Healthy Guide to Eating Out
Step 1: Know before you go. continued...
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.
Step 2: Drink to their health
Surprisingly, you should encourage your kid to drink milk when dining out. An 8-ounce carton of low-fat milk packs 30 percent of your kid's daily calcium, 8 percent of magnesium, 11 percent of potassium, and 25 percent of vitamin D — bone-building, blood pressure-lowering nutrients shortchanged in many kids' diets. It also supplies 8 grams of fill-you-up protein, all for just 100 calories. The USDA recommends that kids get two to three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy a day, but they're not getting enough: In one study that tracked 2,371 girls for a decade, milk consumption dropped more than 25 percent while soda consumption almost tripled. "It's difficult for kids who aren't getting three servings of milk or other dairy products a day to meet their calcium needs," Swinney notes. To control calories and saturated fat, ask for fat-free or low-fat milk; we discovered that many chains stock it, even if it's not on the menu. If a restaurant doesn't stock low-fat, go for chocolate, which is usually made with low-fat milk. Even whole milk is all right on occasion — the nutrients are worth a few extra calories. (Steer clear, however, of ultra-rich hot chocolate, which at Panera Bread packs a hefty 390 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat; low-fat chocolate milk, on the other hand, contains just 158 calories and 2.5 grams of saturated fat.)
Just say no to juice. "Parents think it's a good way to get another serving of fruit, but it lacks fiber and is high in calories," says Wootan. "Whole fruit is always a better choice." Of course, avoid soda, milkshakes, and fruit drinks — they're essentially liquid candy that encourages weight gain. The damage: A child-size cola packs about 95 to 110 calories; a 32-ouncer, a whopping 250 to 400. Milkshakes contain 350 to more than 1,000 calories apiece (and 10 to 26 grams of fat), and fruit drinks and slushes aren't much better, with 100 to 600-plus calories per serving.