Dos and Don’ts When Dining Out with Your Preschooler

By Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, LD
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A child's life is full of firsts. First steps, first words, first tooth and for parents who enjoy eating out we can add a child's first meals at a restaurant. For preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, the meals may be small but there are big lessons to learn about lifelong healthy dining habits.

Good Things in Small Packages

Children are not just small adults especially when it comes to nutrition. Every bite should deliver healthy nutrients for growing bodies and minds. Filling up on chips before the "real food" arrives is a bad habit for two reasons: they'll often consume too many calories and they won’t have room for the healthy items.

Fruit First

Depending on age of the preschooler – whether they need mashed bananas or are fine with finger foods – ask for cut up fruit while you enjoy an appetizer. It will keep them occupied and contribute to the one cup of fruit they need per day.

Be a Cut Up

To prevent choking, cut grapes and other solid foods, such as meat, poultry and hot dogs, into tiny bites.

Table Lessons

Teach kids to slow down and savor flavors. Parents are powerful role models so set a good example by setting a relaxed pace. Dining out with small children helps encourage a healthy curiosity about food and how to behave at the table.

Pasta Please

The old stand-by plate of pasta is a toddler favorite. Penne, macaroni or shells are easiest for small children to maneuver on to a spoon. Ask for pasta with a little olive oil or marinara sauce rather than coated in melted butter or cheese sauces.

Simple is Best

Often side dishes, even steamed vegetables, are highly seasoned. Request that a child's vegetables be made without added salt. Order a plain baked potato or sweet potato, mash and season lightly at the table.

Beware the Hot Stuff

Kids move fast. Be aware that hot foods can hurt tiny mouths and then oh, the tears! Avoid spicy foods, too. It's always best if you taste it first.

Don't Be Afraid to Try It

Some kids are more adventurous than others but, it's important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety in the diet, the more nutrients provided.

Learn to Share

Whether its splitting a platter of pasta for the whole family to sample or ordering one slice of cheesecake with four forks; dining out teaches proper portion control when you share.

Skip the Sodas

Dining out used to be a special occasion so soda was an OK treat. But, since most kids dine out multiple times per week think about the drinks. Encourage fat-free milk, plain water or make your own special "soda" by mixing equal parts fruit juice and sparkling water.

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