I have a confession to make. Last weekend, I took my two youngest children out to breakfast. I was supposed to be joining my wife and oldest at a charitable race, but because the weather outside was dreary, I lazily decided to head to a local greasy spoon with the wee ones as the outing would serve to not only feed, but also entertain them. My 3-year-old ordered the $3.99 kids' chocolate pancake and my 5-year-old got the $3.99 waffle with whipped cream. When the meals arrived, I was flabbergasted to see two full-size dinner plates—one with a gigantic pancake, and the other, with a plate-filling waffle.
Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised. Kids' meals are anything but small, as was evidenced by a 2008 study conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that analyzed 1,474 kids' meals at 13 top restaurant chains. It found that 93 percent of them exceeded what the Institute of Medicine would recommend as a child's maximal meal calories.
Now for us, eating out is not the norm, but even though we don't eat out often, my kids eat out more frequently than I did when I was a kid. When I was a kid, eating out was an exceedingly rare treat—yet for many kids today, it's normal, and often occurs more than once a week.
I grew up in the 1970s. Back then the average American household spent roughly 30 percent of its food budget on restaurants meals, and my non-scientific guess is that the bulk of those dollars were spent without kids tagging along. Nowadays, restaurant spending exceeds 50 percent of the average American's food budget, and I suspect that kids today are going along far more frequently for the ride.
I don't doubt that restaurant calories play a very real role in our children's ballooning waistlines. But I would argue that the most dangerous impact restaurant meals have on our children is that they normalize eating out as a regular, often weekly, part of life—a behavior pattern our kids are likely to share with their own future families—and they de-normalize the family dinner-table meal.
Family dinners have been shown in various studies to confer true developmental benefits on our children—better grades, improved mental health, and less risk-taking behaviors. And in this day and age, they almost certainly provide our kids with fewer calories and more nutritious fare.
Yes we're all busy. And yes, cooking takes time and skill. Yet I don't think business, time, or lack of skill are real excuses for relying on restaurants to do our job as parents. I'd go so far as to say that even the worst pre-packaged supermarket meal nuked at home and eaten together around a table is a better choice than taking your children out to eat. It'll take less time than going to a restaurant and requires zero skill. And while it's far, far from ideal, it may serve as the starting point in your journey to reclaim your kitchen.
When we were kids, our meals came from our kitchens—try to find yours. I know I won't be taking my kids out to eat breakfast again for no good reason.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.