The average American eats at a restaurant four times a week. Unfortunately, that can mean a lot of extra calories. Even seemingly healthy choices can be packed with hidden fat and salt. The good news is that you can avoid common pitfalls and stick to your diet even when eating out.
If you have ever wondered why the same meals you prepare at home usually taste so much better in a restaurant, the answer is probably more butter and salt. A chef’s job is to make delicious food that keeps customers coming back. They aren’t concerned with your waistline or blood pressure.
The good news is that they are also more than happy to prepare your food the way you want. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; if something is usually sautéed in butter, ask to have it steamed or cooked in olive oil. You can also request that they don’t salt anything so that you can do that at the table and control exactly how much goes into your body. An old but effective trick: drink (non-sparkling) water before and during the meal.
Even the best of intentions can be thwarted by an enticing menu full of descriptive words and delicious foods. Peer pressure can also tempt you into cheating on your diet ‘just this once.’ It is harder to make healthy choices when everyone around you is indulging. Instead of having to make a decision while the waiter is ready to take your order, check the menu before you even leave the house. You can browse the online menu and go to the restaurant with a couple of options for eating healthy.
The best way to sabotage an otherwise healthy entrée is by opting for a heaping side of fries or chips. Oftentimes, you can make a request that isn’t listed on the menu. Ask your waiter to suggest a better alternative. They may be able to make a smaller version of one of their large salads or provide a side of vegetables. You may be surprised to find how accommodating restaurants can be to the wants and needs of their diners. It never hurts to ask and, if all else fails, tell them to skip the fries. Don’t shy away from paying from paying a dollar or two more for a side salad.
Just because you see the word “lettuce” doesn’t mean that you are in a safe zone. Don’t let a few vegetables lull you into a false sense of security. Beware of hidden calories and calorie sources in a seemingly healthy option: salads. Croutons, cheese, dressing and other toppings can make a salad more calorie-dense than a burger. This is another opportunity to closely read the menu and ask for adjustments. Perhaps most importantly, get the dressing on the side. Simply dipping your fork in dressing will give you enough to enjoy the taste without the calories.
If the occasion (someone else’s birthday, for example) makes it impossible to change the dining destination, try to eat a small, healthy meal before meeting your friends. On the go between work and dinner? Keep low-carb protein bars in your purse. If you have a smartphone, take the time to download a free or paid app that provide nutrition information and tracks your calories. My Fitness Pal, a free app, contains the calorie, carb, and other nutrition info of many national chain menu items in its database. (Click here for the Android version) If you have other concerns, such as a sensitivity to acidic foods, The IC-Network’s food app (99 cents) is “Ideal for use when shopping or eating out [and] contains a searchable database of more than 250 foods broken out into three categories: bladder friendly, try it and caution.”
Save calories by sticking to non-alcoholic drinks and declining the bread basket. Request sorbet instead of ice cream, or share with a friend if you can’t pass on dessert.
Broaden your culinary horizons and try restaurants that specialize in simply prepared meals using minimally processed ingredients. (We’ll discuss new options, such as the farm-to-table (locavore) movement, in future posts.)
When you visit a restaurant, remember that you are a paying customer. Just because a dish is advertised one way on a menu doesn’t mean that you can’t make adjustments. Chefs will be happy to make substitutions, leave the dressing on the side and help you make healthier choices, especially if that means another satisfied diner.