Nothing can kill a healthy diet like eating out. Restaurants are not in the business of making America healthy. They want more customers-and their money. They load meals with calories, salt, and fat to make sure that we keep coming back for more. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to determine the healthier items on the menu because they can be disguised. Here are eight tips for staying on track while going out for a meal:
1. Don’t eat the whole meal! Restaurants have inflated our sense of normal portion sizes. Immediately cut the meal in half when it’s served, and take one half home to eat later. This is a good option for people who just can’t avoid certain foods. If you must have the lasagna, at least only eat half. Another option: order an appetizer. And PLEASE stay away from buffets! Is it really a good “deal” if you eat a whole day’s worth of calories in one meal?
2. Avoid menu items that have “red flag” words. Here are some of the most common: breaded, fried, cream sauce, batter-dipped, tempura, crispy, stuffed, gravy, sautéed, au gratin, cheesy. Look for these “green light” words: baked, broiled, grilled, flame-cooked, steamed, roasted, and poached.
3. Side substitution. Ditch the fries, chips, mashed or cheesy potatoes and ask for a salad with dressing on the side, fruit, extra veggies, baked potato (watch the sour cream), or whole grain rice. When choosing soup, look for tomato-based, or broths. Stay away from the cream- or cheese-based soups.
4. Sweet switch. When everyone else gets dessert, ask for low fat ice cream, fruit or sherbet (even if it’s not on the menu). Coffee with a sweet liqueur is another option.
5. The secret to salads and sandwiches. Cut the calories of a sandwich in half by getting mustard and/or ketchup and veggies instead of mayo, grilled chicken instead of fried. Definitely, skip the cheese. Make sure the salad is truly healthy with low fat dressing (or at least ask for it “on the side”), and limit the cheese, croutons, and bacon bits.
6. Don’t be afraid to make demands! Ask the questions. What kind of sauce is that? What is it served with? Ask for a substitution, even if it’s not on the menu.
7. Search the internet. Nutritional information for most chain restaurants can be found. This can be eye-opening, and is useful if you find that you frequent certain establishments.
8. Cut yourself some slack sometimes. Eating out is supposed to be fun! Occasional splurges are not a problem if you are vigilant most of time. It’s OK to splurge on your birthday and some special occasions, but maybe not every relative’s birthday or graduation. Just remember to be prepared, and you can enjoy the meal without guilt!
Shari S. Phillips, M.D.