Parents can find alternatives to the fat-laden food on restaurants' kiddie menus


Matt wouldn't even look at the children's menu. "I know there's nothing on it I want to eat," he said firmly, begging to order trout for the third night in a row.

I didn't like spending $13.95 for his dinner, but I couldn't force him to eat another burger, hot dog or plate of chicken fingers with fries, either. I figured any 10-year-old who had hiked 10 miles up a mountain deserved a decent meal.

Besides, just thinking about the fat content of those children's meals made my arteries clog.

Yet wherever we went on a recent trip out West, even in the national parks' historic lodges, the kids' offerings were sadly similar and distressingly high in fat. Some offered "heart healthy" choices for adults but stuck to the same tired choices for the kids, dressed up with cute names printed on coloring books.

This at a time when 25 to 40 percent of American children are overweight, and research continues to underscore that heart disease and high cholesterol can start in childhood, notes Dr. John Udall, a national expert on pediatric nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor at Louisiana State and Tulane universities. "People have got to start realizing that this is not good for the kids," he says.

It's especially bad, he continued, when children are traveling, invariably getting less exercise than at home and eating more snacks as well as these high-fat meals. "It's a double whammy," he says.

Yet few restaurants seem inclined to change. "This is what the restaurants think the kids want," explains Gregg Rapp, whose Seattle-based company, Menu Workshop, designs menus for restaurants around the country.

Indeed, restaurant officials point to industry surveys that show children prefer high-fat choices like pizza and macaroni and cheese. "A restaurant meal is not the time to force nutrition on the kids," insists Susan Schneider, who oversees children's menus for Denny's, the nation's largest family restaurant chain with 1,500 restaurants.

"Parents' No. 1 concern is to keep the kids happy and quiet. In 3 1/2 years, I haven't received one letter asking for other food for kids," adds Ms. Schneider, noting that Denny's serves 22 million children a year.

But at the same time, restaurants from budget-priced Denny's to tony city eateries are working to entice families through their door and make them feel welcome, acknowledges Menu Workshop's Mr. Rapp. No wonder the American Restaurant Association reports that the family market is increasingly important.

For one thing, it's growing. In the '90s alone, the Census Bureau reports, the elementary-school-age population is expected to jump over 4 million, numbering more than 36 million by the year 2,000.

"Already 40 percent of parents with preteen kids tell us they never go to table-serve restaurants without their kids," says Restaurant Association spokesman Wendy Webster. "And kids have the swing vote in deciding where the family goes to eat."

All the more reason to demand more nutritious food for the kids, suggests Dr. Udall. Fill out those customer satisfaction cards, he urges. "Someone has to be advocates for the children."

A few upscale places have begun to listen. At any Hyatt Hotel or resort, for example, a child can order a smaller portion of anything he likes from the adult menu for half-price; the Boca Raton Resort in Florida has adopted a similar policy.

"We asked the kids, and they told us they wanted more choices," explains Meg McLeroy, who initiated the very successful new menu policy at the Boca Raton resort. Contrary to popular wisdom, she's convinced, "Kids have a lot more sophisticated tastes today."

Even if they don't, they likely won't want to eat chicken fingers and hot dogs for a week straight. After a few days on our most recent trip, even 3-year-old Melanie rebelled, opting more often than not for a bowl of plain spaghetti or a few bites of whatever I was eating. Eight-year-old Reggie, meanwhile, ate a lot of soup and appetizers, sometimes splitting a main course with me. I was turned down whenever I asked if we could order a half-portion for one of the children.

It doesn't hurt to ask, though. Meanwhile, until more restaurants get the message from parents that they need more nutritious choices for their children, there are some ways to ensure that everyone eats healthier on the road. Choose cereal for breakfast instead of eggs, suggests Dr. Udall, and plan picnics for lunch rather than fast-food burgers. That's what we did, stopping to eat our turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by a mountain stream someplace. Go for a walk afterward, too, to burn up some calories.

Even on vacation, read food labels, urges Linda Somers, a pediatric nutritionist at Chicago Children's Memorial Medical Center. Pick foods that have less than 3 grams of fat per 100 calories. (For a set of "Healthy Start Food to Grow On" pamphlets chock-full of tips for getting children to eat right, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Department C, P.O. Box 927, Elk Grove Village, Ill. 60009-0927.)

In restaurants, rather than ordering a meal for each child, try ordering "family-style," and letting everyone share, Ms. Somers suggests. Side dishes also can provide healthier options than children's menus. Try ethnic restaurants for more variety.

The bad news is that it will cost more to eat healthfully on the road. The other bad news is that the children might resist. "It can be tough," acknowledges Ms. Somers. "You might have to work out a compromise."

But not always. Matt finished his trout every time.

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