Eating Smart When Eating Out

After a hectic day, dining out can be just what everyone (especially Mom) needs. Yet the choices that restaurants offer to kids are often loaded with calories and fat. A cheeseburger kid’s meal (a kiddie-sized burger, shake, and order of fries) looks fairly innocuous, yet even this downsized version of an adult combo meal can easily contain a startling 990 calories and 38 grams of fat. That’s 70 percent of the recommended daily caloric intake for an 8-year-old!

And fast-food eateries aren’t the only bad guys. A kid-sized portion of fettuccine Alfredo at a sit-down restaurant can tip the scale at 800 calories and a whopping 48 grams of fat. On top of all that, kid’s meals aren’t always cheap: the average American family spends $279 a month eating out.

But there’s no need to feel down in the mouth about the occasional family dinner outing. Here are four steps that will help you balance nutrition with fun when ordering meals for your kids—all for an affordable price.

Sit Down
If you have a choice between a sit-down restaurant and a fast-food chain, choose the traditional restaurant.

Good for Your Health: A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that even one fast-food meal per week raised the subjects’ BMIs over the course of a decade. But oddly enough, one extra meal per week at a sit-down restaurant did not cause body weight to increase.

“Generally, I would encourage sit-down restaurants because it encourages the family time and slower eating, and [you] often have more options for fruits and vegetables,” says Lori Ameh, registered dietitian and director of the Women, Infants, and Children Clinic in Provo, Utah.

Good for Your Wallet: Isn’t it more expensive to eat at a sit-down restaurant versus a fast-food chain? Not necessarily. Restaurants know the economic downturn has made it hard for families to eat out, and they’ve offered promotions to keep customers coming. Many eateries—such as IHOP, Lonestar, and Marie Callender’s— have occasional kids-eat-free specials. Be sure to call ahead to make sure that your location is participating in the promotion and that you know what days and times qualify for the freebie.

And, if you’ve taken the time to sit down and eat, you can use the experience as a money-smarts lesson for kids. For example, you could suggest a target price per meal and challenge them to find a menu choice that fits the night’s “budget.” And when you pay, you can also talk to kids about using coupons, how to calculate a tip, or how credit cards work.
Talking to your kids about finances and allowing them to take part in little spending decisions is a great way to teach money management skills.

Study Up
Before eating out, take a minute to look over the menu and the nutritional data many restaurants provide.

Good for Your Health: A 2009 study at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that people who are aware of a food’s nutritional data will eat an average of 250 fewer calories than those who don’t know their food’s calorie content— both at the meal and during the rest of the evening. “It is a good idea to check out the nutritional value of the food choices at both traditional and fast food restaurants,” Ameh says. “By looking at the comparison tables of various foods, you can make an educated selection.”

You can often find nutritional info in pamphlets near the cash register (some restaurants even list nutrition on the menu), but almost all chain restaurants now provide this data online. Pick up or print nutrition data about the restaurants your family frequents. That way, you can keep the nutritional info in the family car for quick reference.

Good for Your Wallet: If you plan ahead, you can catch those awesome kids-eat- free nights and other deals too. You’ll find coupons and discounted gift certificates for many chain restaurants through websites like citydeals.com, dineoutcheap.com, or restaurant.com. There are also great blogs that can help you save. “A restaurant’s website can be the single best place to find special promotion and possibly discount coupons,” says Michelle Hovestadt of Wicked Cool Deals, a blog that directs users to coupons on things like restaurants and groceries. “As more and more people turn to the Web to find discounts and coupons, restaurants are doing everything they can to lure readers to their websites. Take advantage of it!”

Split It Up
Sharing is a great strategy for getting all the taste for half the calories and half the price.

Good for Your Health: A small Butterfinger Blizzard at Dairy Queen contains 470 calories. But if you split it between two people, the dessert contains a manageable 235 calories. (Tip: if the thought of having “only half” makes a younger child upset, quietly ask the waiter or cashier to serve the food in two small cups or on two small plates so that your child won’t see you taking half the item away.)

Good for Your Wallet: Sit-down restaurants are notorious for their huge helping sizes, but you can use this to your advantage. Find a reasonably priced adult entrée that two or three of your kids can split, and you can spend even less per child than you would for a typical fast-food kid’s meal. For example, a full-size teriyaki rice bowl costs $7.25 and can easily be split between three youngsters. That’s means you’re paying less than $2.50 per child—how’s that for thrifty?

Swap It Out
Just say no to calorie-laden sides and sugary drinks.

Good for Your Health: Concerns about the rise of childhood obesity have prompted many restaurants to provide lighter alternatives to their typical fare. Chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Arby’s, and Chik-Fil-A now offer choices like mandarin oranges, yogurt, applesauce, and fruit cups in place of fries.

“It helps tremendously if parents are eating the way they want their child to eat,” says Melissa Johnson, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “If a parent substitutes a side salad for the fries, the child will be more likely to do the same. It’s a great way to teach a child how to eat in moderation and how to balance food out.”

Many chains also offer milk as an alternative to soft drinks. “Although chocolate milk has some added sugar, it has a ton more nutrition than soda, so I think it is a good compromise,” Johnson says. “It allows the child to still feel like it’s a ‘treat,’ but it gives them nutrients that soda would not give.”

Good for Your Wallet: Ordering waters instead of soft drinks will yield huge savings. Even the cheapest soft drinks generally cost $1.00 apiece. Do the math: a family of six that eats out three times a month could save an impressive $216.00 each year by saying no to soft drinks when eating out.

*Click here for the nutrition facts of 40 popular restaurant chains.
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