One of the best memories I have of growing up was when my mom (and, on occasion, my dad) would have a delicious, homemade meal on our family table nearly every night. Of course I remember occasionally going out for Chinese food, ordering in pizza, or getting food from a drive-through. But unless we were traveling or on vacation, or celebrating a birthday or other special occasion, eating at home and enjoying foods prepared with love and fresh ingredients was the rule rather than the exception.
How times have changed. Although many parents (myself included) prepare healthful family meals at home several nights a week, eating out or relying on take-out food has become far too common for many families. Countless fast-food and sit-down restaurant options (not to mention billions spent to lure us towards highly palatable—and some say 'addictive'—food) and busy schedules create the perfect storm for putting nutritious, home-cooked meals on the backburner instead of on the family dinner table.
According to a recent estimate, children between the ages 2 and 19 get about 25 percent of their daily calories from fast food and other restaurant food. Studies suggest that all these meals contribute to kids consuming more calories and fewer nutrients than they need—not the best recipe for raising healthy kids.
To add insult to injury, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)—widely known for calling out food they deem unlealthy or downright dangerous, like Long John Silver's "Big Catch," dubbed by the CSPI as "The Worst Meal in America" just this week—recently analyzed 3,498 meal combinations at 34 popular restaurant chains. The CSPI report called Kid's Meals: Obesity on the Menu revealed that 91 percent of the meal combinations failed to meet the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell standards. And ninety-seven percent of the meal combinations didn't meet CSPI expert nutrition standards for children's meals. In their report, CSPI cited excess calories, sodium, total fat and saturated fat as top reasons for why restaurant meals failed to make the nutritional grade.
But the news wasn't all grim. The CSPI report found that nearly half (44 percent) of the restaurant chains surveyed offered healthier kid's meals (and all Subway® children's meals met both sets of nutrition standards). Fruits and vegetables were also found in 72 percent of the meal combinations.
Fortunately, recent labeling laws have led many restaurants to provide nutritional info on menus and menu boards. Although a recent study found that mandated menu labeling hasn't yet affected the nutritional content of fast-food menu items, researchers are optimistic that it may nudge restaurants to offer more healthful options.
Only time will tell if restaurants will really step up to the plate and offer kids (and their parents) more appropriate portions of foods and beverages that pack in nutrients while pleasing different palates. Until then, it's up to all of us parents to strive to eat more foods prepared at home and as a family. Check out The Meal Makeover Moms, the Family Dinner Challenge and The Family Dinner Book for some great ideas and encouragement to make at-home family meals hip again.
But for those times you know you'll be eating out with your kids in tow, the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program provides restaurant and meal options that meet specific nutrition criteria. Although you'll see the pickings at most restaurants are still relatively slim, the program guides you towards some healthful kid (and adult) options at some of your favorite restaurants. Eating out will never really replace eating at home, but using the information provided on this site to plan meals ahead of time is a simple step you can take towards helping your entire family eat just a little bit better.
What is your kid's favorite healthy restaurant meal?
Image of a child having lunch in a restaurant via Shutterstock.