We have all seen the news articles about parents suing fast food restaurants for their children's obesity. Whether we side with the Golden Arches or the parents on the issue, the fact of the matter is obesity is a rising problem for our nation's children. Diets consisting of processed chicken nuggets, grease-laden French fries, and sugar-filled soda are doing nothing but expanding our children's waistlines.
With an ever-increasing number of households where both parents work, people are looking for quick and easy dinner options. Sadly, restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King are all too happy to meet that need. Let's take a look at how the average kid's meal stacks up nutritionally to the Food Pyramid recommendations for children The average chicken nugget kids meal contains 520 calories and 23 grams of fat. A typical cheeseburger kids meal contains 650 calories and 25 grams of fat.
According to Recommended Energy Intakes for Children, 1-3 year olds need 1,300 calories per day, 4-6 year olds need 1,800 calories per day, and 7-10 year olds need 2,000 calories per day. So depending on the meal chosen and the child's age, they could have easily consumed half of their calories for the day with just that one meal. That's not leaving much for the remaining two meals and any snacks. It's no wonder obesity is becoming such a problem with many children consuming way more calories than are recommended.
Then we have the whole issue of fat. It is recommended that the amount of calories from fat be less than 30% of the total calories. All of those meals provide way too much fat. Too much fat in the diet can lead to big health problems for these children in the future. Among those health problems are heart disease and high blood pressure.
In addition, these meals provide no fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. All of those are vital to a healthy child's diet to ensure that they are getting all the vitamins and minerals that they need. For example, an 8 year-old child needs 1.5 cups of fruits and vegetables. The Happy Meals provide none of the half cup they should be getting at each meal.
So what can busy parents do to ensure that children are eating healthier when a busy schedule dictates meals need to be eaten quickly? A good option for busy parents is once a month cooking. All meals for a month are made ahead and frozen. They meals are then thawed and reheated when needed. This ensures that the family will always have a healthy meal when time is tight. The whole family can get involved in the planning of healthy meals. The kids can help cook too! That way those unhealthy Happy Meals can be avoided entirely.
Many parents are faced with picky eaters. So what is a parent to do if their child refuses to eat anything but the regular fast food fare? Find ways to make their favorites at home and make them healthier. Chunks of chicken can be coated in crushed Fiber One cereal and baked for a yummy Chicken Nugget alternative. Homemade French Fries can be lightly sprayed with olive oil and baked until crunchy for a heart-healthy alternative to deep-fried French fries. Be sure to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables as sides. Your child may protest at first, but eventually they will become accustomed to the new way of eating.
If you absolutely have to go with fast food, the best options are taking advantage of the alternate side items. Most fast food restaurants are now offering alternatives to the standard French fries and soda. Encourage your children to take the apple slices or mandarin oranges instead of fries, and the milk instead of soda. At least that way they will be getting one of their servings of fruit and dairy.
No matter where you eat your dinner, please don't forget exercise. This is an important aspect of the Food Pyramid's recommendations for children. Children should aim for sixty minutes of exercise most days. Parents should do their best to make it fun for the children. Enroll your kids in dance or karate lessons. Encourage them to participate in sports. Take a family walk after dinner. Spend Saturdays hiking through the woods in a nearby state park. If your children enjoy it, it is more likely to continue into adulthood. Their health will benefit greatly from the added activity.
So the next time your child begs to be taken to the Golden Arches, smile at your child and tell them Ronald McDonald is getting a break from cooking tonight because you will be eating at Mom's Diner. Your child's arteries will thank you
Jennifer Voss is a registered dietitian. She blogs about nutrition, healthy cooking and baking, and organic living at Miss Organic's Kitchen.