May 2009 Issue

Just Say No … to the Children’s Menu
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 5 P. 12

Somewhere along the way, chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, and French fries became featured items on most children’s menus at restaurants nationwide. While they have been deemed “kid friendly,” these foods are often loaded with calories and offer growing bodies little nutritional value. Still, they are staples on almost every children’s menu, making it difficult for parents to select healthy choices for their young ones.

“Often, these same items are offered on the menu regardless of whether you’re at your favorite Italian, Chinese, or Mexican food restaurant,” says Nan Jensen, RD, LD/N, family and consumer sciences program leader at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Pinellas County Extension. “The problem is that most of these types of items are high in calories, fat, and sodium. Some of the meals featured on kids’ menus can top 1,000 calories, which is almost the amount that an elementary-aged child needs in a day.”

For families that dine out occasionally, selecting healthy options may not be crucial. But today’s busy families often eat out several times per week. “When eating out becomes a routine and not the occasional treat is when we have to be much more careful about the choices we make,” says Jensen. “Today, eating out has become part of our lifestyle.”

If you have clients who are taking their kids out to eat frequently, they may need advice about making healthier choices. “I often recommend that parents think outside of the box when it comes to kids and their food,” says Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM, exercise physiologist and host of the TLC program Honey We’re Killing the Kids. “For instance, consider something off the appetizer list. And don’t be afraid to create a meal out of it. For instance, at a Chinese restaurant, they may have a grilled chicken skewer as an appetizer. Ask for steamed broccoli on the side, and you’ve created a dish that’s a lot healthier than something off the kids’ menu.”

Jensen also advises parents to consider ordering from the regular menu for their children because it generally has much healthier options. “Get the child a half order of something healthy off the regular menu or split an order with your child, assuming you are setting a good example and making a healthy selection for yourself,” she says. “Many restaurants often serve oversized portions, and there is generally plenty to share with other family members.”

Keeping portion sizes in check can be one of the biggest challenges. Portions on the kids’ menu are often larger than a typical meal should be. “When you order something like scrambled eggs, it can end up being a mountain-sized pile,” says Stoler. “Don’t be shy about asking them to portion it.” Parents can ask their waiter or waitress to wrap up half to take home if they aren’t planning to share their meal. One way to gauge what portions are like before even ordering is to look around at what other people are eating, advises Stoler. Take a look at what other children have ordered and judge the serving size.

Eating out presents parents with many opportunities to teach their children about healthy eating. These lessons will be helpful to kids when they are old enough to eat out on their own. “Parents should teach their kids about ordering food ‘their way’—baked or grilled instead of fried, whole wheat bread instead of white, dressing on the side instead of mixed into a salad, or vegetables instead of French fries,” suggests Jensen.

Also advise parents not to forget about a healthy drink; otherwise, the calories can quickly add up. “Soft drinks have calories, sugar, and some have caffeine,” she adds. “Instead, order low-fat milk or water or stick with a single, small serving of a soft drink. Don’t let your child get multiple refills, especially when drinking soda, which is going to add another 200 or 300 calories to their meal—even with a kid-sized cup.”

Menu Makeovers
While most kids’ menus are packed with unhealthy options, that’s not to say they all are. “One of my favorite kids’ menus is at Olive Garden,” says Stoler. “They have an option for a grilled chicken breast with a little bit of marinara and a cup of pasta plus some broccoli on the side. More restaurants should offer meals like this to kids.”

Fortunately, efforts are underway to clean up kids’ menus and give them more healthy options. Healthy Kids Choice, Inc (HKC) is a nonprofit program designed to provide children with access to healthier choices in restaurants.

“The dietary improvements that result from the HKC partnerships help children make better choices by helping restaurants promote preexisting healthful menus, as well as developing new healthy menu items,” says Sabrina Covington, RD, coexecutive director of the California-based program. “We take a hands-on approach by looking at the adult menu and even looking in the kitchen to see what’s available. For example, if a restaurant currently serves appetizers with carrot and celery sticks on the side, well then we know those could be available as a side option on the kids’ menu. It seems simple, but many times the restaurants need assistance to generate ideas and implement changes.”

The program is funded by The California Endowment and collaborates with the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative. “We are just one piece of the puzzle for what San Diego is doing to fight childhood obesity,” adds Covington. “One out of three kids in California is considered overweight or obese, but San Diego has one of the best action plans to fight this epidemic.”

Some of the menu improvements HKC has made include adding a fruit or nonfried vegetable substitution for French fries, offering a smaller sized soda with no refills, adding healthy drink choices in place of soda, and even offering a reward for children who choose healthier options. The organization believes that helping restaurants make these types of healthy changes could have a big impact on childhood obesity.           

“Research shows that the average family eats out [multiple] times per week,” says Covington. “In the process, they drink more soda, eat less vegetables and fruit, and consume more fat and calories than families who do not eat out regularly. Therefore, it is extremely important that restaurants offer healthy choices that help children improve their health and ultimately combat obesity.”

The organization is hoping its effort to clean up children’s menus will extend far beyond California. “We are looking to open new chapters of our nonprofit organization in other cities throughout the U.S.,” says Covington. “We are currently seeking RDs that are interested in working with us on this expansion and are excited about kids’ nutrition and reducing the rate of childhood obesity.”

Healthy Can Be Tasty
It seems healthy changes are underway, and the trend will hopefully continue. “The bottom line is that it all comes down to taste,” says Stoler. “It still has to taste good or kids aren’t going to want it. But healthy food really can taste good.” Fortunately, efforts are being made to help parents, children, and restaurants realize the delicious possibilities.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.