Eating out used to be an excuse to indulge to excess. For us, sadly, we paid the price with regrets and undermined our health to an extent beyond our understanding at the time. We dined out multiple times a week; now it is just an occasional treat. The meals we prepare at home are so much healthier that we do not feel like we are depriving ourselves. If for you it’s a matter of convenience, you can still make smarter and wiser choices when you dine out.
Over the last few years we’ve learned how to navigate the challenges that dining out presents to those who want to eat healthy. It’s nice to know we can occasionally eat out with friends and family. We share our lessons learned with you.
Scout out your options.
- Most restaurants post their menu online. Review it prior to your visit to see if they can prepare a healthy meal; if not, find an alternative place to eat.
- Scour the menu. Sometimes what you’re looking for may be listed under the side dishes or appetizers.
- Call ahead to see if your needs can be accommodated; examples might be no salt, no oil, no gluten or no dairy. Most restaurants are used to special requests, so don’t be afraid to ask. It’s rare that the kitchen won’t accommodate you.
- Look for places that offer salads or large salad bars as options.
- If dining by yourselves, ask to see a menu first before being seated. This way you can always back out if you don’t see anything you can eat.
Investigate the menu.
- Fried foods are horrible for your health for many reasons. Sorry. Get over it and move on.
- Avoid dishes described as breaded, pan-fried, dusted, crispy, dipped, scalloped, gratin, and alfredo. These dishes have a lot of fat and sodium. Instead, ask if the dish can be modified.
- Avoid dishes prepared with MSG, margarine or trans-fats. Ask if unsure.
- Avoid dishes served with creamy sauces or gravies. They are almost always flour based, fat-laden and heavily salted. An exception is Indian dishes with nut-based sauces.
- Based on the cuisine, see if avocado, tofu, beans and/or a piece of steamed, grilled or broiled chicken or fish can be added to your salad to make it more nutrient dense.
- Request a double serving of salad, if the size offered is too small. You can control the amount of dressing added to your salad by asking for olive oil and vinegar or fresh lemon on the side. Skip the croutons.
- As a rule, soups are highly salted. Don’t even bother to order them.
- It’s very difficult to find whole grain bread as an option, and most baked goods contain a high amount of hidden salt. Decline the breadbasket, or at least don’t have one set right in front of you. See if they’ll serve you raw, cut up veggies instead.
- Order steamed vegetables, preferable without butter, oil or salt. Season with pepper or a wedge of lemon. Preparation with olive oil is an acceptable alternative.
- Request an extra serving of veggies to replace the baked potato that’s usually offered. If you do eat baked potatoes, avoid the dairy toppings and the bacon bits.
- Drink water with the meal instead of sweetened drinks. Avoid sugary cocktails.
- If a fresh fruit plate is available as an appetizer or a fresh fruit bowl is available as a side dish, order that for dessert. Avoid toppings and syrups. Otherwise, split one dessert with your dinner partners or forgo dessert entirely.
Even following our own tips, it’s inevitable that when we eat out we put on some weight. Sometimes it just a ¼ of a pound, other times it can be up to two pounds. Since we weigh ourselves every morning we see the effects of the prior day’s meals. If in two days we’re back to our normal weight, we know that there must have been a lot of hidden sodium in the meal. If we don’t lose the weight right away, it’s most probably because there were hidden fats, sugars and starches in the meal.
We’ve learned that Chinese, Italian, Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine presents the greatest challenge in terms of trying to find menu items that don’t cause us to bloat up and put on the extra pounds. If we realized we went overboard dining out, we adjust our next day’s food choices accordingly. We get back on track with low calorie, nutrient dense food.
For as much as eating out is about the food, it’s also about the company you keep. Enjoy the camaraderie, and if you choose your food wisely you will have no regrets. And that will make it much more satisfying.
Happy Cow: The Healthy Eating Guide http://www.happycow.net - Website locator of vegan, vegetarian and healthy food establishments. Search by restaurant, city, state region or country. They also offer a mobile app.