What's for Dinner?

Finding healthy meals for kids offers many challenges

click to enlarge With a little research, you can turn a trip to a restaurant like Red Robin into a happy experience for both kids and parents. - TAMMY MARSHALL
Tammy Marshall
With a little research, you can turn a trip to a restaurant like Red Robin into a happy experience for both kids and parents.

As lazy summer barbecues fade to blissful memories, I begin to ponder the “fall schedule.” I liken it to putting on a pair of shoes and socks after wearing sandals all summer. The sensation feels strange and confining. Yet, in a few days, the transition is made and school — and all the associated activity — begins again.

That brings the dreaded question for many families, “What’s for dinner?” Fall practice schedules — whether it’s ballet lessons, marching band or football — all pinch the time parents have to get dinner on the table.

What’s an on-the-go parent to do to provide healthy food for children? I surveyed families across the city asking this question: ”If you had to choose one restaurant in Spokane to take a child to eat, which restaurant would you pick and what would you order?”

Here are some suggestions.

Taco del Mar: “We order the bean and rice burritos. The Baja Bowls are similar, but in a dish not in a tortilla.” (You have a choice among black beans, pinto beans or refried.)

Panda Express or Noodle Express: “They both meet the needs of my ‘non-meat eater’ and each kid can find something they like. It is not too expensive and they have veggies.” (Watch out for fat content in stir-frying).

Spaghetti Factory: “It’s very kid-friendly for a sit-down dinner. It is affordable, and there’s something for everyone. We like the marinara sauce.”

P.F. Chang’s: “We’d begin with lettuce wraps, then Szechwan green beans and a beef and broccoli dish.”

Red Robin: “There are lots of choices for salads, entrees, soups and munchies.”

Qdoba: “Watch them build your own healthy burrito. They even have low-fat sour cream.”

Subway: “This is always our choice for a quick healthy meal. We each like creating our own.”

Sawtooth Grill: “I appreciate the little veggie plate with ranch dip they bring to kids before the meals arrive. Nice touch.”

In the past five years restaurants have improved in their efforts to inform the public of what’s in their products. Keep in mind that fat, salt (sodium) and portion sizes are usually larger when eating out. The trade-off for quick food at dinner is often spending more money and sacrificing a bit in nutrition.

Most of the restaurants suggested by my friends had nutrition information on their Websites. Five years ago, that information was hard to come by and difficult to navigate. Restaurants have been prompted to provide the information by pending legislation that will require larger restaurants to do so.

A note of caution: Look closely at what they are providing. Salad might be listed without dressings, hamburgers without spreads or numbers may just be for entrées, not sides. Restaurants do this to make the numbers look better. I know that for a fact because I am often asked by companies to do the analysis. Usually all the information is available — the customer just has to search for the individual sides they chose in a different analysis section.

But whenever you can, squeezing in a meal at home can be the healthiest choice. The University of Minnesota has been doing research on family eating for years. “Parents worry about what their kids are eating — vegetables versus junk — [and] a voluminous body of research suggests that the best strategy for improving a child’s diet is simply putting food on the table and sitting down together to eat it,” writes Shira Feldman, public health specialist at the university’s School of Public Health and lead author of the research.

Studying more than 40,000 middle school kids, the researchers also discovered that those who regularly had meals with at least one parent ate more fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods, ingested more vitamins and nutrients and consumed less junk food. And kids who regularly sat down to a family meal were at lower risk for behaviors like smoking and drug or alcohol use.

So our quest to find healthy meals for kids brings us back home, with a reminder of the even bigger importance of sitting down and eating as a family.

Bon appetit!


This fast and easy harvest meal is a favorite recipe from my mother-in-law Pearl — great for a busy family on the go.

6 potatoes (fist size), peeled and cut into large cubes
4 carrots (6-inch), peeled and cut into inch-long sections
1 pound pre-cooked turkey sausage, inch-long slices
½ whole cabbage, sliced thin
2 15-ounce cans chicken broth

In large soup pot, layer ingredients as listed above. Pour chicken broth in. Place lid on pot and bring to a slow rolling boil until potatoes are tender. Serves 6.

Nutrition facts: 299 calories, 7g total fat, 585mg sodium, 30g carbohydrates, 6g fiber, 28g protein.

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