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Kids' Menu Dos and Don'ts

Chicken fingers, mac ‘n’ cheese and hamburgers reign supreme on almost every kid’s menu. But going to a restaurant doesn’t have to mean taking a break from healthy eating. We talked to certified health coach and Dallas mom Clayton Robinson about her favorite tips for taking a healthy approach to the kids' menu. By following a few easy guidelines, your child’s next restaurant meal can be well rounded, nutritious and tasty. Stand down, French fries – fruits and veggies are taking over.

Don’t order anything fried
Serving meals that have a fried component is the easiest way a restaurant can mar an otherwise healthy dish. Look for words like “grilled,” “baked” and “roasted” for a healthier option. Take Red Lobster’s Garlic-Grilled Shrimp for example. The dish has only 60 calories and just one gram of fat, and it’s the perfect size for pint-sized seafood lovers. Plus, it comes with 1 percent milk and the child’s choice of broccoli or orange slices.
 
Robinson says if your favorite local or “mom and pop” restaurant doesn’t have any grilled or healthy options on their menu, don’t be afraid to let them know. “Mom and Pops have control over their menus,” Robinson explains. “So you just may see a change the next time you come in.”
 
Do order fresh fruit and steamed vegetables as sides
French fries and mashed potatoes might be yummy, but they’re missing a lot of the nutrients necessary for a growing child. Steamed veggies as well as fruits like strawberries, apples and oranges are available at almost every restaurant. If you’re looking for a healthier option at your favorite Mexican restaurant, Robinson suggests ordering fajitas and asking for a combo of chicken and extra veggies in light oil. “This is a great way to get a few extra servings of veggies into the diet,” she says, “and doesn’t everything taste better in a tortilla?”
 
Also be on the lookout for restaurants that turn fruits into desserts. The cinnamon apple side option on many kids’ menus may seem better than French fries, but it is full of unnecessary sugar.
 
Don’t let your child drink sugary sodas
… or those really yummy frozen drinks that usually come in light-up souvenir cups. “Sugar is the gateway to most diseases,” Robinson says, “So it’s important to get this curbed early.” Instead, order water or milk to add more nutrients to your child’s meal. If you’re a busy mom on the run, Subway does a great job at making sure the entire kid’s meal is nutritious, offering apple juice or low fat milk to go with the sandwich.
 
Do look for whole-wheat and whole-grain items
White bread may have been a staple of your childhood, but compared to whole-grain and whole-wheat bread, it’s missing a lot of essential nutrients. But luckily for your child, it’s more common than ever to find whole-wheat and whole-grain bread, pasta and pizza crusts at restaurants (even if they’re not on the menu). Ask for multigrain fusilli with tomato sauce at California Pizza Kitchen, which is available on request. Robinson also asks for extra steamed veggies to be added to her pasta dish whenever possible. It’s a much better option than the mac ‘n’ cheese, and it doesn’t compromise on the tastiness level either. Everyone wins when pasta’s involved.
 
Don’t assume chicken nuggets and PB&Js are always unhealthy
Restaurants are moving towards taking kids’ favorites and turning them into healthier versions. Grilled chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A are just as good as the original – and so much better for your kid. Pair them with applesauce and milk and you’ve got a pretty healthy fast food meal. However, Robinson warns the health-conscious parent to keep an eye on the high fructose corn syrup in condiments such as ketchup and mustard at all of your favorite restaurants. For another healthy kid favorite, Panera Bread’s PB&J is served on whole-grain bread and paired with organic yogurt.
 
Do get your child excited about trying new foods
Healthy foods don’t have to be scary; in fact, a strawberry spinach salad with feta may end up being your child’s new go-to meal when eating out. Create a reward system to build excitement and inspiration for trying new foods. For each new food your child tries, give her a sticker to put in a notebook. After 10 stickers, take your child to do something special, such as going to see a movie, going to the park or making a fun craft at home. However, Robinson says you must remember to not reward healthy eating with more food. “Children who are rewarded with food become adults that will reward themselves with food later,” Robinson says. “That’s a tough habit to break!”
 
She also stresses that establishing healthy eating guidelines early on for your child is essential, and she promises your child will thank you for it later. Encouraging your child to break out of her culinary box is the first step to eating healthier, and with this system, your child will be trying quinoa (and loving it) before you know it.
 
Clayton Robinson is a certified health coach and runs her own blog Clayton’s Healthy Living. She lives in Dallas with her daughter Stella. 

Published November 2013