Healthy Dining Out Tips

My sister-in-law Shannon requested that I do a post on tips for making healthy choices when we eat out.  She just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., and all the restaurants she visited there provided the caloric content of each item on their menus.  I think a lot of cities are starting to enforce this as a rule.  Shannon said seeing those numbers really affected the way she ordered and she was really surprised to see how many calories were in entrées that seemed very light by their menu descriptions.

I think this is a great idea for a post considering how often we eat out, and because that’s usually the time when we’re most tempted to blow it!

I’ve always loved going out to eat, but when I used to attend Weight Watcher meetings, they would give us dining out tips that took all the pleasure out of the whole experience in my opinion.  They instructed us to order the most boring salad on the menu and ask for no butter or oil and get the fat-free dressing on the side.  Oh, and don’t forget to order the Diet Coke!  Why would I pay $15 for a plain salad with fat-free dressing when I could make that at home for 3 bucks?

Isn’t the whole point of eating out to enjoy good food and company in a nice atmosphere?  The way I see it, dining out should be fun, and a time to treat ourselves to something we wouldn’t usually make on our own.

Order this for dinner while everyone else enjoys steak? I think I'd rather stay home!

Disclaimer: I do think it’s best to try to eat at home the majority of the time.  As a whole, our culture goes out to eat way too much, and as a result we’re consuming high quantities of poor quality of food.  But there are so many times when eating out just can’t be avoided, such as vacations or travel for work.  In the near future, I’ll do another post on making healthy choices on the road.   Of course, I think we should avoid places like fast food joints and buffets whenever possible due to the lower quality of food, and we shouldn’t use dining out as an excuse to eat ourselves into oblivion.

Ok, now that I’ve said that, here are the Nutritionista’s tips for eating smart in a restaurant without sacrificing the flavor or the experience.

  • Plan Ahead! If you know you’re going out to eat in the evening, think about what you’re going to want to order.  This way you have the whole day to determine what you want, rather than making a decision on the spot.  Many restaurants post their menus online, and even include the nutritional information on each entrée so you can make the best choice.  If you’re thinking you’ll want to splurge on some wine or a heavier main course, plan your day accordingly by eating a little lighter.   By the time you get to the restaurant, you’ll feel really good about what you order.
  • Don’t show up starving! I’ve found that if I show up to a restaurant ready to chew someone’s arm off, I’m more likely to put less thought into what I order and eat more than I need.   There’s nothing worse than leaving a restaurant feeling completely stuffed and remorseful about what you ate.  Before you head to the restaurant, drink some water and maybe even a light snack, such as a piece of fruit or some string cheese.  If you’re stomach isn’t growling at you, you’ll be able to focus in on making the best food choices and you’ll enjoy the experience of dining out so much more.
  • Decide whether the appetizer is worth it. If you’re at a nice restaurant, do you really want to waste any stomach space on the mediocre white bread that comes before the meal?  Heck no!  Save your appetite for the dish you’re paying for!  If you’re like me and you can’t resist the chips and salsa at the Mexican restaurant, decide in advance how many chips you’re going to allow yourself.  Sometimes it helps me if I decide to wait on eating chips until my entrée comes so that I resist the mindless snacking.  Then I’m truly hungry when my meal arrives and can enjoy it more fully.

Is this what you got all dressed up for? I don't think so!

  • Be assertive with your server! Don’t forget that you are a paying customer and you have a right to know what you’re eating.  You can politely ask about how dishes are prepared and request changes or substitutions.  If you see a dish that looks great, but it’s fried, ask if it could be prepared another way.  Request to have dressings and other sauces on the side.  Find out what kind of oils they use in their cooking.  It can’t hurt to ask and it will help you make a more informed decision!
  • Learn to share. Many restaurant portions are more than twice the amount of what we really need, so see if anyone in your party would want to split an entrée.   You’ll save money and have more room for dessert!  If nobody wants to share (or you’re like me and your husband never wants to order the same thing as you), order something that would make a good lunch for the following day and take half of it to go.
  • Remember it’s all in the preparation! Foods served fried, au gratin, crispy, scalloped, pan-fried, sautéed, creamed or stuffed are more likely to be cooked in unhealthy oils and be higher in calories.  Instead, look for steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached or roasted foods.
  • Be selective at salad bars. Choose fresh greens, raw vegetables, fresh fruits and beans.  Avoid heavy dressings such as ranch or blue cheese, pasta salads and fruit salads with whipped cream.
  • Evaluate side items. French fries are not a suitable vegetable!  Ask for a side salad or steamed veggies over fries, onion rings or hush puppies.  Or at least try to limit your portions of these foods (This is where splitting an entrée can come in handy.)

Since we can never be 100% sure of what we’re eating in a restaurant, and there are those times when we just want to go all out and celebrate, it’s all the more important that we eat well at home to make up for the occasions when we eat out.  Keep your house stocked with fresh, healthy meals and snacks, and make dining out be the exception to the rule!  That will also cut down on some of the post-dining-out guilt!

Here are a couple of Web sites that give nutritional information for the menu items of some of the most popular restaurant chains:  Food Nutritional Information Database and Restaurant Nutritional Information.  There are also some phone applications that provide nutritional information for many restaurants.

Another little tip:  If you’re gluten-free, both P.F. Chang’s and Outback Steakhouse have gluten-free menus.

Now that I’ve shared my tips, share yours with me!  What do you do to stay on track when dining out?  Are there any other resources you can point us to?

Bon Apétit!

2 Comments

Filed under Healthy Tips, Rants and Cravings

2 responses to “Healthy Dining Out Tips

  1. Great tips. No, I’m not going to put on my cute outfit to waste it on the bread basket or a side of fries. 🙂 Just posted a link to this and you on Twitter.

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