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According to the United States Department of Agriculture, we currently spend nearly half of our food budget at restaurants. Whether your dine-out destination is a fast-food- or sit-down establishment, meals eaten out have more calories than the ones we prepare at home.
But we love to eat out. Is this pricey love affair going to to make us -- and our kids -- poor and fat? Seems like it.
New research suggests that the trend towards eating out more often, with no regard to our wallets or waistlines, is being passed on to our kids. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that parents’ eating habits, parenting styles and work schedules strongly influence their children’s inclination to eat out, even into adulthood. The more time parents spent eating in restaurants, the more likely their children were to eat out as adults. Perhaps that’s why other research shows that eating home-cooked meals as a family lowers a child’s risk of obesity.
According to the study, parents most often eat out with their family because they have no time to prepare a meal or in order to accommodate everyone’s hectic schedules. The factors that most often contributed to kids’ spending large amounts of time in fast-food or family-style restaurants include having two parents that work, having a dad who often eats out and eating more often with friends. Fathers who believed family sit-down meals are an important part of family ritual were less likely to eat out at restaurants, and therefore, had kids who were also less likely to eat out. Researchers aren't sure why the correlation was not the same for moms and kids, but the conclusion is fathers can have a big impact on their kids’ eating habits and nutrition just by preparing meals at home.
That’s why it’s important to carve out time for family meals at least a few times per week. Another study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that having regular family meals during the transition from early to middle adolescence helps kids develop healthful eating behaviors into adulthood.
If you do eat out, one way to decrease your calorie expenditure is to split entrées. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that most chain restaurants serve up dishes that are at least double the normal serving size. Asking for the nutrition information can also help -- to a degree. However, even such careful selection of your entrée doesn’t come without its pitfalls. A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that fast-food and sit-down restaurant foods had, on average, 18 percent more calories than what was stated. What’s more, another study found that we overestimate the health of certain foods; when we choose a healthy entrée, we actually end up eating 131 percent more calories over the course of the meal. Why? We make up for it -- and then some -- by supplementing our healthy dish with calorie-laden beverages, side dishes and desserts.
Up until I visited a financial adviser earlier in the year, I probably ate out more often than I ate in. When she forced me to track my spending, I was horrified by how much money I was dropping on restaurant meals. I don’t even want to think about how many extra calories and grams of fat I was taking in. I admit that it’s been tough to cut back -- especially for my husband who is clueless in the kitchen. But we have been able to save a lot more money, which we’re putting towards buying a new stainless steel gas range. And those few stubborn pounds that mysteriously crept in about a year ago? They’ve disappeared. While I can’t speak for my husband, I’m enjoying teaching him how to cook. The lessons will, no doubt, come in handy when we start a family.