Healthy options for children living in a fast food world

We have all seen the press articles about parents suing fast food restaurants for their children’s obesity. Whether we are on the side of the Golden Arches or parents on the issue, the fact is that obesity is a growing problem for our nation’s children. Diets of processed chicken nuggets, fatty french fries and sugar-filled sodas only make our children taller.

With an increasing number of households where both parents work, people are looking for quick and easy meal options. Unfortunately, restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King are only too happy to meet this need. Let’s take a look at how a child’s average meal compares nutritionally to the food pyramid recommendations for children. A child’s average chicken nugget meal contains 520 calories and 23 grams of fat. A typical children’s cheeseburger contains 650 calories and 25 grams of fat.

Based on recommended energy intakes for children, children 1-3 years old need 1,300 calories per day, children 4-6 years old need 1,800 calories per day, and children 7-10 years old need 2,000 calories per day. Thus, depending on the meal chosen and the age of the child, he could easily have consumed half of his calories for the day with a single meal. So there is not much left for the other two meals and possible snacks. Not surprisingly, obesity is becoming such a problem, with many children consuming many more calories than recommended.

Then there is the whole issue of fat. It is recommended that the amount of calories from fat should be less than 30% of total calories. All of these meals provide far too much fat. Too much fat in the diet can lead to major health problems for these children in the future. These health problems include heart disease and high blood pressure.

In addition, these meals do not contain fruits, vegetables or whole grains. All of these are essential to a healthy child’s diet so that he or she gets all the vitamins and minerals he or she needs. For example, an 8-year-old child needs 1.5 cups of fruits and vegetables. Happy Meals do not provide any of the half cups they should be eating at every meal.

So what can busy parents do to help their children eat healthier when a busy schedule demands eating fast? A good option for busy parents is to cook once a month. All meals for the month are prepared ahead of time and frozen. Meals are then defrosted and reheated if necessary. This ensures that the family will always have a healthy meal when time is short. The whole family can participate in healthy meal planning. Children can also help with the cooking! In this way, these unhealthy Happy Meals can be completely avoided.

Many parents are faced with picky eaters. So what if their child refuses to eat anything other than the normal fast food meal? Find ways to prepare their favourite meals at home and make them healthier. Chicken pieces can be wrapped in crushed Fiber One cereal and baked to replace the delicious Chicken Nugget. Homemade fries can be lightly drizzled with olive oil and baked until crispy, providing a heart healthy alternative to fried fries. Be sure to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables as a side dish. Your child may protest at first, but will eventually get used to this new way of eating.

If you absolutely have to go fast food, the best solution is to enjoy the other side. Most fast-food restaurants today offer alternatives to the usual French fries and soft drinks. Encourage your children to have apple slices or tangerines instead of fries, and milk instead of soda. At least this way, they will get one of their portions of fruit and dairy products.

Wherever you eat, don’t forget to exercise. This is an important part of the food pyramid recommendations for children. Children should aim to get sixty minutes of exercise most days. Parents need to do their best to make sure their children have fun. Enroll your children in dance or karate classes. Encourage them to play sports. Take a family walk after dinner. Spend Saturdays hiking in the woods in a nearby state park. If your children enjoy it, it’s more likely to continue as adults. Their health will benefit greatly from the extra activity.

So the next time your child begs you to take them to the Golden Arches, smile and tell them that Ronald McDonald is taking a break from cooking tonight because you’ll be eating at Mom’s Diner. Your child’s arteries will thank you