Australian families are eating out more than ever before, whether it’s sitting down for a meal at a pub or restaurant, or grabbing a bite on the go at a café or local sporting club.
While the adult dining experience has come a long way in recent years, most kids’ menus are still stuck in the past, offering the same fast, deep-fried fare – quashing parents’ hopes for their kids to eat fresh, delicious foods.
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been involved in a South Australian Government initiative called the Healthy Kids Menu. This partnership aims to improve kids’ menus by working with food venues to include nutritious and delicious choices to satisfy parents and children alike.
If you live in South Australia, you can search the Healthy Kids Website to find participating venues. In the meantime, we’ve gathered some top tips from our research dietitians involved in this initiative to help you find healthy food and drink options for your family the next time you head out to eat.
Let’s talk about it
Before heading out, talk to your kids about what to expect at the restaurant – maybe describe some of the tasty, healthy options available (that you’ve already spotted on the menu) so they’ll be anticipating them when they arrive.
Timing is key
All parents know that hungry kids are harder to keep happy. Try to get to the venue with time to order before the hunger truly sets in.
If everyone arrives hungry, consider ordering a bowl of steamed veg on arrival, which kids might devour as a shared starter. You might also want to ask the venue to serve the bread after mains, so kids don’t fill up on it early on.
If you need to grab some food after school or a sport activity when you know your kid will be ravenous, try to choose a venue that has fresh options ready to go: think ready-made salads, fruit salads, wraps, rolls, sushi, rice paper rolls, or even a flavoured milk or yoghurt.
Perfect your pitch
The way we talk about food has a huge effect on our behaviours. Try to focus on the social aspect of eating rather than the food itself or eating behaviours, and avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Just like a banned book or video game, labelling certain foods as off-limits can make them more desirable.
Look beyond the kids’ menu
Once you get to the restaurant, you might find the kids’ menu options are less than healthy. See if you can find an item on the adults’ menu with more veg and fewer processed or fried elements – perhaps to share between two kids.
Shared dishes are another great option. This is a fantastic way for your child to try something new and broaden their tastes, too.
If an option comes with chips, ask the venue to can swap them for some salad, steamed vegies or even a bread roll. Don’t be afraid to ask for some variations!
Portion sizes at restaurants are often jumbo versions of what you’d usually eat at home. It’s best not to force your child to finish everything on their plate. You can always check if the restaurant will give you a takeaway container to save leftovers for later.
Avoid sugary drinks
Sugary drinks are devoid of nutrition and eat away at your teeth. Ask for water for the table as a first option; if the meal comes with a drink, go for small portions of 100% fruit juice or milk over other sugar-sweetened drinks.
Be a great role model
Adults are kids’ biggest role models! Show them you value healthy eating by choosing a meal which includes some vegetables, and a healthy drink to go with it.
Bonus: Tips for fussy eaters
The good news is that children with fussy tastes will eventually grow out of it. It can take about 15 exposures to a new food for a child to eat it, so let them taste a bit of your meal each time you eat out. They might find something new that they like and can add to their repertoire.
Consider selecting two or three healthy options that your child might try, and let them choose from those options. This makes their choice less overwhelming.
But sometimes there’s no getting around it: your child may just want what they want, and nothing else. A nice meal out can end up feeling like a battleground. If they just won’t shake the idea of eating a less-healthy option like deep-fried fish and chips, you could compromise by halving the number of chips and asking for some extra salad on the plate.