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Finding Healthy Kids' Meals Is a Challenge

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MIAMI - When Robin and Howard Katz of Kendall, Fla., dine out with their three children, the family often argues over what the kids will eat.

The choices on the kids' menus usually are standard junk food: macaroni & cheese, hamburger and fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, corn dogs and grilled cheese.

''Let's face it - there's not a lot of nutritional value in those choices,'' Robin Katz said.

Sometimes, the Katzes let their older son, 12-year-old Eric, choose from the adult menu but the price often is double. Sometimes, Eric splits an adult meal with his 9-year-old sister Alexa. Robin says she tries to find restaurants that offer healthier items on their kids' menus but finds her choices limited.

Dine out with children and you quickly get an idea why obesity has become a national concern. More than 1 million teens - an estimated three out of 10 overweight adolescents - are on their way to diabetes, high blood pressure and early heart attacks.

Most restaurants offer a kids' menu at a reduced price and with a limited choice of entrees, but a growing awareness of parents' desire for healthy meals has some restaurants looking at more options. Kids' meals typically include fries and a soda and rarely mirror the adult menu in variety.

''Most of the options are prepackaged, stuff you can buy in the freezer section,'' said Jill Michelson, a registered and licensed dietitian in Weston, Fla. ``Just because you're a child doesn't mean all you want is fried and frozen foods.''

In recent months, fast-food restaurants introduced healthier choices after a group of New York City teens sued McDonald's, claiming its foods made them obese. A federal judge later dismissed the suit. Many Wendy's restaurants now offer milk and fruit with their kids' meals as an alternate for soda and fries. Some Burger King restaurants offer side salads as an option to fries with its value meals.

Michelson believes restaurants can do more to appeal to kids than offer high fat, low-nutrition items. Her suggestions: Put the food on an interesting plate, toss in a game with the meal, offer side dishes such as baked apples, strawberries, carrot sticks with dip, even salads.

''There's a stigma that kids won't eat vegetables or fruit and they do. Dine-in restaurants are only doing what they think parents want,'' Michelson said. ``Unless parents convey or demand otherwise, it won't change.''

Nutritionists say a hamburger with lettuce and tomato (without fries), or a pizza (especially if it's made with whole wheat bread) are the better choices on the kids' menu. Chicken nuggets, one of the most popular foods of the 2-to-10-year-old set, are full of fat and calories. In fact, 50 percent to 60 percent of the calories in most nuggets come from fat. Nuggets are so laden with breading, fillers and fats that any protein is minimal.

Amy Churnetski of Cooper City, Fla., says she and her husband, Richard, enjoy dining out with their sons. But they find kids' meals at most restaurants leave their boys hungry and the meals are not well balanced. Instead, 6-year-old Zachary and 9-year-old Alex usually share an adult meal.

''For some reason the kids' meals are too small and they don't offer the same foods the restaurant serves. Why can't restaurants offer kids a smaller version of what their parents are having?'' wonders Churnetski.

Some chains do offer better choices. Look for the restaurants that allow you to swap fries for a side dish such as a sweet potato or corn. Outback Steakhouse's kids' menu includes steak tips; Macaroni Grill offers a boneless chicken breast with steamed broccoli and pasta; Subway sells sandwiches that can be made with whole wheat rolls and a variety of vegetables as toppings; Tony Roma's kids' meals come with celery and carrot sticks as appetizers, includes ribs as a selection, and gives the option of fruit instead of fries.

''I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about what kids won't eat, but in restaurants many kids are surprisingly flexible,'' said Susan B. Roberts, chief of Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University School of Nutrition. "They see people around them eating and enjoying and there are good smells.''

Roberts, author of "Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health" (Bantam, $19) suggests parents ask the waiter for a half portion of adult entrees.

Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami registered dietitian, suggests a child who finds something they like on the adult menu order the item as a side portion. She also recommends kids order appetizers or says two children could share an adult entree and get an extra side.

She believes local restaurants are more willing to tailor their menu.

''Sometimes you have to tell restaurants what you want,'' Rarback said. ``If it's a restaurant your family frequents and the owners know you, you can ask for changes or a smaller portion of an adult dish for the kids.''


(c) 2003, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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