I hate the “kids menu.” There, I said it. When did it become accepted that children will only eat chicken nuggets, corn dogs, grilled cheese, and pizza in a restaurant? Almost every restaurant kids menu has only these items, or other similarly processed, high-sodium, low in nutritional value foods. The paper menu is still useful for coloring but you'll need to look elsewhere for food that is healthier and tastier.
“But that’s all my kids will eat!”
I accept that there are . I have one myself. Raising an autistic child with extreme sensory issues regarding food has been a huge challenge. It wasn’t easy but we worked through it to find some healthy options.
I believe that most kids become accustomed to and crave sodium, fat, and carbohydrate-laden foods when exposed to them regularly. The majority of children, when introduced to a variety of new and interesting foods consistently, will enjoy a more diverse and healthier diet.
“It’s too expensive to order a full-size entrée for a kid!”
True. It's cheaper to order off the kids menu because it’s cheap frozen food and gimmicks. But some of these mini-meals can pack a wallop when it comes to calories. Chili's kids menu has two different meals that come in at over 1000 calories each. Burger King and KFC have meals that weigh in at a hefty 900+ calories each. Since 2008, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest has been comparing the nutritional value of the kids menus at 13 different chain restaurants. The Institute of Medicine recommends that children ages 4-8 get about 1250 calories per day and 93% of the kids meals that CSPI looked at exceeded these guidelines.
A much better approach is to split a full-sized entrée between kids or even with you. Portions in almost all restaurants are easily double what they should be so this is a great option. Yes, it involves some negotiation and compromise but it can be done.
“A restaurant’s regular menu is hardly healthy!”
Another good point. But I challenge you to compare the potential healthy options on a regular menu verses the children’s menu. The regular menu will have more items that are, or can be modified to be, healthier choices. My favorite thing is when a restaurant will make smaller portions of their entrees at a reduced price for children. Just ask. You’ll be surprised at how many will accommodate this request. It gives the kids so much more to choose from, too.
“But it’s a special treat that they only have occasionally!”
OK, I’ll buy this one. If your children normally eat a balanced diet, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging in the “kids menu.” They intentionally make them more attractive with shaped chicken nuggets, decorated drink cups, toys, or sugary treats for “dessert.” Kids love that stuff.
But when you eat out as often as we do (which I am working to change), feeding your child off of those menus is a fast train to childhood obesity, diabetes, and all around poor health. You can always bring a small toy “prize” or special cup. Or just ask if the kids can still have the special items even when not ordering off the kids menu. Chances are, they’ll give it to them. If not, I’d rethink returning there.
Healthy Dining, in cooperation with the National Restaurant Association, has introduced the Kids LiveWell menu choices for chain restaurants to combat the typical “kids menu.” They have established nutritional criteria for kids menu items that emphasis lean proteins, fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
There is an app for IPhone and Android that will direct you to local restaurants that participate in the Kids LiveWell program. You still need to do your homework, though. Some of the items they consider “healthy” are a little iffy in my book. And often it’s just a few items on the menu that meet the requirements. It can be a challenge to steer your kids to the grilled chicken burger with a side of steamed broccoli when they have chicken nuggets and fries staring them in the face.
So what’s the answer? Simply doing away with or revamping kids menus won’t solve the entire problem of providing better nutrition for kids but it’s a step in the right direction. Kids, being kids, will want the junk food. And parents, being parents, will be tempted to give in to maintain peace and harmony at the table. Having healthier options to begin with, along with some reliable strategies worked out ahead of time, will go a long way toward making everyone happy.
Do you have any tactics for encouraging kids to eat healthier when dining out? Please share in the comments!