Most of us enjoy eating out, but also love eating healthy foods. Unfortunately, it seems as if most of the time these two things do not go hand in hand. The good news is that you do not necessarily need to trade one for the other. Healthy alternatives that fit your dietary needs can almost always be found in most restaurants. The trick is knowing how to spot, or in some cases, dig through the menu to uncover them. You can have your meal out and relish in the healthy deliciousness with a little forethought and preparation ahead of time.
Before we can begin making our dining out experiences healthier, we first need to understand why restaurant meals have received such a bad reputation in the first place. While there are many variations to the answer of this question, the bottom line is that restaurant owners want you to come back.
They want you to be wowed, in a sense, even overwhelmed. They want to pamper you with their generosity of huge portions and rich ingredients that you might not use in your home. They want your experience to be a little decadent, so that you will come back not only because you crave the food, but because you feel that you deserve the indulgence.
After all, you could sauté a chicken breast in your own kitchen, but you don’t know the secret to their sauce. Anyone can toss together a salad, but are you going to put the effort into tracking down all the ingredients of their signature exotic salad? Eating out provides an opportunity for us to explore and enjoy flavors that don’t often make their way into our own kitchens. Simply put, eating out is a pleasurable, sensory experience.
When it comes to a typical restaurant meal, things start to go haywire when we begin looking at numbers. Restaurant portions are typically larger than what you would serve yourself at home. This is true regardless of how “healthy” the dish is.
On average, just the entrée alone comes in somewhere between 650-700 calories. Then, you add on one to two side dishes at an average of 250 calories each, plus a 150-calorie beverage and maybe a 400-calorie dessert. Even with an entrée, one side and water to drink, you are nearing the 1,000-calorie mark. However, chances are you will surpass that marker with a typical restaurant meal, and at least half of your daily caloric intake will be consumed in just one meal alone.
Then, we start to look at more serious numbers. Sure, a little caloric indulgence can be balanced by a few more trips to the gym. But what about the other stuff? Restaurant meals are typically higher in saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Just one average restaurant meal will bring you close to the recommended daily sodium intake. Eating like this on a regular basis can have obvious consequences for your overall health.
So, with all this working against us, how is it possible to enjoy eating out, even doing so regularly, and avoid all the dietary pitfalls? The answer is a combination of planning and conscientious choices.
One of the most effective steps you can take for a healthy meal out is to plan ahead. There are plenty of things you can do now that will take the pressure off once you arrive at the restaurant. Yes, some of this involves a little sleuth work, but in the end, it is worth the extra effort.
We have all been in situations where the opportunity for a meal out pops up out of nowhere. A good percentage of these times it involves a group of people or a friend that is insistent upon going to a certain place. In scenarios like this, you don’t always have a say in where you go.
Yes, of course, you can just say no, and in some situations, that might be the best option. However, there will be other times when you decide to go along because you want to, because you want the experience, or because it just sounds like fun. In these situations, you might not have the opportunity to plan ahead as much as you like, but you might have the chance to use at least a few of these plan ahead strategies.
- If you can influence the choice of restaurants, choose one that you know either provides healthy menu options or is at least willing to cater to special requests. If you are considering a chain restaurant, call ahead to ask what type of special accommodations can be made. Many of their menu items come in prepackaged, so they might not even be able to eliminate the cream from a sauce or go easy on the salt.
- “From Scratch Kitchens” are a big thing in the culinary world right now. Their image is one that counters everything that you might not like about chain restaurants and fast food. However, don’t automatically assume that every single component of a dish is made from scratch. They might compose the dish, rather than dump it from a bag, but there still might be components that are premade. Never make assumptions, always ask.
- Do a quick search online for the menu before you go. Look through your choices and pick out a few that sound interesting and healthy. If necessary, call the restaurant and ask questions before you get there. Do they accommodate special requests? Can something be grilled rather than fried?
- Also, if you will be dining with others, take note of the appetizer section. Many times, a group of friends at a table also means a group of plates piled with fried, cheesy, saucy appetizers. Don’t be caught off guard by this. Know what healthy appetizer options are available or order a small salad when the appetizer order goes in.
