by Marcia Mangum Cronin
What parent hasn't waged war against the allure of fast food? Our children see the tantalizing fries and chicken nuggets and free toys and playgrounds, and they want that—sometimes throwing tantrums until they get it. For your health and theirs, it's worth setting limits. A recent survey by AllRecipes.com showed that over 56 percent of the 1,500 people polled (primarily women) ate at fast-food restaurants at least several times a month, and, among those, nearly 15 percent ate fast food two or more times a week. Convenience and speed were the top reasons for eating fast food.
I won't pretend that I never took my kids to fast-food restaurants. I did and still do—but only rarely. It is not part of my routine and hopefully won't become part of theirs. When my children were younger, we ate at fast-food restaurants primarily for three reasons: when we were really pinched for time; when the indoor playground promised some exercise when it was too hot, cold or rainy to play outside; or when we were traveling.
The "pinched for time" reason came into play very rarely—like days when we had 30 minutes to make it from the late-afternoon music lesson to the evening soccer practice. We didn't do this every week, or even every month. Once I figured out the occasional time crunches, I'd pack a healthy sandwich or snack that they could eat in the car. And, through the years, I became the queen of quick healthy dinners and slow cooker meals (more on that another day).
When we did stop for fast-food on the run, I made it clear why we were stopping—and why it would not become an everyday occurrence. I'm sure my children can't count the times I told them that even though French fries and chicken nuggets may taste good, they're not good for you, particularly if you eat them all the time.
I must admit, the indoor (and outdoor) playgrounds were a stroke of genius on the part of fast-food chains. Kids clamored to go, and parents were willing to take them. Moms and dads could relax for a few minutes while their kids burned off some energy. The playtime assuaged the guilt over letting our kids eat a hamburger and fries—even though I'm sure they didn't burn off all those calories. Again, moderation is the key: take your kids for the occasional play date when the weather is too bad to play outside or when you're on a long road trip and need a break, but don't make it a habit.
Speaking of road trips, those were the times my kids knew they could count on a fast-food break. As soon as they were old enough to clamor for fries and a toy, we were smart enough to negotiate our deal. On one leg of the trip—usually the first part—the kids could choose where we'd stop. It was always fast-food and often with a playground, which provided a good break from the sitting. We'd soon be back on the road, with a car full of happy campers. On the trip home, Mom and Dad got to choose where we'd stop. We'd look for an interesting local hole-in-the-wall and give it a try. My children have sampled Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, seafood and diner food up and down the East Coast. We all enjoyed those stops and have good memories that can't be replicated at yet another chain restaurant.
Nowadays, fast-food restaurants offer some healthier choices than when my kids were toddlers. Back then, the best I could do was encourage lemonade or water instead of soda. Now you can get sides of fruit and salad, grilled or deli-style sandwiches and much more. But, despite these improvements, it's still easy to rack up the calories and sodium if you make fast-food a habit. And fast-food can be a hard habit to break. Do yourself and your kids a favor by spending a little more time planning and preparing meals and a little less time at the drive-through. They'll thank you later.
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