Skip to content

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Healthy Guide to Eating Out


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

Family restaurants are a minefield of high-fat, high-calorie options. But Good Housekeeping has created a road map for finding nutritious food your kids will actually eat.

By Sari Harrar
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

It's a modern-day Norman Rockwell moment: After a hectic day, the family hops in the car and heads to a favorite neighborhood restaurant — no cooking required, no dishes to be done, just a welcome opportunity to get out of the house and share a meal.

But what's served up at many restaurants could make you lose your appetite. The meals that are specially designed for kids can be some of the worst nutrition deals to be found: At Chili's, a child's Pepper Pals Little Chicken Crispers plus a side of Pepper Pals Homestyle Fries has a whopping 57 grams of fat — that's 6 grams above the recommended daily allowance for an 8-year-old. At Ruby Tuesday, a meal of Kids' Minis (burgers and fries) weighs in at a jaw-dropping 917 calories, 71 percent of the 1,290 calories a child age 4 to 8 should eat in a day. A 2008 analysis of 1,474 kids' meals from national chain restaurants found 93 percent had more calories and 45 percent had more saturated fat and trans fats than kids need. That kind of eating sets the stage for obesity, says Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc., nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group based in Washington, DC; Wootan led the research.

Restaurant and fast-food meals are a major contributor to the excess fat, sugar, calories, and blood pressure — raising sodium in kids' diets, other studies show. Equally troubling is what kids' meals don't deliver — fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and bone-building calcium. In one University of Minnesota Project EAT study of seventh through 12th graders, for example, those who ate fast food three or more times per week got about 25 percent less produce and about 21 percent less milk than those who didn't eat any fast food. And in a Children's Hospital Boston study of 6,212 kids ages 4 to 19, consumption of produce, fiber, and milk decreased significantly on days when the kids had fast food. "Combined with the overload of saturated fat, sodium, and calories, these nutrition gaps raise kids' risk for developing serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes — which are showing up in teens and even younger kids in increasing numbers," says Samantha B. Cassetty, M.S., R.D., nutrition director of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.

Given that American kids now get more than 30 percent of their daily calories from foods consumed away from home, these fat- and calorie-laden meals are more worrisome than ever before. And in a down economy, the quest for healthy restaurant meals is even more important: Surveys show that most Americans continue to eat out at least once a week, but to save money, they're choosing fast food more often. "Every meal matters," says Bridget Swinney, R.D., author of Healthy Food for Healthy Kids. "If you eat out more than once or twice a month, it's important to steer your kids to healthier choices for their health and their weight — and so they'll learn, in their formative years, how to navigate a restaurant menu successfully."

Getting your kids to eat well when they eat out requires some education, planning, and patience. To help you, Good Housekeeping analyzed nutrition information from dozens of the nation's top fast-food, pizza, and casual-dining chains. We polled top pediatric and adolescent nutrition experts, as well as parents of young children, tweens, and teens, for their best success tactics. Here we'll show how to put healthier fare in front of your kids and actually get them to eat it.

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow