Do your kids stick to the same four foods when they go out to eat? I’m talking about the always popular hamburger, pizza, pasta and chicken fingers. Are french fries their idea of eating a vegetable? If so, your children are not alone. The CDC reports that most children don’t get the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables in their diet and that empty calories from soda, pizza, and desserts make up a large part of their daily caloric intake.
How can you change that and get your kids to order healthier choices? Pediatrician Dr. Heather Isaacson, who works at UCHealth Longmont Clinic, offers her best advice for getting children to eat outside their comfort zone when you go out for a meal.
- Set a good example. If you tend to order the same fried chicken or New York strip every time you go to a restaurant, venture out from your regular order. Being adventurous with your meal choices can help encourage your kids to do the same. Also, your kids may want to try what you’re having. “A lot of times your kids will want to share with you so there’s an opportunity for them to try new foods. If you’re ordering something healthy, then they’re going to have the opportunity to have more exposure to healthier foods,” said Isaacson.
- Don’t limit them to the children’s menu. Often the more nutritious options are on the adult menu. “I recognize that it’s more expensive [to order from the adult menu], but parents could split an item with their child, or their child could share an item with other family members,” said Isaacson. “I think that there are healthier choices when you look at the whole menu.” Longmont Restaurant Week is a good time to encourage your child to try new things from the adult menu since all items are at a reduced price. Chances are you won’t get stuck with a big bill and a lot of leftovers.
- Take a peek at the nutrition information with your kids. Many restaurants now provide the nutritional breakdown on meals. Educating your kids on how many calories and grams of fat certain meals have can help them make more balanced choices when you’re not around. Isaacson recommends choosing meals under 600 calories with less than 30 percent of total calories from fat.
- Encourage and praise. Don’t make it a power struggle. Instead, heap praise on positive behavior like trying something. “Say something like, ‘Let’s see if you can have two bites of this; I think you don’t really know if you like it until you’ve had a few bites.’ And then praise them for their effort,” said Isaacson.
- Make a deal. If your children are adamant about eating the same old same old from the kids’ menu and you don’t want to make a scene, let them have their chicken fingers. But negotiate that their side dish has to be a healthy choice such as carrots or fruit. Most restaurants are savvy enough to offer healthy sides. But if they don’t, you can always request one.
- Make the choices win/win. For kids who can’t read yet, only read aloud the healthy options. If they get to choose their meal, they may be more inclined to eat it. For older kids, point out the healthier options such as grilled chicken or grilled salmon. This way you’re still giving them the choice of ordering what they want but with a little nudging.
- Suggest drinks other than soda. Isaacson recommends only offering your children water or milk to consume with their meal. “There isn’t any reason for soda. It really brings down the nutritional value of the meal, adds a lot of sugar and doesn’t provide any calcium,” she said.
- Avoid filling up on bread or snacks before the meal. There’s nothing worse than paying to eat out only to have your kids leave most of it on their plate. When a server brings out bread or chips, ask them to bring them back into the kitchen. “Kids don’t have huge stomachs and if they do eat all the bread and chips, then sometimes they won’t have any room for the actual entrée, which is likely to be more balanced.”
- Share a dessert. For starters, most restaurants serve large portions of dessert that are more than enough for a family to share. A few bites after a meal, Isaacson said, is probably all anyone needs. She also is not a fan of encouraging kids to finish their meal in order to have dessert. “Then the kids are taught not to listen to their own body and not to stop when they’re full,” Isaacson said.
- Keep trying. It might sound daunting, but Isaacson says it can take up to 20 times of trying something before your child decides she likes it. “You have to be really patient and continue to offer it and continue to put on their plate,” she said.