If you’re a busy parent, chances are you’ve been in the company of hungry children, desperate to find the nearest place to eat and refuel.
Although fast food can make for a quick and appealing pit stop, meals can be high in calories, sugars and sodium.
But that doesn’t mean fast food can’t have its place in a child’s diet.
“When we look at fast food, it’s one meal in the course of a child’s day or week. Families need to find that place in the middle where they can fit fast food in reasonable and healthful ways so their children can learn how to fit it into their own lives down the road,” said Jill Castle, a registered dietitian and childhood nutrition expert.
Here are tips, tricks and strategies for dining at fast food restaurants with your kids:
Never leave home without snacks. “If possible, stop at a grocery store or stock up on healthy snacks in advance, such as cut-up fruit, cheese sticks and yogurt, which will cost less than anything on a fast food menu and fill everyone up while they’re waiting for their food to be served,” said Victoria Stein Feltman, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Apple to Zucchini, a healthy eating resource for parents and families.
Choose age-appropriate sizes for meals. A kids meal is often a good choice, especially because portions are typically smaller. “Beyond opting out for any super-size options, the regular-sized portions at fast food restaurants tend to be large and too big for kids,” said Nicole Silber, a New York-based registered dietitian and pediatric nutritionist.
Encourage fruit over fries. “Adding fruits, vegetables and dairy foods help to round out the meal and make it balanced,” said Castle, who is also the author of “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.”
In the United States, for example, McDonald’s Happy Meals now include either seasonal fruit (such as apple slices or an orange) or a low-fat dairy option. The Happy Meal still comes with a kid size fries, but you can opt for a fruit or yogurt in its place. Other healthy side options found in fast food restaurants include side salads, and carrot and celery sticks.
Share a meal with your child. This not only downsizes portions, it helps introduce fast foods to your child, such as a grilled chicken sandwich. Indulgences can be shared, too. “Parents might also consider sharing less-healthy sides (such as French fries or onion rings) and desserts (such as milkshakes and ice cream sundaes), and supplementing with fresh fruit and vegetables,” Feltman said.
Pass on the soda. Nutritionists agree that the healthiest beverage options include unflavored milk or water. Juice can be an option, though the amount should be limite,d according to new juice guidelines for children: no more than 4 ounces per day for toddlers age 1 to 3 years, and 4 to 6 ounces day for children age 4 through 6. For children 7 to 18 years of age, juice intake should be limited to 8 ounces per day.
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