Eating Family Dinners Out Can Be a Nutritional Minefield

Chow on 04.09.11
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There was a wonderful, heartening article in my local paper, the Toronto Star last week. It was about an elementary school teacher and her class who have gone beyond the required curriculum of learning about the four food groups and the Canada food guide. Using boxed cereal as an example, the teacher has guided them through nutritional labelling, what constitutes healthy eating, and interestingly enough, how to resist the allure of the actual packaging. As one 9 year old sage points out, the box of Froot Loops "...has mazes and puzzles. But that doesn't mean it's healthy".

The children have already checked out the ingredients in lots of grocery store items, which led them to thinking about restaurant food, which is where the newspaper comes in. The Star has a weekly column where readers can send in their favourite restaurant dish, and then it is analyzed for the serving size (all the measurements are in grams and milligrams, Canada has the metric system), calories, fat, sodium, protein and carbohydrates. These kids wanted to know what their menu choices added up to.

As any parent knows, taking your children out to a restaurant can be a tricky business. Lots of "family style" restaurants have children's menus, but they are often filled with stuff that isn't very healthy for them. Chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, french fries and pizza are pretty much for the norm for children's menus. If they choose an item from the adult menu, then the portion sizes are much too large for them, and may still contain too much salt and fat.

Bearing in mind that these items were taken from specific restaurants, and the numbers would vary slightly with other restaurants, especially with portion sizes, but it still gives you a pretty good idea what that meal contains. Bear in mind that children of this age range need 1970 calories per day for boys and 1740 per day for girls. Daily allowance for men of fat is 90 grams, protein 56 grams, and for women the daily allowance of fat is 65 grams and protein 46 grams. For both men and women daily allowance of sodium is 1,500 to , 2,400 grams and carbohydrates is 281-325 grams.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Fries:

Serving size - 202 g, Calories - 617, Fat - 33 g, Sodium - 867 mg, Protein - 13 g, Carbohydrates - 67 g

Chocolate Chip Pancakes:

Serving size - 112 g, Calories - 278, Fat - 3.9 g, Sodium - 799 mg, Protein 5.8 g, Carbohydrates - 56 g

Chicken Fingers with Fries:

Serving size - 248 g, Calories 638 g, Fat - 30 g, Sodium - 1,414 mg, Protein 16 g, Carbohydrates - 75 g

Dietiticians looked at these findings and weighed in with their thoughts. The grilled cheese would be healthier with half of the fries removed, perhaps use less cheese, use whole-grain bread and add a piece of fruit. The pancakes have lower numbers all round, but the dietician points out that you are getting a lot of refined carbohydrate and sugar. Personally, I couldn't understand why there was so much sodium. Salty pancakes! The chicken fingers with fries is the big loser here, which I'm sure comes as no surprise to anyone. The 30 grams of fat is high, even for an adult, it covers all of their sodium intake for the day and 75% of their carbohydrate intake. The dietician suggests that it is the equivalent of giving your child 15 Oreos, or 2 doughnuts, or six peanut butter cups.

What's a parent to do? Clearly this kind of eating should be a treat, not a normal occurance. When my kids were little, they would often order from the adult menu and split a dish, or my husband would split one with them. Doggie bags are a good idea too, if the portions are large. Encourage them to avoid the deep fried items and order a salad on the side rather than fries. Be a good role model and do the same thing yourself.

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