October 01, 2018

Dining out well

Making healthy restaurant choices

Whether for a convenience or a treat, dining out is a common — and growing — part of Western culture. From portion size to troublesome ingredients, there are potential downsides to regularly dining at restaurants. But that doesn't mean you need to avoid them completely. Making a few sensible adjustments in how you eat out can help you maintain a healthy diet even outside of your home.

Restaurant pitfalls

Some foods at restaurants are more obviously challenging than others. Plates piled high at a buffet or baskets of greasy french fries — it's clear these aren't the wisest choices. But some diet busters are less obvious.

In addition to giant portions, restaurant fare is notorious for ingredients and preparation methods — think lots and lots of butter — that drive up the calories, fat and sodium. In fact, evidence shows that an average meal at an independent or small-chain restaurant contains over 1,300 calories — almost two-thirds of what could be considered a typical 2,000 calorie diet.

Industry changes

As consumers are becoming more health conscious, the food industry is starting to make changes. As of 2018, restaurants that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations are required to list calorie information for standard menu items. These businesses must also be able to provide, on request, a nutritional breakdown of menu items, including the fat, sodium, sugar, cholesterol and carbohydrate content. Many vending machines also will list the calorie content of available foods.

Tips for healthy dining

To ensure your dining out experience is both enjoyable and healthy:

  • Plan ahead — If you know you'll be going to a restaurant, have lighter meals for the rest of that day. If you have already chosen a restaurant, look for menus online or in a directory so that you can plan ahead for healthy choices rather than deciding what sounds good on an empty stomach.
  • Don't be afraid to ask — Don't hesitate to ask menu questions and make special requests to meet your nutritional needs.
  • Avoid most appetizers — They are often fried and tend to be a source of hidden calories. If you do have an appetizer, order vegetables, fruit, or fish prepared without oils or butter. If a bread basket is included, ask that it be brought out with the meal rather than before so that you don't overindulge.
  • Order deliberately — Look for a balanced meal with healthy components such as lean meats or fish, vegetables, and whole grains. Many restaurant menus denote items that are considered healthier options.
  • Eat your sides first— Order vegetables or fruit as your sides and eat those foods first. By filling up on sides, you may eat less of your entree, which likely is higher in calories.
  • Pay attention to your plate — Plates used at restaurants are often larger than what you'd use at home, allowing for supersized portions. Eat only as much as would fit on an average-sized plate.
  • Take some to go — Eat slowly, and as soon as you start to feel full, put the rest of your meal into a takeout box to eat at a different mealtime. Or ask that half your meal be boxed up before it even arrives at the table.
Instead of ordering Order
Fried, breaded or battered food Grilled, baked, broiled without butter, roasted, steamed, poached
French fries, onion rings or other fried side dishes Steamed vegetables, salad in vinaigrette dressing, fresh fruit
Alfredo or other creamy sauces Tomato-based or wine-based sauces
Creamy salad dressings Vinegar and oil dressings
Creamy soups Tomato or other vegetable-based soups or clear broth with vegetables
Mayonnaise, butter, sour cream, salt or tartar sauce Mustard, lemon or lime juice, herbs and spices, pepper, salsa
Sweetened beverages Water with a lemon slice, sparkling water, low-fat or skim milk, unsweetened tea or coffee
A mixed alcoholic drink Wine (3-5 ounces), light beer (12 ounces)
Cake, pie, cheesecake or ice cream Sherbet or sorbet, fruit, small sugar cookie, small piece of angel food cake