Going out for dinner tends to be an outing the whole family can get excited about. A meal out means there will be no dishes to clean, and everyone gets to choose what they want to eat. And eating out at restaurants is an important experience for young children. It’s an opportunity to expose your children to new foods, practice their good manners and enjoy an activity together.

But each time you and your family head to a favorite restaurant, do you feel like the kids’ options are limited, and meals end up being plates full of deep fried... well, everything? Thankfully, it’s possible (and even simple!) to keep your kids in the habit of eating well without sacrificing the delightful experience of dining out. Here are five tips for doing just that:

1. Check out the menu beforehand.

These days, nearly every restaurant has a copy of their menu available on their website or social media. Do a little research before you head to the restaurant to ensure you and your family will have choices when you get there.

If you don’t see a kids’ menu online, call ahead to make sure children are welcome. Not all restaurants are kid friendly, and it will be a more enjoyable experience for all involved if you choose an establishment that’s accustomed to and equipped for young diners.

This doesn’t mean you have to forego your cherished restaurants from your pre-parenthood days entirely, but you might have to wait until your child is a little older before you share your favorite spots with them.

2. Bring some restaurant reinforcements.

“Reinforcements” can mean multiple things when it comes to eating out with your kids. In this case, we mean extra snacks, entertainment and tableware.

If you know your child is likely to get hungry while waiting for their meal, you can pack some healthy snacks to prevent a “hangry” tantrum. Or you can order some healthy appetizers if the restaurant offers them. That way, your child can get their servings of fruits and vegetables in before the meal.

You can also bring toys, coloring books, games and electronics to occupy your kids while you wait, but just make sure that whatever you bring won’t be too disruptive to other restaurant-goers.

While restaurants may advertise a kids’ menu, they may not have appropriately sized silverware or cups to go along with it. Depending on your child’s age, you can choose to bring some cutlery from home, just in case.

3. Ask for substitutions.

Making just a few simple substitutions can transform your child’s meal into something that is both healthy and enjoyable for them. Here are a few substitutions in each component of their meal to consider:

  • Entree: Adding veggies to your child’s entree is a great way to get those recommended daily servings in. You can ask for lettuce and tomato on their burger, or request broccoli in their mac and cheese. And when you’re out for pizza (or ordering delivery in), load it up with green and red peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, pineapple, spinach or other fruit and veggie-based toppings.
  • Protein: When it comes to proteins, chicken is often a kid favorite. With that in mind, remember that ordering grilled chicken is usually a better option than fried.
  • Side dish: Most restaurants offer a choice of different sides with kids’ meals. If the option is available, choose fruits and veggies. They provide lots of good nutrition and help fill kids up.
  • Drink: Choose milk or water over soda or juice whenever you can. There’s a lot of extra sugar in soda and juice that can give them too much energy (and empty calories). Milk, on the other hand, is packed with nutrients that help your child grow strong, and water is the best way to keep them hydrated.

It often seems like the adult menu has heathier choices. However, the kids’ menu is actually a better option because the portion sizes are smaller. The price is usually lower, too! These days, many restaurants offer healthier kid-friendly options for sides and drinks. And some are even making these better options the default.

As your child grows, so will their tastes. Offer them samples of your restaurant meals to encourage their developing palate.

5. Practice moderation.

If you don’t eat out often, it’s perfectly fine to let your kids have things like chicken strips and fries. It makes restaurant trips a special treat, especially when those foods aren’t the norm at home. When you do the cooking, make most of your meals full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lean protein and healthy fats.

In doing so, still try to emphasize to your kids that there aren’t inherently “bad foods.” Rather, there are just some foods you eat more often, like fruits and veggies, and some you eat less often, like fries and hamburgers.

As your child grows, you can gently guide them toward making their own healthy choices at restaurants – and avoid being too restrictive. The important thing is that they eat food, and enough of it, to nourish their growing bodies. If, for one particular meal out, that food is french fries and a hamburger, that’s okay.

Other ways to set your child up for success at restaurants

What your child eats is just one part of the restaurant experience. There is also the question of when and how much. Plus, each time you take them to a restaurant is a chance to develop their dining etiquette.

Eat earlier: Arriving at a notoriously busy restaurant before the typical dinner rush makes it more likely that you won’t have to wait as long for your food. Doing so can prevent any potential antsy outbursts.

Don’t force them to eat: You can encourage your child to eat, but if they say they’re full, listen to them. Forcing your child to eat when they’re not hungry can cause them to ignore the bodily cues that signal they’re full. They may also start to associate certain foods with negative experiences.

Set a good example: Your child learns an astounding amount simply from watching you. When eating out at restaurants, set the best example you can for them by being kind, considerate and polite. Teach them to be respectful and courteous to waitstaff.

When the food comes, openly enjoy your meal (especially your fruits and vegetables) and they just might follow suit.

Find even more tips to get your family eating better at powerup4kids.org.