaurant’s trademark special sauce – ask for it on the side. Condiments can add a tremendous amount of empty calories, and children dipping are less likely to indulge.

Encourage selections from the adult menu: Keep in mind – you’re not in any way beholden to the children’s menu just because it’s labeled “kids.” Share a pasta dish or split a grilled chicken entrée. Or even allow your children to peruse the menu themselves to see what tickles their fancy, and – hopefully – broadens their palate.

Patronize proactive venues: Restaurants participating in the Kids LiveWell initiative are required to offer at least one meal that is under 600 calories and features fruits or vegetables, whole grains, and a low-fat dairy product. Supporting businesses that care about our children’s welfare is the best way of sending a loud and clear message to those that do not.

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