Child's Play

Navigating the tricky world of kids' menus

When ordering food from the main menu for children, pick dishes featuring fresh, wholesome ingredients, or what nutrition experts call a "Healthy Plate". According to senior dietitian Lynette Goh, this consists of half a plate of fruit and vegetables
When ordering food from the main menu for children, pick dishes featuring fresh, wholesome ingredients, or what nutrition experts call a "Healthy Plate". According to senior dietitian Lynette Goh, this consists of half a plate of fruit and vegetables, a quarter-plate of whole grains and a quarter-plate of lean meats, fish, beans, lentils or tofu.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Menus for children often feature highly processed foods lacking in nutrients. Sasha Gonzales finds out what you should order

Madam Jolene Lee's three daughters always order off the kids' menu when they dine out, but she worries that they may not be getting a healthy meal.

"Spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, or hot dogs and hamburgers... I don't think those types of food count as nutritious, yet they are all my girls will order because they don't fancy the dishes on the main menu," said the 38-year-old housewife, whose children are aged seven, five and two.

"Dining out is a weekly treat for our family, so they see it as a licence to eat whatever they want. This is fine, but I wish restaurants had healthier options to choose from."

Ms Jaclyn Reutens, a clinical dietician at Aptima Nutrition and Sports Consultants, said that of all the dishes on a typical children's menu, spaghetti bolognese is likely the best pick as it uses simple ingredients, and only boiling and sauteing as the cooking methods.

"Other offerings, like nuggets, chips, burgers and battered fish, contain unnecessarily high amounts of oil and tend to be highly processed," she pointed out.

"Plus, they usually come with creamy dressings that are high in sugar and fat. You almost never see vegetables served with them or as a side option on the kids' menus."

Ms Reutens said that it is perfectly fine to order food for your children from the main menu. In fact, it probably offers more choices that are healthier for your little ones.

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When selecting foods from here, this is what you should look out for:

SMALL IS BETTER

Adult portions can be pretty intimidating for your young one, so ask for the dish to be portioned out onto smaller serving plates, or share the dish with your child, Ms Reutens advised. Better yet, ask if the chef can prepare a children's version of the dish.

Cut up steak or chicken breast into bite-sized pieces that are easier for little mouths to chew.

Steak is high in iron and protein, while chicken is high in protein, zinc and B vitamins.

ALWAYS GIVE THEM A "HEALTHY PLATE"

Whatever you order from the main menu should feature fresh, wholesome ingredients, or what nutrition experts call a "Healthy Plate".

According to Ms Lynette Goh, senior dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, this consists of half a plate of fruit and vegetables, a quarter-plate of whole grains and a quarter-plate of lean meats, fish, beans, lentils or tofu.

Eating the "Healthy Plate" way ensures your child is getting a variety of nutrients in the right amounts.

DECODE POPULAR COOKING METHODS

Dishes that have been baked, grilled, stir-fried, steamed, poached, broiled or "served in their own juice" are nutritionally superior to dishes that feature words like "crispy", "pan-roasted", "rich", "buttered", "in cream sauce" and "au gratin", said Ms Goh.

The latter group often contains excessive fat, sugar or salt.

NOT ALL "JUNK FOOD" IS BAD

Burgers are often perceived negatively. But Ms Goh pointed out that if the menu specifies that the burger is made from 100 per cent ground beef, it is not a bad choice, as it provides a healthy dose of iron. Skip the fries and order the burger with a salad or steamed veggies.

LOOK OUT FOR HIDDEN SALT

Many sauce-based dishes contain very high amounts of sodium, so avoid ordering foods that come drowned in gravy, Ms Goh advised. Some stir-fried Asian dishes also contain a lot of soya sauce.

Soup-based noodle dishes, too, have plenty of salt, so do not let your child drink the soup. Always inquire if the chef can cook the dish with less salt or sauce.

CHOOSE THE BRIGHTEST COLOURS

To make vegetable dishes more exciting for your little ones, order a variety of colours, said Ms Reutens.

Red, green, yellow and purple veggies make for an especially colourful plate.

Deep-fried and unhealthy foods are generally pale yellow, brown and beige - think fries and nuggets.

SUBSTITUTE CONDIMENTS, DRESSINGS AND SIDE DISHES

If your child wants a dish that comes with unhealthy condiments, dressings or side dishes, ask if the chef can replace these with something healthier, said Ms Goh.

A "loaded" baked potato, for instance, is often topped with a heap of sour cream and fried bacon bits.

Ask for plain yogurt and grated cheese instead. If substitutions are not allowed, ask for these accompaniments to be served on the side so you can control the amount consumed.

Also, sneak in more veggies. For example, if ordering a sandwich, ask if the mayonnaise can be replaced with an extra serving of salad.

AVOID SUGARY DRINKS

Fresh juice, milk and water are preferable to soft drinks and creamy milkshakes, which are often packed with sugar, and can increase your child's risk of obesity and tooth decay, Ms Reutens pointed out.

HELP THEM MAKE SMART DESSERT CHOICES

Desserts are fine for your child a few times a week. Something fruit- based is ideal, but skip fattening garnishes like whipped cream.

If ordering an ice-cream sundae, get it plain or topped with healthy ingredients like nuts or fruit; avoid the hot fudge and rainbow sprinkles, said Ms Reutens.

Ask for less sugar syrup when you order local desserts like soya bean curd, suggested Ms Goh.

REMEMBER: EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

All foods are fine as long as your child does not eat too much of them. While dining out may be fun for kids, Ms Reutens advised making good choices when it comes to the unhealthy foods.

For instance, if you order duck or fried chicken, remove the fatty skin beforehand.

Second, always look for ways to balance out a meal with extra vegetables or whole grains.

And, finally, go with tomato- based pasta sauces instead of creamy ones to save on calories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Navigating the tricky world of kids' menus'. Print Edition | Subscribe