Beyond Chicken Nuggets: When Kids Eat Out, Can They Eat Well?

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Tomato in hand

With their steady rotation of grilled cheese and butter-topped noodles, the "kid-friendly" section of restaurant menus has always been unimaginative. But these days it's hard not to notice that the offerings are also fairly unhealthy. The palette of food geared toward children is primarily white, brown and orange -- the colors of french fries, fried nuggets (of one sort or another) and mac and cheese. Not only is such fare typically lacking in creativity, it's also lacking in nutrition, although there's generally no lack of calories or sodium. It's not uncommon for a kid's meal to exceed 1,000 calories, more than any adult needs in one sitting.

The good news is that many restaurants are making strides in revamping the menu options for pint-sized patrons. The National Restaurant Association just hosted the second annual Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge -- a competition that encourages chefs to come up with enticing but healthy alternatives for kids. Winners included an organic sunflower butter and jam sandwich on multi-grain oat bread and a whole-wheat quesadilla filled with broccoli, chicken, peppers and corn.

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Toy rubber duck on a plate on a wooden

But at most restaurants, such healthy picks are a long way off. When it comes to navigating typical restaurant meals with children, Tara Gidus, MS, RD, co-author of Flat Belly Cookbook for Dummies and a mother of two boys, suggests adopting the following strategies:

• "Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions," Gidus says. "Even if there's an up-charge, most will be willing to serve fruit or veggies instead of fries or chips." And if you want to avoid fried, ask if they'll slice up a grilled chicken breast (most restaurant menus offer that in at least one of their adult meals) into "fingers" for a kid's meal.

• Share your own food. If neither you nor your child needs a full entree, split something that you'll both enjoy.

• If your kids aren't old enough to read, read the menu options aloud and then let them pick. "I might just leave out some of the options I don’t want them to have," Gidus confesses.

• If the kids' menu doesn't offer vegetables, order a side dish off the main menu for everyone to share.

• Let the server know in advance (and out of earshot of your kids) if you would rather they don't offer dessert after the meal.

• Don’t take all the fun out of dining at a restaurant. "I'm a firm believer that all things can fit into a healthy diet," Gidus says. That means if her sons want chicken nuggets, they can have them. "But then the side they pick has to be healthier -- like vegetables, not french fries."

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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