Fast Food Nation On Vacation - My Family Travels

Although fast food dining is a convenient and quick option on vacation, parents should be aware that very few children's meals at America's most popular chain restaurants meet experts' nutritional guidelines. An Applebee’s grilled cheese sandwich with fries and chocolate milk, for example, totals 1,200 calories. That’s over twice the amount of recommended calories a child should consume in one meal.

In a study just released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, researchers assessed the nutritional quality of nearly 3,500 children’s meal combinations offered by restaurant chains. They reviewed them against nutritional standards developed by a panel of CSPI health experts and similar standards developed by the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program which forward-thinking businesses are adopting.

  • The good news:  Some progress in the percentage of healthy kids meal options that restaurants are offering, compared to a similar CSPI study done in 2008.
  • The bad news:  97% of the children's meal combinations served at restaurants did not meet the nutritional standards of the CSPI and 91% did not meet those established by NRA’s Kid’s LiveWell.

The CSPI ecnourages restaurants to take on more responsibility in providing the right options. The group says that there is still much more that needs to be done. CSPI urges food establishments to participate in the Kids LiveWell Program, remove soda and sugary drinks from kids meals, offer more fruits and vegetables and provide nutritional information for diners of all ages.

Making the Best of Chain & Fast Food Restaurants on the Road

But what are parents to do when kids are hungry and the only restaurants for miles are the likes of McDonald's, Applebees, and KFC?

Now, over 70 restaurants are participating in the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell Program, a voluntary program in which restaurants pledge to provide healthy menu options for children by focusing on lean proteins, whole grains, and fruits and veggies. More restaurants are expected to join this program, so healthy food will be more available for your family.

If McDonald’s is your only option, look for the healthy menu choices: apple slices and milk, instead of soda. Many more restaurants are serving up nutritious options. Visit the the Kids LiveWell page to find out the restaurants near you that offer healthy options for your kids.

If it’s near you, Subway is always a good option for its delicious and healthful sandwiches, wraps and soups. All of their children’s menu options meet the nutritional guidelines of the CSPI and those of the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program.

Chain restaurants are not the only places where vacationers need to make the right nutrition choices. For travelers, hotels and even airports are taking steps to meet the growing demand for healthy eating options.

Hotels Increase Access to Healthy Foods on Vacation

As more hotels focus on in-house dining, they are making the effort to provide guests with healthier food options. The year 2006 saw the elimination of transfats from cooking oils used by many hotels, and since then, the general overhaul of menus to stress more nutritious foods. The Fairmont Hotels and Resorts caters to healthier diets with a Lifestyle Cuisine Plus program offering raw, vegan and gluten-free menus.

In conjunction with providing healthier food options, many of today's hotel chefs are growing their own vegetables and herbs, or locally sourcing the best organic and fresh grown products. Hyatt's “For Kids By Kids” menu approved by Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) provides more nutritious and fresh items to 3,000,000 children served annually in all full-service Hyatt hotels and resorts throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. The menu was "approved" by 11-year-old social star Haile Thomas of the online cooking show Kids Can Cook, and includes breakfast tacos with whole wheat tortillas and eggs; and choppped salads at lunch. Hyatt is also serving a three-course organic meal for children developed exclusively for the brand by renowned food pioneer and chef, Alice Waters.

Kimpton Hotels boast a smoothie menu and trail-mix station for guests attending events and meetings. Marriott hotels have been trying harder to trim down portion sizes and include more whole grains in menu options. The JW Marriott is realeasing their Junior Jetsetters interactive Kids Menu this Spring. The menu allows kids to pick and choose from a handful of healthy options, encouraging them to practice healthy eating while traveling and while at home. 

Major Theme Parks Increase Healthy Food Options

One by one, major theme parks have been phasing out the use of artificial fats and, in the case of Disney, leading the trend towards healthier eating. Walt Disney World launched new children's menus or "Kids' Complete Meals," with entrees such as whole-grain macaroni with beef plus fruit and vegetable side dishes. French fries and soft drinks are still available, upon request, for no additional cost. The company went farther to combat the childhood obesity epidemic in 2012 by banning the advertising of "junk food" on its many media properties.

Healthy dishes and trans-fat-free foods are available throughout all of Universal Studios U.S. theme parks. Now, both kids and adults can enjoy healthy side options with their meals: kids can choose from fruit or french fries prepared with trans-fat free oils, and adults can choose from a side salad or the fries. Healthier beverages are also available. A similar change has occurred at SeaWorld and other theme parks who prioritize healthy kids.

Tips to Keep Vacation Meals on the Healthy Path

For those times when fried food joints are inescapable, American Baby magazine and writer Kristin Finello share ways to make smart fast food choices and keep children's nutritional needs in balance.

Ms. Finello's first rule for parents is say "no" to super-sizing meals. Regular portions are often larger than they should be anyway. Finello urges parents to seek restaurants that offer healthier alternatives such as grilled chicken and leaner sandwiches (as opposed to Arby's sandwiches, which can run up more than 500 calories). Fast food does not have to be fried.

Keep kids satisfied along the way with healthy snacks like raisins or carrot sticks, because going to a restaurant when you're starving can lead to overeating. Finello stresses the importance of adults taking responsibility for their children's diets; if parents know that their kids will be eating fast food at some point during the day, they should make sure that the rest of their meals are healthy.

Variety is essential to any child's diet; not only will they appreciate the different foods, but mixing up the menu is a great way to ensure that kids receive all of the nutrients they need. Families who choose a vacation rental over a hotel room should plan to shop at their destination and cook at least one dinner together with children to introduce the art (and science) of healthy and delicious foods.

Now that more and more restaurants are making healthier food available for families on-the-go, one challenge remains for parents: can they get their kids to choose grilled chicken and veggies over a cheeseburger and fries? First Lady Michelle Obama has some great tips on how to develop kids' taste for healthier and more nutritious fare — if this busy mom can do it, so can you!

There are certainly an increasing number of restaurants and hotels that are making healthy foods more accessible to the traveling family. But ultimately it's up to the parents to make the healthy options and encourage their children to make them as well. 

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