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Dining Out with Kids & Healthy Eating Don't Have to be Mutually Exclusive

Finding healthy eating options for kids while dining out or on the go can be a challenge. That's especially true for families with busy schedules who commonly have to grab a quick meal between games, piano lessons and other activities. But here's some relief: Under the Kids LiveWell Program, thousands of restaurants across the United States are offering healthy menu options to make those back-seat dinners and restaurant outings more nutritious.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) launched Kids LiveWell in 2011 in collaboration with Healthy Dining, a website that lists restaurants that offer dietitian-approved menu choices. Their goal was to fill the void of healthful menu options for children. The program began with 19 restaurants and now has more than 42,000 in the United States, with new restaurants signing up weekly. Restaurants that join must meet strict nutrition criteria based on USDA and Institute of Medicine scientific recommendations:

  • They must offer at least one full children's meal (an entrĂ©e, side and beverage) that is 600 total calories or less. The meal must contain two or more servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein or low-fat dairy. It must limit sodium to 770 mg, and fats and sugar (naturally occurring or added) can't contribute more than 35 percent of the total calories each.
  • They must offer at least one other individual item that has 200 calories or less that limits fats, sugars and sodium. It must contain a serving of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein or low-fat dairy. It must have no more than 250 mg of sodium, and fat and sugar may not contribute more than 35 percent to the overall calorie total each.
  • They must not offer deep-fried options on the children's menu.
  • They must display or make available upon request the nutrition profile of the healthful menu options.
  • They must promote and identify the healthful menu options.

"One of the great aspects of this program is that each participating restaurant is creating fun kids' meals that offer the healthy eating options parents are looking for. Pasta, fruits and veggies are incorporated in a fun way, so kids still enjoy the flavors of the food, while having their dietary needs met," says Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian, senior director of food and healthy living for the NRA and founding advisor for Kids LiveWell.

Dubost, along with Kids LiveWell, offers these tips for parents looking for healthy eating options while dining out:

  • Choose a restaurant that caters to children and has a healthy children's menu, which includes smaller portion sizes and meals designed to provide ample nourishment for smaller bodies.
  • For kids' meals, opt for milk as a beverage and fruit for dessert.
  • Order kids' foods with sauce on the side when possible.
  • Substitute healthier sides in place of fries, such as carrots or apple slices.
  • Choose two or three suitable menu items, then let your child pick one of them.
  • Let kids order their familiar favorites when they eat out. For new foods, offer a bite or two from your order.
  • To get more calcium, order low-fat or fat-free white or chocolate milk or add a slice of cheese to their sandwich. Choose dairy-based treats like yogurt, a milkshake or frozen dairy dessert.

To help parents find Kids LiveWell participating restaurants, a free geo-coded app is available for iOS download here. A complete list of Kids LiveWell restaurants can be found here.

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