Guess who's going to dinner

We all know that the best way to make sure your kids are eating well is to cook the food yourself. Busy lifestyles, however, don’t always make that possible. Unfortunately, we often fall victim to the easy out of fast food when we’re in a hurry, and that can undo all of our efforts to keep our kids eating well.

Luckily, there are many types restaurant options, so taking kids out to eat can actually be a great way to teach them about healthy eating. In fact, the more they go out to good restaurants, the more comfortable they will be, and the quicker they will learn what is expected: how to behave, and what choices are good for them.

If you appreciate good food, you can teach your children to do the same. Instead of taking them to places with loud music, video games, and meal prizes, help teach your children to love and revel in the pleasure of real food and good dining. Even children can learn to appreciate a nice restaurant, and by making it a special experience, they’ll be more open to trying new foods.

Forget the kid’s menu. Most only offer reworked versions of fast food favorites filled with fat and carbohydrates but void of nutrition. When your child is very young with a small appetite, simply ask for a separate plate and serve a little bit of your meal. Offer him a bite of your steak, a spoonful of your soup. How will he know what he likes and what he doesn’t if he’s not given the opportunity to try? 

As your children, and their appetites, grow, explain the menu and suggest items from the starter or soup menu. You can order your child several appetizers, increasing the chances of hitting upon something he likes, and opening his eyes to new flavors and combinations. The meal will be more satisfying and, potentially, less pricey. Consider the privilege of eating out an opportunity to exercise your child’s taste buds. Encouraging kids to sample foods from the starter menu can help them develop a love of foods you wouldn’t even imagine they’d like.

Also, let your kids ask questions about the menu. Your server knows the menu better than anyone else. Ask away to find out what they recommend. Try specific questions like, “I like noodles and spicy dishes, but not dishes with a lot of meat, what do you suggest?” “He eats hamburgers and corn at home; what items might be close to those flavors?” If your child wants to talk about the food with the waiter or bartender, or ask the restaurant owner a question, let him. The more involved he is in the ordering process, the more likely he will be to take ownership of a new taste.

Have your kid’s food come out when your food does, NOT before. If they eat before you, they'll either be done or bored by the time your food arrives. Share your soup. Share your salad. When the main course arrives, your child will still be hungry, but not overtly so, and will be able to enjoy their food. 

While you’re waiting for your food, keep him involved in conversation. Give him a taste of your salad or soup and then ask him what flavors he tastes and how he thinks it was made. You might be surprised by your child’s observations. Describe how a dish is prepared, or where a certain vegetable on the plate grows and in what season it thrives. By engaging your child in conversation, you can make the food and the experience of dining out that much more interesting. (And teach them to dine, not to just shove food in their mouth).

In the meantime, also be aware of ways to limit extra fat and calories in your meals:

  • Ask about portion sizes and preparation. ALWAYS order salad dressings and sauces ON THE SIDE. They usually contain more calories than the food they are flavoring. 

  • Go with what you know. Choose grilled, steamed, poached, or broiled, and make sure the chef doesn’t brush the food with butter as it comes off of the grill.

  • Make substitutions. Trade steamed vegetables for tempura vegetables (save 190 calories, 14g of fat, and 10g carbs), chicken teriyaki for chicken fingers (which can almost cut the calories and fat in half), peel and eat shrimp for popcorn shrimp (save 150 calories), or salsa instead of guacamole. Order a side of pasta and use marinara sauce instead of cream sauce. Choose whole grains such as brown rice or whole-grain bread over refined white bread and rice. Pass up the French fries and the cheese-stuffed potatoes and order steamed vegetables or a side salad.

Think of what you like in a restaurant and help your kids enjoy that same experience with you. You might just be raising the next generation of foodies!