Healthy eating out: Good news, bad news on kids' diets

According to a survey conducted by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, kids age 12 and under are eating more fruits and vegetables than they were five years ago. Bring on the carrots sticks and apple slices!

The biggest gains were seen in the smallest kids. Children under age 6 increased their fruit consumption by 11 percent and vegetable eating by 3 percent, while fruit consumption for the 6-to-12 crowd increased just 7 percent, vegetable consumption up only 2 percent.

What happens when kids become teens? Whether it’s because there’s less access to fruits and veggies in school or at popular fast-food stops or they just aren’t as “cool” as other foods, “the teen years are troublesome,” said registered dietitian Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. “We have a long way to go to get consumption up to recommended levels.” -- the website to easily identify U.S. Dietary Guidelines for what’s recommended for all ages -- advises children to consume at least three servings of vegetables (1 ½ cups) and two servings (1 cup) of fruit per day.

It’s not like they're suggesting enormous amounts. A menu plan to reach these levels could include ½ cup of strawberries on cereal for breakfast, ½ banana for a midmorning snack, ½ cup of baby carrots with lunch and a cup of salad greens or green beans with dinner.

Now for the bad news

Put down the sodas and step away from the fries. Kids today are consuming way too many calories from foods and drinks too high in fat and sugar.

A study published in this month’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association from researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute concludes that nearly 40 percent of the calories American children consume come from soft drinks, sugar-sweetened juice drinks, desserts, candy, french fries, pizza, pasta dishes and whole milk.

The authors recommend promoting consumption of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and nonfat milk products to help cut calories and improve diet quality.

Healthy ideas for dining out with the kids

Skip the sodas. Dining out used to be a special occasion thing, and a cola or two was an OK weekly treat. But since most kids dine out multiple times per week, think of the beverage as an opportunity to deliver good nutrition, too. Ask for nonfat milk. Or make your own special “soda” by asking for a combination of orange juice with club soda. It’s the new age Shirley Temple or Boy Scout. From the bar: add a dash of antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice for an even more festive look.

Good things in small packages. Children are not just small adults, especially when it comes to nutrition. Every bite counts and every bite should be delivering healthy nutrients for bodies and minds. Filling up on tortilla chips or fried appetizers 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. Order a side order of fruit or cut up vegetables right away to keep them occupied and contribute to the minimum five servings of produce they need per day.

Don’t wolf it down. Teach kids to savor flavors and slow down. The faster you eat, the more you are likely to consume; that’s the key to winning a pie-eating contest, not lifelong healthy eating habits. Parents are the most powerful role models for eating behaviors, so set a good example by setting a relaxed pace for dining.

Don’t be afraid to try it. Some kids are more adventurous than others, sampling sushi at age 6 while others stick to the basics. But it’s important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety in the diet, the more types of nutrients are provided. Many restaurants today offer terrific vegetable side dishes.

Learn to share. Whether it's showing kids how to split up a platter of pasta as a first-course sampling for the whole family or ordering one slice of cheesecake with four forks; dining out teaches proper portion control when you share.

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