Ways to make eating out a little healthier

Ways to make eating out a little healthier

At the risk of sounding like my own mother, life is different nowadays!  One of the ways according to a recent Public Health England report is that the number of meals we eat outside the home is increasing. More than a 1/4 of adults and 1/5 of children eat out of home at least once a week .  Whether that is a family outing on a Sunday, grabbing a takeaway or nipping into a coffee shop between activities.  The variety available to us is great and gives our children the opportunity to have many different tastes and experiences.  The challenge is meals eaten outside of the home tend to be associated with higher intakes of sugar, fat and salt.  Portion sizes are often bigger which doesn’t sit well in our quest to eat healthily and set an example for our little ones.  With the school holidays underway, I wanted to share some on advice for eating out and about with your family this summer.

Ultimately, we are social animals and seek a lot of pleasure from being with others around food. Eating out can break the monotony of always having to think what to feed the kids; it’s an opportunity not to have to clear up the waste land between their mouths and their plates - who knew it was so hard to just get it in your mouth!?  It’s also a nice time to connect as a family. Perhaps they could be encouraged to try new foods off your plate or build their confidence by placing their own order with the waiter.  Sometimes it can be a little stressful as we encourage our children to sit nicely and use their ‘inside voices’ (Sam doesn’t have an inside voice, we are still working on that one). Let’s not forget we can be role models and encourage positive table manners,  a genuine enjoyment and appreciation of the meal as we take our time and savour the flavours.

My children enjoy eating out, they tend to associate it with being given foods and drinks they wouldn’t otherwise have at home but they also love us all being together and having a chat.  It’s important for me though to keep eating out as healthy as possible and if you’re with me on this, here are a few top tips:

Have the chat beforehand
Manage expectations and avoid embarrassing strops at the table by involving the children in where you’re going to eat. Explain that whilst eating out doesn’t mean free rein on every choice it does give the opportunity to try different things and enjoy new tastes and time together. You can really capitalise on this as there isn’t the same emotion tied up in them trying something new when you’re not the one that has put blood, sweat and tears into preparing it!

Are often a source of hidden calories which don’t hit the off button for appetite. Milkshakes for example can contain a lot of added sugar and as yet are not regulated by the sugar tax, meaning reformulation of these products has not yet been prompted by Public Health England.  It’s just something to watch out for as an average 200ml glass could contain 4-5tsp of added sugar.  To find out more about hidden added sugars (or otherwise known as free sugars) check out my other blog which explains all!

Fizzy drinks are another tricky area to navigate. Emilia had a diet cola at Christmas and thought it was…well Christmas! Often, they can feel a bit more grown up by adding soda water to fruit juice (half and half) or squash (unlikely to be no added sugar though) but still a better option than traditional fizzy drinks.

Balance on the plate
It is a bit of a bug bear of mine that children’s meals often do not come with a vegetable. Just like I talked about in my vegetable tips blog our role is to normalise their existence as part of a balanced meal, and I don’t feel that eating out should be an exception. I love places that actually take into consideration how children like to eat veg too, for example sticks of veg with a dip or grated so they can pick it up in clumps with their hands if they want. I love Wagamama and Pizza Express for this. Look out for places that also include fruit or fruit snacks as part of meal deals designed for children, for example BEAR’s yoyos come as part of the kids pak in Subway.

I remember once in a so-called child friendly hotel Sam was given a plain cheese sandwich. I requested some veg sticks on the side (yeah, I know I’m so fun to be around sometimes!) and instead got a bowl of lettuce leaves. I felt like saying ‘work with me here guys, I’m trying to get some veg into my kids but they’re not going to eat that!’.  In the pub on Sunday the sausage and mash supposedly came with peas on the menu (win win) but was served with cabbage (not a chance!) so I asked for peas instead. As I said, I am a delight to dine with but this stuff matters to me so what can I say!

Boost your own meal
Achieving a balance is often hard for adults too so ordering an extra side of veg or a side salad is a useful way to increase fibre intakes – it can go in the middle of the table and the family can be encouraged to take some if they fancy. Keeping exposure to these healthier sides normalises their existence and is supporting healthy eating behaviours later in life. Children model their behaviour on ours a lot too, so it’s key to set a good example.

Portion Size
It’s usually possible to gauge from diners around you what sort of portion sizes are being served. It is difficult as children’s menus are catering for such a broad age range and a 4-year-old is going to need far less than an 11-year-old. Don’t be afraid to ask what the portion typically is, as it might be an opportunity to save money too if it’s big enough for children to share. Some places appreciate the difference and give you age related options, having menu for smaller and bigger kids.

Pick one carb
Often popular dishes are served with buns and then fries on the side. To leave enough room for the veggies you could consider reducing some of the carbs.  Each child is different though, and many manage everything on their plates really well; if there’s a source of veg and/or fibre there too then we’re winning!

Watch the sauces
My children are clever and have learnt to bypass the parent and make the waiter/waitress their new best friend. With this new partnership comes as much ketchup as they want. Nothing wrong with a little but the average sachet contains over half a teaspoon of sugar so it’s worth limiting it.

Often restaurants will offer a meal deal, which I find a little frustrating as the kids are already expecting the chocolate brownie before they’ve embarked on their main course. I am realistic that fruit isn’t going to wash here, although some places like Giraffe do some quite funky things with fruit kebabs and dipping sauces.

Encourage sharing, despite the protests I often just say, ‘no one benefits from a sundae bigger than their head!’. Remember we are recognising sweet treats and puddings as part of a healthy balanced diet, but we also need to give them guidance on how much sugar the brain needs to feel satisfied. If the portion sizes are constantly too big, then this becomes the new norm and children will seek out larger portions to get the ‘hit’.

I hope you have found these tips helpful. It’s a good idea to consider how often you eat out and how much of your family’s diet is made up of foods outside of the home.  Experiment, find what works for you and your family.

Laura Clark
Written by: 
Laura Clark