by Alicia Tucker, MD, FAAP, Dipl. Of ABOM
The short answer is no. In general, fast-food meals are much higher in fat, sugar and salt than meals cooked at home. So you never take your kids to a fast-food restaurant? Of course I do! As a parent, between all my kid’s activities, playdates and food cravings we certainly find ourselves needing to order a quick meal some days.
Chances are you and your family have also found yourself trying to decide what to eat with hungry kids in tow. Fast-food restaurants are part of our American food landscape, part of your kid’s social life and sometimes part of a fun family activity. I don’t want anybody to feel guilty about the occasional trip to the drive-thru. What I worry about is the one-third of American kids who eat fast food nearly every day. Children who eat fast food take in about 120 calories more that day on average, and they are less likely to eat many fruits and vegetables. There are ways to incorporate fast food into your kids’ lives, but just like ice cream or cake, those nuggets and fries should also be thought of as an occasional treat.
There are many ways that you can keep your child healthy, with or without fast food. Let’s explore some of the options:
First, what can you do if you, like many American parents, are currently purchasing a fast-food meal 2 ½ times per week? The first thing that you can do is try and cut that back to once a week. Children are at risk for many of the same health conditions older family members may already be getting treatment for – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes – and limiting high-calorie ultra-processed foods is an important part of prevention.
Take some extra time to prep meals on the weekends so you won’t be caught off guard during the week. Next time you’re cooking make extra so that you can freeze it; you’ll have your own homemade frozen meal ready to pop in the microwave when everyone is home late. Having meals prepped ahead of time not only saves time that day but also makes it easier to say “no” when a voice in the backseat asks for a hamburger on the drive home. I always recommend having an emergency snack handy, especially for parents of young kids. If your child skipped school lunch or you hit traffic on the way home, having a healthy non-perishable snacks in your bag or car, such as popcorn or raisins can be a life-saver and will buy you the extra time to get home without feeling like you’re in a food emergency.
Find Healthy Alternatives
What if you forgot to pack lunch after soccer practice, you’re on a road trip, or you just need a Friday night off from cooking? Healthy alternatives are becoming increasingly available, even if they’re not always as visible. And there’s always room for an occasional treat as long as it’s balanced with healthy foods throughout the week. Here are my tips for how to leave a fast-food restaurant without guilt:
Fast food isn’t bad for you if it is in moderation! It’s important to keep our children healthy, but that doesn’t have to be difficult. Cutting back on fast food and knowing the healthy alternatives to highly processed, fried foods are easy ways to ensure your children are getting proper nutrients and staying healthy.
About the Author:
Alicia Tucker, MD, FAAP, Dipl. of ABOM, is a pediatrician with the IDEAL clinic, a medical weight management program at Children’s National in Washington DC. Dr. Tucker is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University College of Medicine where she participates in medical student education and research around the prevention and improved management of childhood obesity and diet-related chronic disease.
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