While restaurants were once a rarity, they are now a common part of American eating habits. It is certainly nice to have the option to pop into a local eatery, place an order and be served within a matter of minutes. No prep, no cooking and best of all no clean-up!
But are you getting the proper nutrition when you eat out? That depends on what you order and how you request it be prepared.
It would seem clear that consuming food from a “sit-down” restaurant would be healthier than fast food. But that is not always the case. In recent years, restaurants have begun making nutritional information for their menus more readily available, but it can only helpful when we look for it and use it to make healthier choices.
Just as the food you cook at home can be made more or less healthy depending on how you prepare it – restaurant food preparations can make a significant difference in the nutritional value of the finished product that lands on your plate. By learning what to look for, what to ask for and what substitutions to make, just like you do at home, you can enjoy your favorite restaurants while maintaining your healthy eating habits.
The following are some tips compiled from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the USDA’s MyPlate.gov and the Cleveland Clinic to help us choose healthy options when eating out.
Set the Table for Success
- Choose the restaurant wisely. Check out the menu online before you go. This ensures you won’t be surprised by a menu that is 100% fried foods. Even restaurants that do not have their own website may have photos of their menus listed in local search apps and travel websites.
- Plan ahead when possible. If you know you will be eating one of your meals at a restaurant, try to consume less salt at your other meals to combat the higher-than-normal salt content of many restaurant foods. Also, eating a small snack, such as 1 oz of raw or lightly salted nuts, on the way will help you be less hungry, making it easier to say no to temptation. Try to make reservations or use call ahead seating when you can to reduce wait time. Constantly seeing and smelling the food while you wait can make you feel hungrier than you actually are.
Be Wary of Beverages & Appetizers
- Avoid high-sugar drinks such as sweet tea, soft drinks and many alcoholic beverages. Instead, choose water, unsweetened tea. If you really feel the need to indulge in a soft drink, select a diet version, only drink it with the meal (drink water until the food arrives)
- Skip the fried appetizers. In most cases, a restaurant meal is plenty of calories, so you shouldn’t need additional food before the meal. Also, pass on the pre-meal basket of bread or chips as these are generally empty calories with little or no nutritional value.
- Start with vegetables. If you want an appetizer, try a fresh salad skip toppings like bacon, croutons, or cheese. Keep the focus plant based with a variety of vegetables, seeds and nuts. Just go light on sweetened items like candied nuts or dried fruit with added sugar.
Ways to Choose Healthier Foods
- Watch out for the cream. Whether it’s salad dressing, soup or sauce for your entrée, think liquid over creamy. Select vinegar based salad dressing or try lemon juice with a dash of seasoning. Look for broth-based soups rather than cream based soup or bisque. Choose vegetable-based sauces such as marinara over cream, gravy, or butter-based sauces for your entrée. You can also request the sauce to be served on the side and use just enough to give you the flavor.
- Choose your food preparation method. When selecting meats, look for rotisserie-style, grilled, steamed, or baked rather than fried. Even if a dish calls for a fried food, ask if it can be grilled instead. The same goes for vegetables – pick a baked potato over fries.
- Watch the condiments and toppings. A lean, grilled burger topped with loads of bacon, cheese and mayonnaise can add up to lots of extra calories. Instead, try mustard or low -fat mayo and load it up with vegetables like lettuce, tomato, or onion.
Be Mindful of How to Eat
- Remember portion control. Split a large dish with a friend, or separate ½ of it to take home as left overs, even before you start eating. Choose from menu items rather than a buffet or “all-you-can-eat” (unless it’s a salad bar with lots of fresh veggies!) Order small sized desserts, or choose fruit, fat-free frozen yogurt, low-fat ice cream or sherbet rather than cakes, cookies or pies.
- Slow down. It’s easy to rush through meals, but our bodies benefit when we eat more slowly. Enjoy the company of your meal companions. Try placing your fork down or taking a sip of water between bites.
- STOP eating. When you begin to feel mildly full, stop eating then. Don’t wait until you feel like you’ve been stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. Look for a waiter to take your plate away, or if self-service, go ahead and throw your trash away to prevent mindless picking at the food while you continue to visit with others at the table.
Whether you eat in the restaurant, pick it up on the way home or have it delivered, restaurant food can be a welcome break from cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. But don’t sacrifice your nutrition and health goals for the convenience!
By being aware of your options and choosing wisely, you can enjoy both convenience and good nutrition. If you have questions about your nutritional needs, talk to your Doctor of Chiropractic. In addition to being experts in the musculoskeletal system, they are well versed in topics such as nutrition and wellness and can help you make smart choices for your health goals.
Cleveland Clinic Health Library “Smart Choices When Dining Out” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/13373-smart-choices-when-dining-out accessed 3/1/23
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Educational Tip Sheets “Tips for Eating Out” https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/healthdisp/pdf/tipsheets/Tips-for-Eating-Out.pdf accessed 3/1/23
USDA MyPlate.gov Tip Sheet “Dine Out / Take Out” https://www.myplate.gov/tip-sheet/dine-out-take-out?fbclid=IwAR0VoFRv3BxsqMDxrPpqvnmFtBrLut4-6VdJGkfPL_KFPZKAs38YVMHultM accessed 3/1/23