Healthy Options at the Restaurant

by Dr. Christine Wood, Author of  How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It
Eating out has become a way of life. In 1978, Americans got 18% of their calories from food eaten away from home. Today, it is almost twice that number. People who eat out tend to eat more calories and larger portions. Restaurant food and fast food choices are usually less healthy than choices made at home. Here are some healthy tips on eating out with your kids.

girl restaurant

Fast food restaurants

Limiting exposure to fast foods restaurants may be one of the most important lessons you can teach your children. Most children recognize our most popular fast food restaurant signs and logos before they can even read. Why start down that road? If your children see that eating out 2 to 3 times a week at a fast food restaurant is how your family eats, it may be hard for them to change that trend when they are older and making their own choices. An occasional outing to the fast food restaurants may be difficult to avoid (our family found ourselves driving in the desert of central California with no other choice for miles), but try hard not to make it a way of life.

Healthier fast food restaurants

In most cities, there are restaurants that may have take-out and counter service, but cater to serving healthier choices like roasted chicken with steamed vegetables, fish taco restaurants, pasta places, sandwich shops, some Asian food restaurants (Japanese tends to be healthier than most Chinese places). Find the favorites in your city and don’t be shy to ask them for nutritional content of their foods. They often have a printed copy of the nutritional value of their meals they can share with you.  You can also investigate their website if you know you will be dining there.


Now you find yourself in a sit-down restaurant that caters to families, so what can you do to make it a bit healthier experience? First, realize that portion sizes are often large, so share meals among family members. If you are trying to watch your own weight, one tip is to ask for a container for a “doggie bag” when you get your meal and set aside some of the meal to take home. There is usually plenty to save for lunch the next day.

If you have a younger child (who can’t read yet!) why not order a meal for yourself and share that with him or her. The “kids meals” are usually the same old thing – chicken nuggets, burgers, pizza, fries and (gulp) unlimited soda. Not something your young child needs to have every time you hit the restaurants. For the older kids, share a salad with them, or ask if they have cut up veggies (carrots, celery) they can munch on before the meal arrives.  Ask the restaurant if they have could substitute a fruit or vegetable for some part of the kids meal.


With unlimited sodas often available at many restaurants, kids can receive a lot of extra calories with sodas or shakes and if eating out is occurring often, these empty calories can slowly turn into extra pounds. A 20-ounce soda contains about 1/3 cup of sugar.

A Lancet study (Lancet 2001;357:505) showed in over 500 children aged 11-17 years studied over 2 years, that for every soft drink a day, the risk for becoming obese increased by about 50%. So, limit the sodas when eating out and don’t allow waiters and waitresses to continue to pour soda refills like water.

So how strict to be with avoiding soda? In kids under 4 or 5 years, I would not allow sodas at restaurants or only allow it very rarely. They may get used to water or milk with their meals! It can be difficult to be a purist in this day and age and not allow any sodas when you go out for older children, but set some limits.

Here’s a chart on what’s in your sodas:



Calories Teaspoons of

sugar in 12 ounces

Orange Crush



Mountain Dew








9 1/2

Dr. Pepper






Consider what’s in a Double Big Gulp of Coca-Cola:
64 ounces = 821 calories = 51 teaspoons of sugar = just over 1 cup of sugar!

Traveling and eating out

Sometimes when you are on vacation and eating out every meal, it’s hard to keep things under control. For your older kids, try negotiating before the trip how many sodas are reasonable for your trip. If you negotiate ahead of time, it may be easier to follow the rules. Think about limits on dessert and fried foods too while traveling and the kids may have to find other healthy choices.


  1. Molly Bricker says

    Thanks for the great dining tips! I don’t have any of my own kids yet, but have a handful of nieces and and a couple of nephews, all under the age of 10. My entire family is health conscious, so eating at restaurants with the kids has been tricky. I’d like to add a tip that we use for beverages. Whether it’s juice or soda, the sugar content is greatly reduced by diluting it with water. A 1:3 ratio of juice or soda to water maintains good flavor. Another alternative is to add a splash of juice or soda to sparkling water–a real treat for kids and adults who very rarely drink soda. Thanks again! This site is a great resource for everyone!!