With the new menu labeling law coming out in May 2017, restaurants will be required to list the calorie counts on menu items.  One might think that this would help us figure out how many calories we are eating and also make healthier decisions.  One problem with this concept is that it assumes most people have the nutrition knowledge on how many calories their children need.

Eating out frequency. Today, more families are eating out and spending 50 percent of their food dollars away from home.  One out of three kids and 41 percent of teens gravitate to eating at fast food restaurants for convenience and cheaper prices.  With this increased frequency of eating out, more calories are consumed because portion sizes are larger. Parents continue to struggle with trying to figure out not only what their kids should be eating, but also how much.

Calorie guidelines for kids. A study conducted by RAND recently reviewed recommendations for kids' caloric needs and compared it to what is available on kids' menus found at the top 200 franchise outlets in the US. Children ages 5-12 should aim to eat 600 calories or less for a bundled meal when eating out, according to Institutes of Medicine.  This assumes that children are eating three meals and one to two snacks per day.  If children are eating more throughout the day, then eating more than a 600 calorie meal when eating out, may lead to eating too many calories.

Nutrition recommendations. The nutrition expert panel from the RAND study recommends the maximal caloric intake for a single serving a la carte item should be 300 calories for the main dish and 100-150 calories for side dishes such, as fried potatoes, soups, and appetizers.  No limits are made on vegetables and fruit without added oils or sauces.  Nonfat or low fat unflavored milk is recommended (110 calories/8 ounces), but if flavored milk is chosen, calories should not exceed 130 for 8 ounces.

Excess calories. Common foods found in chain restaurants on kid's menus exceed the amount needed for them to eat a balanced meal and to stay within their daily caloric needs. For example, nutrition experts recommend that 1 cup of mac and cheese should not exceed 300 calories, but the current average calorie content exceeded this by 142 calories.  If kids are eating out frequently, the extra calories will most likely contribute to excess weight gain.

Take home message. Most kid's menu items exceed the caloric needs for most children. Unless your child is very active, eating out frequently may lead to excess weight gain. Restaurants should take the initiative to serve smaller portion sizes to help reduce kid's daily caloric intake. Parents have the responsibility to guide their children on appropriate portion sizes, and choosing healthier food items. Not sure what's recommended for your child? My Kid's Plate has helpful information to get you on the right track!

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