Smarter, healthier menu choices

School’s out for summer. Chances are most busy families will be eating out more often as schedules loosen up and vacation season moves into high gear. But that shouldn’t mean taking a vacation from efforts to eat a healthier diet. More than one third of children in the United States are classified as overweight, and evidence suggests that when kids eat out, they consume 55 percent more total calories as compared to eating at home.

Researchers at the Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences worked to develop a tool to judge healthy choices.

Its children’s menu assessment is based on a sampling of 130 local and chain restaurants in the Little Rock area. Sharing the findings in June’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the report notes that “restaurant eating appears to have a considerable influence on children’s dietary intake.”

From fast food to table service, Rebecca Krukowski and colleagues found that only 13 percent of restaurants surveyed included at least one healthy entree and less than half of the eateries offered a nonfried vegetable side dish. Only 20 percent offered a fruit side item and most of the time it was sugar-sweetened fruit.

Sweet drinks

Certainly kids are supposed to have fun in summer, but too often that means celebrating with a sugar-sweetened beverage. The new USDA MyPlate nutrition icon based on 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends avoiding the empty calories in soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages such as sweetened ice teas.

The children’s menu assessment study found that more than one-third of restaurants specifically identified soft drinks as an option on menus targeted for children younger than 12. Many restaurants offered milk and juice, but few indicated it was fat-free milk or 100 percent juice. The journal article points out that “This information can be crucial, as recent research indicates that parents who are presented with nutrition menu labeling ordered approximately 100 fewer calories for their children than those parents who did not have the information available.”

Children’s checklist

● Menu items described as grilled, baked or broiled are generally considered healthy choices with the exception of grilled sandwiches. Grilled cheese sandwiches, for instance, are often slathered in butter before hitting the grill.

● Fried foods are not considered a healthy choice.

● Choose lean red meats such as grilled beef fajitas at the Mexican place or sirloin steak kabobs served with grilled vegetables at steakhouses. Split portions from the adult menu such as pork tenderloin entrees.

● Nutrition researchers give their seal of approval to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches only if made with whole-wheat bread and all-fruit preserves.

● Soups are considered healthy as long as they’re not made with cream or cheese.

● Green salads are most always healthy unless they’re served with fried toppings.

● Healthy desserts are those that include fruit without added sugars or high-fat toppings. Look for fresh fruit and low-fat frozen yogurts.

● The secret to seeking the best children’s menus at restaurants may be to find the staff most willing to split adult-size entrees for the family to share.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at carolyn@carolyn