Driving Past the Drive-Through
Every parent succumbs to the quick and easy allure of the drive-through lane for lunch or dinner once in a while. It seems so easy to pick up a couple of Happy Meals for the kids to scarf down on the way to wherever the family is headed and shave a few minutes off your time-starved schedule.
Sometimes the kids badger you into it, having just seen the fast-food commercial for the latest toy, “available for a limited time only” and a requirement with their meal.
Eating on the run means you and your children aren't practicing mindful eating. You aren't enjoying your meal, nor are you eating it with a presence of mind. It takes the social aspect out of the family meal, too — driving with a steering wheel in one hand and a burger in the other doesn't leave much additional attention for conversation.
And then there's the food. Fast-food restaurants are not known for their healthy menu options, and when they are available, items such as salads aren't really built for four-wheel-dining.
While drive-through visits that promote grab-and-go eating aren't ideal, that's doesn't mean you have to forsake all modern conveniences. In the dead of winter or driving rain, by all means use the drive-through. Just make it a rule that all food and drink stays in the bag until you're home and seated around the family table together. This also gives you the opportunity to order salads, soups, and other menu items that aren't well suited for dashboard dining.
How Fast Food Promotes Fat Kids
So what's so bad about fast food, anyway? Take the cooking methods, for starters. Deep-frying is king at many fast-food establishments. This method cooks quickly and evenly and allows restaurant chains to produce standardized food products.
When cooking oil is hydrogenated, that means your child is also getting a large order of unhealthy, artery-clogging trans fats in the bargain. Fast food also tends to be highly processed, low in fiber, and high in sodium.
A cheeseburger, small order of fries, and small (12-ounce) chocolate shake at McDonald's will net your child a whopping 990 calories and 37 grams of fat (16 grams of it saturated, 81 percent of the RDA), according to the restaurant's nutritional facts. Increase that to large fries and a double cheeseburger with a small shake, and you've reached 1,440 calories and 64 grams of fat. That's 98 percent of your child's daily allotment, with 25 grams of the total being saturated fat, equivalent to 123 percent of the daily RDA. And that's just one meal of the day.
Burger franchises are far and away the most popular fast-food destinations in the United States, with the four largest chains raking in over $40 billion in sales in 2002. Of course there are other options beyond burgers and fries in fast food. Just about any cuisine has a fast food purveyor these days. Good strategies for choosing among them wisely include the following:
Burgers. If whole-bran buns are available, opt for one. Don't super-size those fries; if you can talk your child into a garden side salad instead, that's even better.
Chicken. Grilled or rotisserie-style chicken is a better choice than anything deep-fried. It's also smart to skip the gravy. Some chicken places offer a wide variety of side dishes. Avoid salads and sides swimming in sauce, and go for the vegetables instead.
Seafood. If you can find anything not covered in batter and deep-fried, order it. Breading soaks up the grease and adds more fat to the food. If not, you'd do better to order as small a portion as possible or steer clear completely.
Subs and sandwiches. Choose whole-grain breads, low-fat dressings, and lots of veggie toppings. Keep sandwiches a reasonable size, and try fresh fruits or vegetable-based salads for sides.
Soups and salads. Probably the healthiest options, but there are still some potential pitfalls. Avoid rich cream-based soups, if possible; keep it to a cup if not. Be selective about salad toppings. A salad topped with fried chicken and extra cheese and dressing can be just as full of fat and calories as a burger-and-fries combo.
Donuts and bagels. Make donuts a rare indulgence. Bagels (particularly whole-grain ones) are a better choice, in moderation. Choose low-fat cream cheeses and sugar-free jams as spreads.
Mexican, Italian, and Asian. The key to remember is to keep portions under control. Don't order a bigger pizza than your family can handle, and don't frequent all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. More cuisine-specific tips on ethnic foods are offered throughout the rest of this chapter.
According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spent $2,276 per household, or $910 per person, on dining out in 2002. Takeout and delivery accounts for over half of all U.S. restaurant business.
Making Better Fast-Food Choices
It's tough to try and sell your child on a grilled chicken sandwich and a salad when the hamburger and fries combo comes with the latest kid's movie character or the cool toy of the week. Marketing to kids is the name of the game in many fast-food establishments, and that can be a powerful influence for parents to try and combat. Adding a prize to a box of deep-fried food sends the underlying message that fatty foods are fun and rewarding.
When your kids are younger, the best strategy is often simply to avoid places where high-fat, high-calorie kids' meals are marketed with toys. It's hard to make your message about healthy foods stick when you're competing with Beanie Babies or the latest Disney movie characters.
But if you must go, and you feel you absolutely must get the toy — for example, if you're dining with another family and their child has ordered a meal with a prize — some establishments will sell it separately at a nominal fee upon request. Don't be shy about letting the manager, and the corporate headquarters of the restaurant franchise, know your feelings about offering this little “reward” with healthier menu choices, too.
Restaurant chains are becoming more aware of special dietary needs and health-consciousness of their patrons and are making nutritional information more readily available to customers. Some are also adding more health-conscious selections — such as salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and sandwich wraps — to their menus.
Ask the places you frequent for a copy of their nutritional analysis of menu items, or look for the information online. If they don't have them available, once again let the manager know you'd like to see them in the future; like most retail businesses, consumer demand is what drives change in the food service industry.
Finally, as in all things, moderation is important. As your child grows older, she'll be visiting the places her friends visit, and fast-food hangouts will likely be among them. To say “no thanks” when everyone else is indulging is hard and may be an unrealistic expectation for you to have of your child. An occasional fast-food burger and (small) order of fries isn't the end of the world, as long as it doesn't become a regular habit and your child recognizes it as the exception rather than the norm.