- Plan for lunch tomorrow. If the restaurant you are going to is notorious for larger portions, choose something that you know will reheat well and save at least half for lunch the next day.
- If you are going to a restaurant that seems hopeless in terms of healthy options, prepare by filling up a little at home with fiber rich fruits and vegetables. Also, start sipping on a glass of water as soon as you get to the restaurant. These steps will help you feel fuller. You might not be able to avoid calorie dense foods, but you can control how much you eat, and you are likely to eat less if your brain is already receiving signals that it is satisfied.
Once you have made your way to the cozy table in the corner, it is now entirely up to you to make the smartest and healthiest choices when ordering your food. Here are a few tips to enjoy your meal while not sabotaging your diet.
- If you find yourself at a buffet, opt for a menu item instead of the unlimited amounts of fried, sauce-rich foods the buffet offers. Most buffet style restaurants have this option, but if they do not, stick with the salad bar, broth soups and steamed fish or vegetables.
- Start your meal with a healthy salad. Filling up on the vegetables will leave you less hungry once your entrée arrives. Don’t forget to ask for the dressing on the side so that you can control the portion size.
- Speaking of salads, not all are created equal. Some entrée salads pack in as much fat and calories as a pizza. First of all, entrée salads are typically huge. If you order one, immediately place half of it in a to-go container. These huge salads are often dressed with an enormous amount of dressing, so ask for it on the side. Finally, be wary of the ingredients. A salad with chicken, egg, bacon, avocado and cheese is just overkill. Delicious, but overkill just the same. A salad with chicken, dried cranberries, pan sautéed walnuts, and blue cheese crumbles can be just as bad. Ask for light toppings or take half of them off once the salad reaches your table. You can even take what you remove with you and use it for several salads at home.
- Order or ask for dishes that can be steamed, broiled or grilled.
- Combine your favorite components to make a new dish. Do you love the demi-glace, but dislike the fried medallions it is place over? Order a grilled chicken breast with the sauce instead. Love their tomato sauce, but want to avoid the pasta? Ask to have the sauce added to a bowlful of steamed veggies instead.
- Balance your meal. Aim to include high quality grains, lean protein and lots of veggies.
- Ask your server to skip the bread basket or other complimentary appetizers that are automatically placed on your table.
- If you want dessert, go ahead and have it. Eating healthy does not mean forgoing all of life’s culinary pleasures. Order the dessert and share it with your dinner guests. Just a few bites of decadence are usually enough to satisfy. You can also choose fresh fruit or small portions of sorbet for a healthier, palate cleansing alternative.
Secret Calorie Hoarders: Beverages
When we think of calories, we tend to think of the food that we put in our mouths, but we often forget that what we sip through a straw counts too. The wrong drink can put you over the breaking point calorically. Here are a few reminders for choosing the best refreshing accompaniments for your meal.
- Skip anything that is sweetened, such as sweet tea, sodas, and sweetened coffee drinks for example.
- Instead choose unsweetened tea, ice brewed coffee, soda water or a spritzer made with just a touch of juice and carbonated water.
- Avoid beverages that could count as meal on their own. Examples include fruit smoothies and milk shakes.
- Always ask for a glass of water, regardless of what else you are drinking.
- If your meal plans include an alcoholic beverage, choose wisely. For example, a frozen fruit drink such as a margarita can add up to 300 calories depending on the mix they use and the amount of tequila they add. Instead choose drinks that don’t have so many hidden components. For instance, a serving of wine has around 125 calories with no hidden extras. A single shot of gin has about 75 calories. You can add soda water and a lime wedge, both of which add nothing to the caloric bottom line.
If you have become so conscious of your diet that dining out has become a harrowing experience, it is time to stop and reassess your balance. Healthy choices should be your number one priority, but don’t neglect making room for the things that add pleasure and joy to your life, such as a night out with friends or a special someone. Even that work lunch with colleagues can be a refreshing, bonding experience.Go ahead and make plans for dinner out tonight, and maybe even indulge just a little bit. You do not need to sacrifice your health to enjoy eating out. You simply need to make a commitment to balanced and healthy choices, with a little bit of decadence thrown in every now and then.