Eating Well When Eating Out

In my nutrition practice, I find that many people who are watching their weight or following special diets are also concerned about eating out and may even avoid restaurants due to their uncertainty about how to eat healthy when they eat out. I try to reassure them that dining out can be pleasant, satisfying, and most importantly, healthy – as long as they follow certain guidelines.

Over the years, restaurants have become much more accommodating. ‘Lite’ menus and salad bars abound. It is best to patronize restaurants where healthier alternatives are offered and food can be prepared to meet your specifications. Fats, salts, and sweets may then be controlled at your request. Avoid the mistake of skipping a meal before eating out; this way you will not arrive at the restaurant famished. If possible, cut your hunger pangs with a glass of tomato juice, a piece of fruit, a bowl of soup, a cup of tea, or a glass of water approximately thirty minutes in advance.

I advise beginning a restaurant meal with a high-fiber food. Good choices are melon, grapefruit, green salad, whole grain bread, or a whole grain roll. Request that white bread, butter, margarine, chips, salsa, and other spreads be removed from the table. Select saltines, flatbreads, rye crisps, bread sticks, or whole wheat buns rather than biscuits, croissants, and muffins. When ordering salad, ask that toppings or dressings be served on the side, and then use them sparingly, as salad dressings can add up to 500 calories per serving. Also, stay away from salads prepared with mayonnaise; instead, squeeze fresh lemon over salads as an all-purpose flavor enhancer. As for soup, try to choose clear broths or those with vegetables or chicken, and avoid creamy varieties.

Study the menu carefully. If you do not see an appropriate choice, ask to have something prepared to meet your specifications. Be assertive and ask questions when uncertain about how foods are prepared. When your order arrives at the table, make sure that selections have been fixed to your request. If not, have your waiter bring you something else that is more appropriate. Know your terms: “breaded,” “batter-dipped,” and “tempura” all mean fried; “flaky,” “puffed,” “crispy,” “escalloped,” “au gratin,” and “parmigiana” all imply added fat.

Choose baked, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, or steamed dishes, and avoid fried foods. For example, a plain baked potato is typically 90 calories, whereas a serving of French fries contains as much as 500 calories. Lean protein (fish, chicken, or white meat turkey) or vegetarian dishes are healthy choices. Order sauces or gravies on the side, and use them sparingly. Thick meat gravy may contain as much as 150 calories per tablespoon.

In order to cut down on portion size, choose an appetizer as a main course, order a la carte, share food with someone else, or have the waiter take half of your main dish back to put in a “doggie bag.” Avoid alcoholic and sweetened beverages, which can stimulate the appetite; select sparkling water with lemon or lime instead. Enjoy the meal and make it last. Chew slowly, putting the utensil down between mouthfuls. Finally, select a light dessert, such as fresh fruit, compote, or sherbet -- and share it!