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Healthy Guide to Eating Out

Step 1: Know before you go.

Opt for a sit-down restaurant. You should make fast food your very last resort, and here's why: In a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study that tracked more than 3,000 young adults for three years, each additional fast-food meal per week increased weight by a couple of pounds. But adding an extra restaurant meal didn't — presumably because larger menus offer healthier options and smaller portions. So pick casual restaurants, even your local diner, over fast-food places. "In a fast-food restaurant, everything — the signs, the aromas, the meal packaging — is designed to push the big fries, burgers, and sodas," says Harvard Medical School pediatrician David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's very difficult to get a salad or fruit instead of a burger and fries and feel satisfied."

If you don't have time for a table-service meal, try delis and chain sandwich shops such as Subway, suggests Wootan, where you can find lower-fat deli meats, opt for whole-grain breads, and ask for extra veggies on your sandwich. "You'll find more choices that are lower in calories and fat than at a burger place," she says.

Look up nutrition info for your top three spots. When University of Arkansas researchers asked 193 people to guess the number of calories in samples of less-healthful restaurant meals, participants underestimated by more than 600 calories. In other studies, even nutritionists have lowballed calorie counts. The lesson here: The more you know up front, the better the choices you and your kids can make. "Most families go to the same fast-food places over and over, because they're conveniently located," notes Swinney. So quickly research the nutritional content of the food served by going online to big chains' Web sites. Also check the eye-opening photographs of 13 chain restaurants' menu boards — complete with calorie counts, which are required in some U.S. cities — at menulabeling.org. Since your local diner generally won't have its nutritional info listed anywhere, your best bet is of course to avoid what's fried and swimming in sauce. Beyond that, consider steering your kids to the breakfast section of the menu: Two eggs, two slices of bacon, a slice of wheat toast, and a fruit cup can make a perfectly acceptable meal — plus the fun of eating A.M. food at night.

Snack strategically. Offer up fruit or low-fat cheese sticks as you're about to head out the door, so kids won't gorge when they get to the restaurant. "A healthy snack en route fills nutritional gaps in the meal ahead and takes the edge off hunger, so the bread basket or supersized portions won't be as tempting," says Swinney.

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