By Vanessa Lynskey
Beginning this spring, large restaurant chains nationwide will be required to post calorie counts on their menus. But how will you use that information to make healthier choices for your family? Rather than changing habits overnight, try some simple swaps that can go a long way.
Filling up on adult-size meal combinations, sugary fountain drinks, and rich side dishes can lead kids to consume excess calories, fat, and added sugars. But now it's easier than ever to avoid these pitfalls and choose more healthful options -- if you know where to look.
Experts agree that a kids' meal at a restaurant should have no more than 600 calories. Here are some easy ways to get closer to that goal: without doing mental math at the ordering counter!
1. Order from the kids' menu instead of the regular menu. Many kids' menu meals are satisfying and right-sized for kids.
2. Replace soda with water or milk. Keep sugar in check by ordering water or low-fat or fat-free plain milk with your child's meal. Make a game out of it by challenging them to drink at least one full cup during their meal.
3. Include a fruit or (healthy) vegetable side with your meal. Many restaurants now offer sides like apple slices with kids' meals. Boost the nutrients in your child's meal by adding a fruit or veggie side instead of French fries.
4. Order grilled foods instead of fried. Grilled menu items typically have fewer calories and fat than fried ones. Watch out for words like "crispy," which often means fried.
5. Skip dessert and finish the meal with fruit instead. Sweets like ice cream, cookies, and cake can add lots of fat and sugar to a restaurant meal. Try ending most meals with fruit, and save desserts for truly special occasions.
6. Give kids a little incentive to eat healthy. Use the free Kids Reward Program to encourage your child to eat healthier. For every five healthy items they eat or drink, reward them with a fun activity you can do together, like going to the park or pool or doing an art project.
Whether you're sitting down to eat or hitting the drive-through, taking small steps to help your family eat more healthfully now can set good habits for years to come.
Vanessa Lynsky, MPH, is senior project manager, Restaurant Initiative at Child Obesity180. Based at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, ChildObesity180 unites national leaders from the private, public, nonprofit, and academic sectors committed to developing, measuring, and implementing evidence-based solutions to reverse the alarming epidemic of childhood obesity in America.