12 healthful tips for dining out with kids

Owen Larsen (5), try some of Chef Aaron Chamberlin's creations at St. Francis Restaurant at a taste test for kids. Photos by Rick D'Elia.
Owen Larsen (5), tries some of Chef Aaron Chamberlin’s creations at a kids-menu tasting event at St. Francis Restaurant in Phoenix. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

Last year for the first time, Americans spent more money at restaurants than in grocery stores, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Who’s leading the trend? Experts point to time-crunched families, especially those with millennial parents. The National Restaurant Association estimates that an average family dines out five times a week, and an average household spends $2,678 per year at restaurants.

“We are a nation in a hurry. Families are cooking less and eating out more,” says Aaron Chamberlin, chef and owner of St. Francis Restaurant and Phoenix Market Café in Phoenix. “Instead of a special family occasion, dining out is a way to survive today’s hectic lifestyles.”

The tradeoff for convenience is health. Restaurant meals typically are higher in calories, saturated fats, sugars and salt. Nutritionists warn it can be challenging to dine out often and eat healthfully.

“In a nutshell? Restaurant fare often dishes up more calories, fat grams, sugar and milligrams of salt than a home-cooked meal. And we’re talking about a lot more,” says Robin Miller, a nutritionist, Scottsdale mom, cookbook author and former Food Network host.

Nutritionists also blame frequent dining out, in part, for the nation’s obesity epidemic. Health experts report that a third of Americans are obese.

Led by such health-conscious chefs as Chamberlain and the National Restaurant Association’s “Kids Eat Well” campaign, an increasing number of restaurants are adding more fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat milk to their menus. (“Healthful kids meals” is No. 7 on the National Restaurant Association’s Top 20 food trends for 2016.)

Although challenging, there are ways to make dining out healthier. The first, and arguably most important, step is learning healthy-eating basics.

“How can you order and eat healthful foods if you have no idea of the difference between saturated and healthy fats? Learn what foods and ingredients are healthy, and it’s easier to know what and how to order,” says Chamberlin, who’s the father of a toddler, Arturo, and offers healthful choices on his kids-eat-free menu at St. Francis.

For tips on healthy choices, start by checking out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition guidelines at fnic.nal.usda.gov.

Chef Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis and his son, up-and-coming chef Arturo (2).
Chef Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis and his son, up-and-coming chef Arturo (2).

Chefs and nutritionists share these tips for healthful dining:

• Consider portions. Eating the appropriate portion size is a must for any healthful diet. Use your hands as guides. A portion of chicken, fish, beef or other protein is the size of your palm. Starchy carbohydrates, including pasta, potatoes and rice, are the size of your fist. A serving of fat, including peanut butter, olive oil or butter, is half a thumb. A fruit serving fits in the palm of one hand, vegetables in the palm of two hands. Split super-size meals or take extras home in a doggie bag.

• Drink smart. Choose water, fat-free or low-fat milk, unsweetened tea or other drinks without added sugars.

• Offer choices. Before ordering, offer children healthier choices, such as baked chicken or grilled shrimp, carrots or broccoli.

• Add veggies. If not included, always order a side of vegetables (without loads of butter).

• Set a good example. Don’t expect kids to eat vegetarian rice bowls while parents dig into cheeseburgers and fries.

• Ask questions. Are the refried beans full of lard? It’s important to know what you’re eating. Don’t be afraid to ask.

• Request “on the side.” Restaurant salad dressings and sauces tend to be loaded with sugar, salt and fat. Ask for both on the side, and drizzle as little as possible. Or ask for salsa or a wedge of lemon to sprinkle instead.

• Consider appetizers. Appetizer menus are an overlooked place to find healthful, smaller portions of such things as hummus, broth-based soups or crudite (raw foods) platters.

• Choose restaurants wisely. There are big differences in restaurants. Opt for those serving fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

• Share the sweets. If ordering dessert, share the serving with everyone at the table.

• Enjoy the experience. Dining out offers an excellent opportunity to teach kids good manners and how to behave in public. Keep the conversation positive or play word games while waiting for the food to be served.

• Keep cooking. Combine dining out with frequent healthful meals at home.

“When you dine out often, you miss out on precious family time that occurs in your own kitchen,” Miller says. “Magical, memorable moments are created over a pot of simmering stew. Let’s face it, it’s not just the meal that’s important, it’s the preparation and time spent together as a family.

“When you create dinner together, kids learn how to prep ingredients, season, stir and then clean up, and great conversations are often part of it. It’s about being a team; getting meals to the table is a family affair. I think we’ve lost sight of that.”

Related: Dining out with kids is easier for families when kids eat free.