Going to a restaurant used to be an infrequent event to celebrate a special occasion. As a result, we often allowed ourselves to splurge on foods we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy – bread, chips, an appetizer, an oversized entrée, a drink or two, and even dessert. Today, Americans eat out on average 5 times a week and spend 49 cents of every food dollar in restaurants and cafes. Meals outside the home are no longer an exception, and it seems harder than ever to participate in healthy dining out.
Unfortunately for most of us, we’ve never changed our mindset and continue to think of these everyday occurrences as ‘special occasions,’ indulging in more than we would typically eat if we were making our own breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Consequently, we’re eating significantly more calories than we need and over-consuming foods that are often high in fat, calories, sugar, and sodium – a disaster for women in their prime whose metabolism is slowing and whose risk of chronic disease and need for nutrients are increasing.
I understand that life is busy, and dining out is convenient, fun, and often necessary. But to lose weight, maintain your weight, or simply eat more healthfully, you need to order with care when you step inside a restaurant. Here are my 10 tips to enjoy healthy dining out and keep that waistline in check.
Would you eat bread, an appetizer, and a caloric dessert at home? Put a heap of cheese, full-fat dressing, and croutons on your salad? Have an alcoholic drink or two? Fill your plate full of pasta and cream sauce or an oversized steak and potato? Remember, a dinner reservation is not a license to overindulge.
When you go out to eat, make the same healthy decisions you’d make at home and try not to let the excitement of a new dish make you overeat. If you typically don’t have bread on the table before meals or a loaded salad, then skip it at the restaurant as well. Keep the same habits you’d have at home at the restaurant, and you’ll thank yourself later.
Many restaurants have nutritional information online. Use their websites to make better choices for healthy dining out experience. Doing so will save hundreds of calories and avoid excessive amounts of salt, unhealthy fats, and carbohydrates. For example, most deli/cafe sandwiches and wraps contain 600-800 calories. A chicken Caesar salad often contains 800 calories. Vegetarian dishes at Asian restaurants can be the most caloric on the menu, and soups often contain an entire day’s worth of sodium.
If you arrive at the restaurant with a plan of action already prepared, you won’t fret over what to order and fall victim to the most indulgent item on the menu. Plus, when you get caught up with what everyone else is ordering, it’s hard to stick to your guns and get the healthy option. Make a decision before you even leave the house and stick to it.
Bread and dessert are empty calories made from refined carbs that will negatively impact your health and weight. This is true no matter where you get the meal or what time of day you eat it, and it’s why so many diet plans are built around the concept of eating fewer empty carbohydrates and starches.
Instead, opt for a salad full of nutrient-dense and fiber-rich vegetables. Avoid the cheese, croutons, sugared nuts, and dried fruit, and pile on the veggies.
Fish, chicken, or turkey that is broiled, grilled, poached, or baked is far healthier and contains fewer calories and unhealthy fat than ones that have been fried or are served with creamy, buttery, or heavy sauces. You already know this; it isn’t news. When you look at the menu and see the chicken fried steak, breaded chicken tenders, or fried fish – skip it – especially when it’s covered in gravy. Because let’s face it, once you make the decision to eat the unhealthy protein, it’s hard not to get it with fries or mashed potatoes on the side, and then it becomes a calorie overload. Keep it simple.
Some nights just call for a helping of red meat, especially if you’ve chosen to visit a local steakhouse. But, despite everything we’ve heard about red meat in our lifetimes, you can make a healthier decision when you order it for dinner. For example, if you’re looking to have steak for your meal, consider sirloin or flank steaks because they have less fat than porterhouse and prime rib cuts.
If you’ve decided you’d like pork for your entree, consider ordering pork tenderloin because it’s better than pork chops when it comes to calories and healthy fats. If you want to go another direction, order lamb loin chops instead of a roast because they’re a healthier option.
Whichever option you go for, remember to limit servings to 4-6 ounces once a week to attain better overall health.
Restaurant meals and deli sandwiches/baked goods are notoriously oversized. A typical pasta dish contains 6 servings of grains – a whopping 1200 calories before the sauce. Meat portions are often more than 8 ounces. Large bagels are equivalent to 4 pieces of bread, and desserts often contain as many calories as your entrée. What can you do? For a more healthy dining out experience, share a meal with someone or eat only half and take the remainder home for the next day. Order a salad and a healthy appetizer (shrimp cocktail is a great choice) instead of an entrée and, if you order a dessert, share it with the table.
Dressings, sauces, and gravies are often calorie-dense and loaded with sugar, fat, and sodium. It’s not uncommon for a salad to be served drenched in dressing, and once it’s on there, it’s almost impossible to get off (without sacrificing part of the dish). If you control how much you consume, you’ll be satisfied with far smaller amounts than what the restaurant will serve you. You can also try dipping your fork in the sauce before getting a bite so it doesn’t end up covered in calories before it makes it to your mouth. This method prevents you from overindulging and eating all of the sauce you’re served, negating the practice or ordering it on the side altogether.
Forgo the starch (rice, potato, polenta, chips, fries, or pasta) and double up on the veggies or a salad instead. Again, this tip seems like a no-brainer, but it’s good to remember it and drive it home in your mind before you go out to eat. Starches offer little to no nutritional content and often come fried or covered in sauces and salts. While they’re delicious, they’re also a very unhealthy addition to your meal. Salads can satiate your cravings if you load them up with veggies and add a flavorful dressing, and if you can opt for extra vegetables with your meal, you’ll be surprised how full (and satisfied) you feel when you finish.
Alcoholic and sugary drinks, including soda and sweetened coffee and tea, are just add-on calories. Avoid these liquid calories and quench your thirst with a refreshing glass of water. Add a slice of lemon, lime, or cucumber to keep it interesting. If you do have a cocktail, limit it to one 5 ounce glass of wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor. Avoid specialty drinks and fruity cocktails, which can contain a meal’s worth of calories and loads of sugar. An added benefit? You’ll feel better physically and sharper mentally the next day if you drink water instead of alcohol, and you’ll sleep better if you skip the added sugar.
It takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that you’re full. If you eat too quickly, you’ll consume more calories than you need to be satisfied. While waiting for your food to arrive, sip on some water, so you don’t feel so hungry when your meal is served. Also, sometimes we’ll skip a meal during the day to ‘save calories’ for the meal out. Don’t do this because it tends to be counterproductive. Skipping a meal makes us ravenous and by the time our food comes, we scarf it down, eating until we’re too full but it’s too late to realize it. Instead, follow your normal eating routine and when you get to the restaurant, take your time and enjoy your meal.
If you follow these 10 tips for healthy dining out, you’ll find you can enjoy the restaurant experience without adding on the pounds and feeling guilty afterward!
This article is for informational purposes only, is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice.