Let's face it: If you are a mom, you're busy. And when it comes to feeding your family, sometimes eating out is the only option. But extra-large portions and high-fat foods served at many restaurants contribute to the epidemic of childhood obesity. However, there are steps you can take to ensure healthy eating habits wherever you eat, says Dr. Jo Lichten, PhD, RD and author of Dining Lean: How to eat healthy when you're not at home.
The next time you dine out with the family, take these steps to keep your kids fit, healthy and happy.
Leave some leftovers
Did you know? Approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese. - CDC
Restaurant portions tend to be much larger than what you serve at home. So don't expect -- and most definitely do not force -- your child to clean her plate. "Most restaurants serve way more food than our bodies need," says Lichten. "When kids are encouraged to eat 'just one more bite,' or are told to eat when they say they are not hungry, this encourages them to consistently eat more than they need or to eat whatever is served and leads to excess weight in the future." So let your children eat as much as they want, but don't make a big deal if that is only half the plate. Take the leftovers home in a doggie bag and serve it for lunch the next day.
Make smart swaps
Sometimes you just can't avoid the fast food counter, especially when you're traveling or in a time crunch. But that doesn't mean you always have to go for lower-nutrient nosh like fried chicken nuggets, French fries and sugar-laden soda. When you do spring for the kids' meal, simply make small substitutions. For example, substitute soda for low-fat milk, juice or V8 Fusion. Trade the fries for fruit, celery or carrot sticks. "Also, stay away from high-calorie dipping sauces, like barbeque and sweet and sour -- which range around 50 to 70 calories per packet -- and creamy ranch dressing, which may be as high as 200 calories and 22 grams of fat," says Lichten.
Let them play
Playtime should not be a reward for eating. Says Lichten, "Activity is just as important as healthy eating. To tell a child at a fast food restaurant play area, 'There will be no playing until you finish your meal' discourages kids from listening to their own hunger and may encourage overeating. What harm will be done if they don't eat their meal?" Also, get in the habit of going for a post-dinner walk or bike ride to keep kids extra active.
Most important, kids learn more from your behavior than from what you say. Be mindful of your own choices: Are you going for healthy foods? Do you listen to your hunger and stop when you have had enough? By setting a positive example for your kids, they will learn to eat smart too.
More about kids' healthy eating habits
Moms share: Healthy snacks my kids love
5 Simple tips for eating healthy on-the-go
How to break the cycle of childhood obesity