Know the healthiest ways to dine out--or order in.

Family at restaurant
Credit: Ocean Photography/Veer

There are many reasons why fast-food restaurants are attractive to kids and families. They have low prices and are located near schools and high-traffic neighborhoods. In addition, fast food is heavily marketed to children and teens in TV advertising. When both parents work and arrive home late, tired, and hungry, the urge to order in or eat out is great.

So what happens to the diets of children and adolescents when they eat out instead of at home? And what is their impact on kids' weight and general health? These are some of the questions raised by a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The study determined that children (and teens) ate fast food and full-service restaurant food routinely, and their intake of sugar, salt, and calories was far higher when they ate out. When children ate at fast food restaurants rather than at home, they consumed more calories. When they ate at a full-service restaurant, the extra calorie count was 160.

Eating in fast food and full-service restaurants results in consuming more sugar-sweetened beverages and less milk.

Soda consumption has been linked with becoming overweight and obesity as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Foods eaten in fast food and full-service venues were associated with increases in sugar, sodium, total fat and saturated fat intakes, all of which are risk factors for overweight, hypertension, and dyslipidemia, components of metabolic syndrome.

The only positive finding was that for some kids, eating out raised their protein consumption.

Packing a school lunch rather than relying on the school cafeteria or, for many older children, on fast food restaurants nearby, is one way to ensure that children and teens are getting food that has less salt, less fat, and less sugar.

A little advance planning on the weekend -- shopping for the week and cooking some meals in advance, can help families avoid eating out so often. The cost savings for eating in can be considerable as well. When you and your children do eat out, try to choose restaurants that provide nutritional information with menu choices. Substitute milk for juice and soda, limit portion size (bag some of your food before you even begin). If you select your meal carefully from the choices on the menu, you can make eating out a healthier experience and teach your children to pay attention to what they order as well.

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