The decision for a family to eat out often comes at the intersection of empty bellies, big appetites and a long day when no one feels like cooking.
That intersection doesn't lend itself to eating healthfully for adults or kids, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a splurge or treat here and there, it is important to instill the idea that healthful eating can happen anytime and anywhere.
Achieving healthful eating on the go takes a little preparation. Susan Engle, a registered dietician and nutritionist at Nutrition Matters in Exeter, said that having kids eat at regularly scheduled intervals during the day is a good way to keep them from getting so hungry at dinner that they are liable to overeat anything that's put in front of them. This also keeps them from doing late-afternoon grazing which will kill appetites for anything that isn't greasy, cheesy or saucy.
It's also important for parents to model the eating habits they'd like to see in their kids. "They need to be the gatekeepers of what their children eat," said registered dietician Hilary Warner, with Nutrition Works! in Concord.
But even with the best prep, eating out challenges eating healthfully.
One of the biggest problems with eating out is the giant portion sizes many restaurants serve, Warner said. A very simple way to combat this is for mom or dad to order an entrée and share it with a kiddo. That way, everyone is getting what they like, they are getting plenty of it, and they are not overdoing it.
Older kids especially sometimes just eat what's in front of them until it's gone, whether hungry or not. So Engle said, it's important to discuss with kids the idea of being mindful of how their bellies feel. Parents should teach kids to stop when they feel satisfied and not stuffed.
But some kids aren't sharers. A good way to get some healthy onto the plate is to suggests some healthy but fun foods. For example, top pizzas with veggies or chicken, substitute whole wheat options whenever possible, or order a main dish that includes a veggie side with a tasty sauce or cheese on it. That's right, add the sauce.
"It never ceases to amaze me all the people who think we should be eating plain, steamed vegetables," Warner said. "When you roast them, or grill them or put them on pizza, the options and possibilities are endless for making healthy food taste good."
Parents can also try choosing restaurants that are known for doing veggies right. For example, most Asian foods are loaded with veggies and lean proteins and taste good to boot. Also, many restaurants are looking at kid menus with a healthier eye.
At Burton's Grill, a chain restaurant in Nashua, they've created a B Choosy Menu, which includes non-processed fresh food options that can be baked, fried or sautéed, said Vice President of Operations Denise Herrera. The idea was to help kids and parents make healthier choices.
Drinks can also be a place where parents are helping kids make healthier choices, even if that's the only one in the meal. Engle said it's a good idea to make soda a once-in-awhile kind of thing. Instead encourage kids to drink fruit juice, water or milk with their meal.
And in the end, Engle encourages parents to relax a bit. "What makes a difference is what we do every day," Engle said. "Not what we do once in awhile."