Eating Away from Home
Changing meal and eating habits at home is only half the battle in the fight for good nutrition. From school lunches to Saturdays at the mall with friends, your child will be eating more snacks and meals without adult or at least parental supervision as she grows older.
If you instill good eating habits in your child at home, she will have the skills to make appropriate food choices most of the time when she's on her own. But even with the knowledge you give them, there are many potential pitfalls awaiting kids when they eat away from home.
Getting more for your money is one of the concepts that drives American business and culture. Bigger is typically perceived as better, especially when it comes to food. So it's really no surprise that the portions dished out in restaurants today are often many times larger than what one person needs.
A 2003 study by the Child Nutrition Research Center at Baylor University found that on average, preschool-aged kids who were served double-size portions of macaroni and cheese for lunch consumed 25 percent more food, 15 percent more calories, and took bigger bites, regardless of their level of hunger.
However, when those same children were allowed to dish out their own meals, they ate age-appropriate portions, indicating that if left to their own devices and allowed to serve themselves, most kids will self-regulate the amounts of food they eat.
Don't forget that children don't need adult-sized portions. Allowing your children to dish up their own servings at home can discourage overeating. If they have a tendency to pile too much on their plates, serve meals family-style at the table. Encourage them to take small portions with the assurance that they can dish out more if they're still hungry after their first serving.
So how do you avoid the portion problem away from home? If you're with your child, you can suggest splitting dishes with other diners in your group as you order. There's also the old standby — the doggy bag. If your child is eating out without you, remind him that he should feel free to take half his meal home if it's too much to eat at once.
Beyond quantity, there's also the issue of the quality when it comes to restaurant offerings. While many restaurants have added healthier fare to their menus for weight- and nutrition-conscious adults, standard children's menus continue to lag far behind in nutritional value. Kid cuisine staples include deep-fried, fat-laden, and high-calorie items like cheeseburgers, fries, tater tots, chicken fingers, sodas, and hot fudge sundaes. In some cases, your kids may be better off ordering from the adult menu, so encourage that when no healthier child options are available.
Another place where super-sizing has reached a critical level is at your favorite fast-food restaurant. Free toys, fries, and fancy playgrounds have made the local burger place a favorite stop for kids. The occasional fast-food lunch may be inevitable, but if you're swinging into the drive-through several times a week, chances are good that your kids are getting too many calorie- and fat-packed meals with few nutrients. If your lifestyle demands food that is quick and easy, there are other options for meals.
A study of over 6,000 children between the ages of four and 19 that was published in the journal Pediatrics found that on any given day, 30 percent of the study subjects ate fast food. On the whole, frequent fast-food eaters consumed more calories and sugar and less fiber and fruits and (nonstarchy) veggies.
The School Cafeteria
Many parents rely on the school cafeteria. It's the one place a child should be able to count on getting a nutritious, well-balanced meal each day. Unfortunately, this assumption may not hold true in many cases. The National School Lunch Program, which provides federal subsidies to schools for meal programs, relies heavily on dairy and meat commodities.
Nutritional analysis of school lunch meals served is based on a weekly menu average, which means that the total and saturated fat content in some individual school lunches can exceed the daily recommended amount for your child. In addition, in some high schools and middle schools, à la carte items are offered that may make the nutritional landscape even bleaker.
French fries, brownies, fried cheese, packaged chips and snacks, and other less-than-ideal choices are often available for purchase in addition to, or instead of, the regular school lunch menu. Take a close look at your child's monthly school lunch menu and the à la carte offerings. In some cases, or at least on some days, it may make more sense to send your child to school with a bag lunch. Find more information on improving school food options.