Eating Out with Kids

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 dining out there is a child's first meal at a restaurant. For young children, the meals may be small, but there are big lessons to learn about lifelong healthy dining habits.

Choose Kid-Friendly Restaurants

Choose a restaurant that caters to children and has a nutritious children's menu that includes smaller portion sizes and meals designed to provide ample nourishment for smaller bodies. Many restaurants have menus available online so you can check out the options in advance.

Good Things in Small Packages

Every bite should deliver health-boosting nutrients for growing bodies and minds. Filling up on chips or too much bread before the meal may cause children to fill their bellies and not leave any room for more nutritious foods.

Fruit First

Depending on the age of the children – 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.

Go Small

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

Table Lessons

Teach kids to slow down and savor flavors. Parents are powerful role models so set a positive 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.

Pass the Pasta Please

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

Say "No Thank You" to French Fries

Substitute healthier "sides" in place of fries, such as baked potatoes, carrots, apple slices or other fruits and vegetables.

Beware the Hot Stuff

Kids move fast. Be mindful that hot foods can hurt little mouths. Avoid spicy foods as well. It's always best if you taste a child's food first.

Try New Foods, Too!

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. Choose two or three suitable menu items, then let your child pick one. For new foods, offer a bite or two from your meal or order plain foods with the sauce on the side.

Learn to Share

Whether it's 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.

Rethink the Sweets

Dining out used to be a special occasion so soda was an acceptable 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. Calcium is important at all ages, but especially for growing bones. To get more calcium, drink low-fat or fat-free white or chocolate milk and choose dairy-based treats such as yogurt, a milkshake or frozen dairy dessert.

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