Parents can set healthy example when eating out

November 03, 2006|By Carolyn O'Neill | Carolyn O'Neill,New York Times News Service

With one in five of America's children classified as overweight, experts in the fields of nutrition, medicine, exercise science and parenting are joining forces to figure out what to do to solve the problem of "couch potato kids."

While many are quick to blame too much TV and computer time combined with the proliferation of fast-food outlets (some even providing school lunches), a new area of research is emerging that sheds light on the power of parents as healthy lifestyle role models.

In a two-year study, Leann L. Birch and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University found that mothers and fathers who had low levels of physical activity and high calorie intakes (defined as "obesigenic" families) had children who weighed more compared with families with nonobesigenic behaviors. The researchers concluded that a parent's activity and dietary patterns can be used to predict children's risk of obesity.

Basically, the old adage "Do what I say, not what I do" doesn't cut it anymore and probably never did. One of the top tips from these researchers is to prioritize eating healthier at family meals - whether they are at home or at a restaurant. Eating out is a way of life for many families, and since it's not a special-occasion thing anymore, meal patterns away from home can make a big impact on a child's health and nutrition.

Here are some restaurant role model road rules:

Beware the bread basket. Sure, everyone's hungry and ready to dig in. But remember Grandma's advice not to spoil your appetite before dinner. Set a limit at one piece of bread or a few tortilla chips.

Watch out for the appetizer sales pitch. When the chirpy server arrives and asks, "Will we all be starting with the hot spinach and cheese dip with chips? It's great for sharing!," politely decline and get the real party started by ordering the salads and entrees you're having for dinner.

Forget the free refills. While an 8-ounce regular cola at mealtime can fit into an active kid's calorie limits, free-flowing sugar-sweetened drinks can quickly boost calorie intake over the top without providing any needed nutrients. Limit children to one regular soft drink, sweet tea or lemonade, and then move onto water or other nonsugary drinks for the rest of the meal.

Ask for milk. Yes, they serve milk in restaurants! The Pennsylvania State University study found that mothers who drank milk more frequently had daughters who consumed fewer soft drinks and more milk (a strong indication of calcium intake).

The type of milk parents drank influenced their kids' choice, so nutritionists say order skim or 1 percent milk. Some restaurants even have low-fat chocolate milk.

Enjoy the table talk. There's arguably more time to talk about school and friends and all kinds of stuff when you're eating out, because no one's cooking or cleaning up. Use this time to teach kids how to find healthier choices on menus - choosing grilled vs. fried or veggies vs. french fries.

Make it a taste adventure. Dining out provides a great opportunity to try new foods. Sharing a bite of your entree or a vegetable the kids have never had before is a good way to broaden taste horizons.

Don't clean your plate. Let kids know it's OK to stop eating when they're full. It's a critical nutrition lesson.

Learn to share. Teaching kids to savor the flavors of delicious foods is important, too. Got to have fries? Really want to splurge on dessert? Get one order for the table to share. Another tip: Walk to get dessert at the ice cream place down the block or at the other end of the mall to burn off calories.

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