Once You See It, You Can’t Unsee It: A Case for Calories on Menus

My favorite Starbucks latte has 260 calories.  The Asian sesame chicken salad, which seems like a healthy option at the sandwich place that’s such an easy lunch stop, has 420 calories. And the fries I love to splurge on with my kids? A small fries rings in at 300 calories. And a quick bagel from the drive-through? I can’t even utter the number aloud.

Teen girl looking at a menu in a restaurant

Once I saw those numbers, I couldn’t unsee them.

I want to believe that knowing the calorie counts on my favorite meals leads me to be more thoughtful about choosing them from the restaurant menu — or did once the initial shock wore off.

But research shows that people actually ignore the calories printed on menus.

Why is this?

1. Calorie counts on menus are confusing

One simple reason why restaurant patrons, even those who intend to eat healthy, may overlook nutritional information on menus is this: calories are confusing.

Many of us don’t know how many calories we should consume per day, or how to put these numbers next to a chicken panini or raspberry iced tea into perspective. Even more confusing is how many calories our kids should have daily.

2. We tune out numbers

It’s startling that one cup of fancy morning coffee could contain enough calories for one whole meal. And that one family meal at a chain restaurant could exceed the calories all of you require for an entire day.

Since most people look past the numbers, it’s helpful to change how we envision those calories adding up. In my experience as a wellness coach, it helps the whole family to see nutritional information in order to really understand it. Want kids to understand why soda is off-limits? Watch their eyes widen when they scoop out 15 full teaspoons of sugar into a glass to show how unhealthy a can of orange pop is.

I’ve worked with kids long enough to know — just as you parents do! — that kids will ask for an orange soda again.  But a reminder of the sugar exercise will back up healthier choices, like making this a once-in-a-while treat rather than a daily drink.

Adults can visualize how all those calories in a meal on the menu eat up our daily totals by using a food journal or app to tally what has been consumed and how many calories remain for the day.

3. We are worried about what to tell our kids

We may look away from those tiny numbers next to our favorite foods on menus in part because we are just not sure how to make sense of it for our children. We can help our kids understand the bigger picture and make this nutritional information work for the whole family by knowing ourselves that kids usually need 1600 – 1800 calories to grow and develop healthfully.

But here’s the most important part of parents knowing that number: It is not a good idea to encourage children and teens to count calories. Rather, we want to encourage them to see the numbers and use them to help make healthier choices when eating out.  Practice noticing the numbers and then identifying what better picks might be.

4. We don’t know what to do with the numbers

First, make it a habit to seek out nutritional information when you eat out. If the calorie count is not posted on the menu, ask for it or look it up online ahead of time. A simple search of the name of the restaurant chain plus the term “nutritional information” will usually lead you right to it.

Learning to navigate the numbers and every restaurant menu we open will empower us — and our kids — to make healthier choices at each meal. Think how good that will feel, from the moment we order to long after we leave the booth or drive-thru!

Thea Runyan MPH

Thea Runyan, MPH is the Lead Behavior Coach for the Pediatric Weight Control Clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital and cofounder of Kurbo Health, the first mobile, scalable weight management solution for kids, teens, and families. To learn more about Kurbo, please visit Kurbo.com.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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