Many can’t muster the appetite to even try restaurant dining while juggling health goals. Cooking at home is easier. Right?
Nah. Don’t hole up at home eating celery sticks. There are plenty of tricks to help you navigate restaurant menus and stick with a healthy eating plan.
Joan Milton, dietitian with the Greater Spokane Dietetics Association, says the biggest mistake diners make when dining out is eating their whole meal.
Restaurant portions are bigger and the food is higher in calories than home-cooked meals – a double whammy for calorie counters. Split an entrée with someone and add a salad or steamed vegetables to the plate.
Or, save half your entrée for lunch or dinner the next day, Milton says.
“What I do, if I’m dining out, is I get that to-go box at the start,” she says. That way she can put half her meal in the container when it arrives and it’s out of sight. That way she’s not tempted to eat everything on her plate – or just keep munching while she lingers over conversation with a friend.
Milton says it’s also important to ask the servers how the food is prepared. It will help you navigate the gantlet of calories, added fats and sodium and can help let restaurants know just how many people are trying to stay healthy while they eat out.
“I just think it’s important for all of us that restaurants hear people asking those questions,” Milton says.
It might help chefs and restaurant owners consider more healthy entrees – or at least help servers learn which of the menu items have a better nutritional profile.
Planning ahead is essential when dining out. Many national restaurant chains have started including nutrition information on their menus and a lot of it is easily found online. But smaller, local restaurants have an idea whether their dishes are relatively virtuous, or sinfully indulgent.
The Greater Spokane Dietetics Association offers to analyze a couple of menu items for the restaurants that participate in their Dine Out to Feed Spokane fundraiser each year. That’s how owner Jane Edwards at Picabu Bistro found out their hummus plate has a pretty good nutritional profile. Just ask the server for help.
You’re not alone. According to research recently released by the National Restaurant Association, 71 percent of adults they surveyed say they are trying to eat healthier than they did two years ago. That’s a lofty goal, since Americans are also eating out now more than ever before. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that we’re inching toward eating 50 percent of our meals away from home. That’s up from 16 percent of meals eaten away from home in 1977 and 27 percent in 1995, according to USDA research.
Watch out for meals that sound healthy, Milton suggests. Entrée salads may seem like a reasonable substitute for a burger and fries, but high-calorie toppings – cheese, croutons, meats and nuts – along with heavy salad dressings can easily send the nutritionals sky high.
Same goes for grilled chicken sandwiches and other entrees that sound innocent enough.
Authors David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding found some surprising statistics in the “Eat This, Not That” Restaurant Survival Guide (Rodale Books, 2010). For example, Applebee’s Steak and Grilled Shrimp weighs in at 390 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat and 1,800 milligram sodium, while the chain’s Grilled Shrimp and Spinach Salad packs a hefty 1,040 calories, 11 grams saturated fat and 2,380 milligrams sodium.
At Red Robin, Zinczenko found that the Natural Burger, with guacamole, has 613 calories, 27 grams of fat and 914 milligrams sodium, while the California Chicken Burger tallies 946 calories, 57 grams fat and 2,002 milligrams sodium. (I should mention here that those calorie counts don’t include the Bottomless Steak Fries.)
For the record, Milton says sodium is probably the trickiest thing to navigate at restaurants, especially now that the new government guidelines for sodium recommended that adults get no more than 1,500 milligrams each day. Diners can easily blow that in a single restaurant meal.
Before you throw up your hands in frustration, dietitians want you to know this: Every little bit counts.
Here are more tips from Milton, the American Dietetics Association and others to keep you on track:
• Eat at regular times. Don’t try to save up calories by forgoing a meal before you go to a restaurant. Eat a small, low-calorie meal at the time you would normally dine. Otherwise you’ll be defenseless when the sights and smells of the restaurant meet you.
• Watch out for entrees that are described as batter-fried, pan-fried, buttered, creamed, crispy or breaded.
• Look for words that can clue you in to healthier options: baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, or steamed. Be sure to ask what food is poached
• Order a lunch or child-size portion.
• Have an appetizer instead of a main course. Milton suggests caution here. Just make sure the appetizer portion is reasonable. Some are designed to serve quite a few people and wouldn’t result in calorie savings.
• Don’t feel bad about special requests; just keep them as simple as possible. For example, asking for a baked potato or side salad in place of french fries; skipping the mayonnaise or bacon on a sandwich and requesting less oil for cooking or sauces on the side are common requests.
• Ask your server not to bring the bread or chips until the meal is served. You know you’re going to eat it if you don’t.
• Limit alcohol. No more than one drink for women and two for men, according to government guidelines. Alcohol tends to increase your appetite and provides calories without any nutrients.
• Watch other drinks, too. That bottomless strawberry lemonade could set you back 800 to 1,000 calories before your entrée even arrives.
• Don’t order three (or four or five) courses. Milton says she likes to eat a healthy meal at home and then treat herself to a wonderful dessert at a nice restaurant. Share it with someone. Or, don’t. “We can’t do everything right, all the time,” she says.
• Pile sandwiches and other entrees high with vegetables. Jack up the nutrition for any kind of sandwich with spinach, lettuce, tomato, peppers or other vegetables.
• Choose lean beef, ham, turkey or chicken on whole grain bread when ordering sandwiches. Ask for mustard, ketchup, salsa or low-fat spreads.
• Enjoy ethnic foods such as Chinese stir fry, vegetable-stuffed pita, broth-based pho or Mexican fajitas. Go easy on the sour cream, cheese and guacamole.
• Eat your lower-calorie food first. Soup or salad is a good choice. Follow up with a light main course.
• Ask for sauces, dressings and toppings to be served “on the side.” That way you can control how much you eat.
• Pass up all-you-can-eat specials, buffets and unlimited salad bars. Research shows that diners presented with more options, eat more.
• If you do choose the buffet, fill up on salads and vegetables first. Take no more than two trips and use the small plate.
• Top pizza with loads of vegetables. Go for the thin crust option. Ask for half the cheese. If you add meat, choose lean ham, Canadian bacon, chicken or shrimp.
• Look for a sandwich wrap in a soft tortilla. Fillings such as rice mixed with seafood, chicken, or grilled vegetables are usually lower in fat and calories.
• Be size-wise about muffins, bagels, croissants and biscuits. A jumbo muffin has more than twice the fat and calories of the regular size.
There are many more tips online at www.usda.gov. Type “Healthy Restaurant Eating” in the search box in the upper left. The search results include a handy interactive fast food menu created by Washington State University Extension and a quiz to help you rate your restaurant diet from the Nutrition Action Health Letter, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.