Every child should eat organic, vegetable-focused, made from scratch diets, but let’s be honest—avoiding fast food at all costs just isn’t always practical. Between school, sports and extracurricular activities, it probably feels like you’re lucky to get something in your kid’s stomach—but navigating overwhelming fast food menus from the driver’s seat can be tricky, especially if your child’s already zeroed in on their favorite dishes.
As it turns out, there is a way to do fast food without denying your child a chance at a healthy future—and if obesity, other health concerns or a passion for a healthier lifestyle means avoiding the drive-thru altogether, we’ve got tips for that too.
- Forget fries. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside—is there anything more tempting than a French fry? Fast food sides are often more calorific than the sandwiches because they’re fried—and kick-starting a healthier diet means saying bye-bye to this fatty favorite. Instead, try yogurt, fruit, baked potatoes or anything that didn’t start its life in an 8 gallon vat of grease. Does this change make your little one particularly blue? Show solidarity and give them up yourself.
- Skip sodas. Full of sugar and wasted calories, sodas are often the easiest fast-food offender to do without. “Order water or fat-free milk instead of a soda, juice, milkshake, or smoothie,” suggests Dr. YaeBin Kim, head of the University of Nevada’s parenting and nutrition education workshop. This simple swap is a great segue into conversations about the importance of water and milk in keeping growing bodies strong.
- Pay attention to protein. Burgers are often the best choice because they’re grilled—skip fried chicken and fish sandwiches that visited the deep fat fryer, and if you can, skip the sugary condiments, fake cheese and fatty sauces. Grilled alternatives sound like a good swap, but order with caution—the crispy crust is often replaced with fatty sauces to pump up flavor.
- Get it to go. Even if it means ball pit first, food later. Why? Tiny eaters eat less at their own table. In 2012, the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine conducted a study and found that kids eat as much as 160 calories more a day when they don’t eat at the table. Plus, eating takeout at home also allows for dinnertime conversations and family bonding—win-win!
- Set the rules in stone. Start calling yourself the Fast Food General. Before you acquiesce to a trip, turn the radio off and lay down the law: “No French fries. No soda. These are the rules. If you don’t agree, we don’t have to go.” Whining is almost certainly guaranteed. But stick to your guns and they’ll soon learn that it’s the new rules or nothing (and “nothing” in this case is actually better).
- Turn off the TV. The boob tube really is the root of fast food evil. It’s the commercials that encourage kids to request fast food, says Dr. Kim. They tempt kids with irresistible toys, clowns and bright colors that healthy food just can’t compete with. By turning off the television and changing your route home to avoid spotting fast food, you may help your kid forget that the chains exist altogether.
- Try weaning. Hey, it works with pacifiers—and it may produce better long-term results than going cold turkey. By cutting out fast food altogether, you run the risk of creating a lifelong fascination with the memory of his former favorite childhood food. Pare down visits to once a month or once every six weeks by cutting down one trip at a time. If you’re a fan of fast food too, it’s a good idea to keep track of drive-thru trips on a visible calendar—that way no one can claim denial when you say no.
- Get Cooking. Sharpening your chef skills is your best weapon to beat fast food. Get kids away from fast food completely, recommends Dr. Kim. Adopt a can-do attitude in the kitchen, and lure your child away from the arches with home-cooked meals. Ask your budding epicure for meal suggestions, grocery shop together and involve him in the cooking process as much as possible. Freedom to be adventurous in the kitchen combined with quality one-on-one time will help lessen the appeal of fast food.
If you’re lucky enough to be reading this before your little one gets the fast food monkey on his back, save yourself worry down the road by avoiding fast food trips altogether. But if your family has already developed a taste for greasy deliciousness, don’t fret! It’s never too late to change eating habits. Before you’re ready to quit altogether, there are ways to sneak in the odd fast food meal without feeling too guilty—and that’s proof positive that sometimes it is possible to have the best of both worlds.