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A new study found that many parents say their kids have been eating fast food more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic. But health experts say there are alternatives to eating out that are fast, easy, and nutritious. mixetto/Getty Images
  • According to a new poll, 1 in 5 parents reported feeding their children fast food more often than they did prior to the pandemic.
  • Parents of children with overweight reported eating out at least twice a week.
  • Reasons given included being too busy or too stressed.
  • However, experts say a healthy meal at home does not have to be complicated or time-consuming.
  • They suggest that working on healthy behaviors rather than dieting is the best approach for kids.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have found opportunities for healthier eating and more physical activity.

However, for others, it has meant increased stress and less movement as homes shifted to being both school and workplace.

This has also made it more difficult for parents to find the time or energy to always prepare nutritious meals at home.

According to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, about 1 in 5 parents reported that their kids had started to eat fast food more often than prior to the pandemic.

The poll, which included responses from 2,019 parents of children aged 3 to 18, further reported that about 1 in 6 parents said that their child eats fast food at least twice a week.

Parents who reported that their children with overweight were about twice as likely to also say that their children ate fast food twice a week, compared with parents who reported that their child was a healthy weight for their age and height.

When asked why they weren’t able to prepare meals at home, about 40 percent of parents said that they were simply too busy.

About a fifth of parents reported feeling too stressed.

These barriers to healthy eating were reported most often among those families with children with overweight.

Nutritional experts say, however, that putting together a healthy meal at home doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. It doesn’t necessarily even have to involve cooking.

Dr. Mary-Jon Ludy, chair of the department of public and allied health in the Bowling Green State University College of Health and Human Services and associate professor of food and nutrition, suggests using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as the starting point for planning your meals.

“To summarize, half our plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables, half our grains should be whole, proteins should be lean, dairy should be low fat, and variety is encouraged,” said Ludy.

Simple meal suggestions that Ludy offered included:

  • For breakfast, plain, low fat yogurt topped with fresh or frozen fruit, chopped nuts, and whole grain granola.
  • For lunch, a nut butter sandwich on whole grain bread filled with sliced apples or bananas, along with baby carrots or cucumbers on the side, and a low fat milk to drink.
  • For dinner, whole wheat tortillas with black beans or shredded chicken, brown rice, mashed avocado, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and shredded cheese.
  • For a snack, hummus with sliced peppers or whole grain crackers.

“These are great options,” said Ludy, “because they require minimal preparation time, are balanced in healthy carbohydrates and lean proteins, provide choices with fillings/add-ins, and are easy enough to involve kids in preparation.”

Therese S. Waterhous, PhD, RDN, CEDRD-S, an eating disorder expert in private practice in Corvallis, Oregon, said the best practice for weight loss, especially with children, is to take a non-diet approach. Diets do not work, she explained, and most people gain back any weight lost.

“Instead of dieting, it’s good to choose health-enhancing behaviors and work on those,” she said.

She said that, when it comes to eating, no foods should be off-limits, but do focus on optimizing health so that children grow and develop to their potential.

She suggested that it is “crucial” to not make young children or teens feel badly about their bodies. This leads to stress and, in some cases, eating disorders.

“Weight stigma is very harmful to kids and it is rampant in our society,” said Waterhous. “Rather than focus on the weight, it is best to focus on those health behaviors.”

Instead of demonizing certain foods, focus on getting enough fuel, enough protein, enough vitamins and minerals, she said.

Specifically, she said, most young people do not get enough produce, which provides important nutrients and fiber. She suggests including two to three servings of vegetables or fruit at every meal. One serving is about 1/2 cup or one medium piece of fruit, she added.

Even with the best of intentions, however, there may still be times when a quick meal at a restaurant is the option that best works with your busy schedule.

Ludy offers the following tips for making the best choices when you do eat out:

  • Add veggies whenever you can. For example, request lettuce and tomatoes on sandwiches, peppers and onions on burritos, or mushrooms and olives on pizza.
  • Choose drinks like water, 100 percent fruit juice, or plain low fat milk instead of sodas or sweet tea.
  • Opt for sides like apples slices or carrot sticks instead of chips or fries.
  • Order small or child-sized portions.
  • Try to make fast food only an occasional occurrence.
  • Model healthy eating for your children by making healthy choices for yourself.

Waterhous further suggests that you can get a sandwich or a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store as the basis for your meal. Then, add simple options like fruit salad, a tossed salad, or vegetables at home to complete your meal.

To add some starch with your chicken, you could have rice, mashed potatoes, or a slice of bread, she said. You can even cook your side dishes ahead of time and reheat for dinner.