Making the best of the fast food option

Picture this:  A mom is rushing to get some holiday shopping done after work before picking the kids up from basketball and ballet. Before she knows it, it’s 6:15, time to leave the mall and get the kids.   And those kids will be hungry. What’s a busy mom to do in the middle of the food court? 

Use those restaurant menu labels! Two years ago, it was a major change for restaurant chains to blatantly post nutrition information for the public to easily see. By now, it’s no surprise to see the calories marked next to the picture of your favorite “Value Meal” - or to find nutrition info online or with a smartphone app. But it’s another skill set to actually know what to do with that information.

The biggest problem with trading a home-cooked option for foods on the go is that sometimes one seemingly healthy fast food meal can have more calories than your five year old needs in an entire day. Now, the restaurant menu laws give you have a little ammunition in making the best choice for your family on the run. 

3 Tips for Picking the Best Option for Meals on the Go: 

  1. Know the general limits:  Each child has different energy (calorie) needs during the day based on age, gender, size, and activity level, but the chart below gives a general guide to the amount of calories that is reasonable for one meal: 

Age (years)

Reasonable Calorie Range for a Meal

2-3

300 - 450

4-8

400 -650

9-13

500 - 750

14-18

550 - 850

  1. Go for the whole thing:  whole foods, that is. Picking the least processed food will make it more likely to get the biggest nutrition bang for your buck. Think sliced roast beef instead of a burger, apple slices instead of apple juice.
  2. Make “3” your goal:  Do the best you can to make sure that each meal has 3 of the 5 food groups: grains, protein, vegetables, fruits, and dairy. Make a swap for milk instead of soda, fruit instead of fries. And sorry, French fries don’t count as a vegetable. 

Fast food will never be the preferred option for a healthy diet, but being aware of what to select can make it a reasonable choice on a busy night.  

Beth Wallace, a registered dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has more than six years of experience in providing nutrition care for children and adolescents

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