The Best — and Worst — Restaurant Choices
Sit-down restaurants, whether casual-dining or upscale establishments, offer a bit more flexibility for your family than the cookie-cutter offerings of fast-food franchises. Menu items can often be cooked to your specifications, and it's easier to get answers about how dishes are prepared and what ingredients are used. Knowing what to look for in advance can help you help your child order more healthily.
A key question to ask is what type of oil foods are cooked in. Those prepared in 100-percent polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils (such as olive, canola, corn, safflower, soybean, and peanut) are best. Lard, animal fats, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and tropical oils (palm and coconut) should be avoided if at all possible. The good news is that no matter what your family's favorite style of food, there's bound to be something on the menu that your child can enjoy. Following are the best and worst on the table for four popular ethnic cuisine types.
Chinese and Other Asian
This cuisine has plenty going for it. Asian food is high in vegetables and often steamed or stir-fried. Stir-fry is usually cooked in healthier oils such as sesame or peanut oil. Unless you're eating at a buffet or fast-food establishment, food is typically cooked to order, meaning you can make healthy substitutions and requests (such as sautéing or steaming instead of frying). Finally, family style serving means that you and your child can share a few dishes and not feel pressured into eating huge portions. Use the chopsticks and you all may eat even less!
Among the cons to the Chinese menu is the tendency to deep-frying. Selections are often predominantly deep-fried delicacies, such as egg rolls, wontons, and fried poultry dishes (among Japanese foods, tempura and fried dumplings are the dishes to avoid). Sauces can be calorie-, sugar-, and sodium-laden, so order them on the side or pass altogether. Fried rice is also filled with extra fat, so opt for the steamed white variety instead.
Mexican food gives you plenty of reasons to say “Olé!” Salsa (green or red) and pico de gallo are great low-fat sauces that spice up just about anything on the table. Salads are usually available at most Mexican restaurants; just make sure they serve your child's in a bowl instead of a deep-fried tortilla shell, and leave off the sour cream and guacamole. Other good choices are chicken fajitas, soft chicken tacos, and chicken or beef enchiladas and burritos. Cheese is often used liberally on some of these items, and since that can add a lot of fat to the dish, ask that it be light or served on the side.
There are some factors on the con side as well. Many deep-fried menu items make Mexican food a potential pitfall for your child. Skip fried taco shells (go for the soft instead) as well as other fried items such as chimichangas, flautas, and sopapillas. Refried beans are often cooked with lard; if black beans are available, they're a good high-fiber choice. The unlimited supply of tortilla chips can make you feel stuffed before your order even hits the table. Either say “no thanks” to refills or skip them altogether. Other fat-filled ventures include guacamole, sour cream, and chili con queso (cheese dip). If you must have an appetizer, a warm soft tortilla (corn or flour) with zippy green or red salsa or pico de gallo is a better bet.
Is Japanese food healthy for our family?
Yes. Japanese food is one of the better choices available due to the low-fat cooking methods used in this cuisine (such as grilling, steaming, braising, broiling, and sautéing) and traditionally small portion sizes. Most dishes are heavy on the vegetables and low in added fat. Sushi and sashimi (thinly cut fresh fish) are very high in nutrients, but the uncooked fish poses a very real food safety risk. Cooked fish sushi is available at some restaurants, however; if your child is the adventuresome type, give it a try.
There's lots to love about Italian food. Pasta is low in fat, and it is available in many flavors (such as spinach, whole wheat, and tomato) as well as fun shapes and sizes. As for sauces, marinara and vegetable-based tomato sauces are delicious and low in calories. Stick with garden salads instead of potentially high-fat antipastos for a side dish. Pass on the veal (unless you know it's lean and prepared without breading) and prosciutto and go for grilled chicken or fish, both widely available as part of Italian dishes.
Italian food offers some pitfalls, though. Like chips in a Mexican restaurant, the bread basket can be your child's downfall when you eat Italian. Take a piece or two, then ask the server to take it away. Instead of butter or olive oil, ask for marinara sauce for dipping. (Olive oil isn't a bad option as long as it's used sparingly.) Skip the butter-soaked garlic bread and heavy cream sauces (like the ever-popular fettuccini alfredo), both heavy in fat, and hold the cheese (or at least go light). While pasta can be a good nutritional choice, watch the portion sizes. Helpings are often generous enough for two (or three).
Several pizza chains are offering lower-fat versions of the traditional pie. If your local pizza joint doesn't, you can cut the fat yourself by requesting half the cheese and all veggie toppings. Skip the stuffed crust, and opt for a thin version instead. Even better is a whole-wheat crust, if it's on the menu.
If you've never tried foods from the Middle East, now is a good time for an eating adventure. Nutrient-rich grains and legumes play a starring role in many Middle Eastern dishes such as tabouli, hummus, and couscous. Whole-grain pita pockets are a great alternative to bread and provide a nice accompaniment to dishes like hum-mus and tabouli. Middle Eastern foods are usually broiled, baked, grilled, or simmered, so added fat from frying is not a problem. shish kebab, which are typically offered in beef, lamb, or chicken varieties, are fun for kids to eat and are often served with skewered veggie chunks.
As with foods from anywhere in the world, there are things to look out for in Middle Eastern cuisine as well. Moussaka (fried eggplant in white sauce) and saganaki (fried cheese) are high in fat, as is tzatziki, the sauce that accompanies gyros. Sometimes tzatziki is prepared with yogurt instead of sour cream; when that's the case, it's a better choice so ask your server. Greek salads can be piled high with feta cheese, olives, and a liberal dose of high-calorie dressing, so ask for those items on the side if your child wants a salad.