By Brian Morris, MD
Dining out is one of the biggest challenges to healthy eating. In general, restaurant meals are less nutritious than meals prepared at home. According to a recent survey, the average Americans eats about five meals a week at restaurants. Since eating out or bringing home takeout food has become a regular part of life, it is essential to find strategies to stay true to your healthy eating goals while dining out.
The main priority of restaurants is to provide delicious food and an enjoyable dining experience. While there certainly are restaurants that do a good job of combining nutritious food with great taste, it’s a safe assumption that most restaurant food is less nutritious than you’d like it to be. Numerous studies have shown that you eat more calories, unhealthy fat grams, sugar, and sodium when you eat at restaurants.
In an ideal world, you would eat out less frequently and prepare most of your own meals. I encourage my patients to reduce their number of restaurant meals in half. I would prefer if you prepare all of your meals at home. However, for most people, it’s not practical or realistic to do so. Thus, it is important to find ways to ensure that your restaurant or takeout food is as healthy as possible.
My eight strategies for healthy restaurant eating provide an excellent starting place to help you accomplish this.
- Pick the restaurant carefully. Now that most people have smartphones or tablets, evaluating restaurants has never been so easy. There are countless apps and websites that review both the taste and the nutritional value of the food at restaurants. Many restaurants also have their menus online so you can see what’s available while you sit in your office or your home. Some restaurants even make their nutritional content readily available for you to view so you can evaluate options before you arrive. Read the menus and see if there are healthy choices that appeal to you and fit within your nutritional goals. It’s far easier to make healthy choices if you plan in advance to ensure that a restaurant has healthy options. Otherwise, you can easily find yourself sitting at the table with only unhealthy items from which to choose.
- Know what you will order before you get there. Typically, people arrive at a restaurant hungry. When you’re hungry, you are much less likely to make good choices. You can avoid this problem by having planned your entire order before you walk into the restaurant. By using one of the apps mentioned in habit 1 or the restaurant’s website, you can easily calculate how many calories the meal contains to ensure that you’re staying within your optimal goal.
- Eat before you eat. Ensure that you’re not starving when you sit down at the restaurant. If you’re famished, you’re much more likely to grab the bread or order a high calorie appetizer or beverage. Be in control and be only moderately hungry. Consider eating an apple or have a big glass of water before stepping into the restaurant in order to keep your hunger at bay (habit 5).
- No bread. Many restaurants love to put a basket of bread on the table so patrons can munch on something before ordering. However, this can add up to a lot of extra calories—easily 300 or more calories before your food arrives. Do your best to resist. Better yet, tell the server that you don’t want the bread and to keep it away from the table. Having snacked on a healthy option before you arrive at the restaurant, your hunger should be under control. If you’re still famished, check the menu for something healthy to munch on such as a small salad or some vegetables. Hopefully you’ve read through the menu in advance of your arrival and you know what healthy items you can quickly order.
- Order in stages. In America we usually order our entire meal—drinks, appetizer, entree all at once. However, that means you’re ordering when you’re hungry and more likely to over order and then overindulge. Ordering in stages ensures that the food you order reflects your state of hunger throughout your meal. If possible, skip the appetizer and try to start with something healthy like a small salad and then reassess your hunger level. You may find that you want to order a regular entrée but you may decide that you feel satisfied and prefer to order something smaller for your main meal. Don’t consider ordering dessert until after finishing your meal. Your appetite may have been completely satisfied at that point. Again, don’t feel pressured to order too much all at once. Stay in control and order each part of your meal after you’ve eaten the prior course and keep making assessments of where you are hunger-wise.
- Control your beverage intake. Be careful not to consume too many calories from your beverage choices. Sometimes I’ll meet with a patient who tells me that he’s only eating 1600 calories a day and can’t understand why he hasn’t lost any weight. So I’ll ask him to use an app to count his calories for 24 hours and it often turns out that he didn’t include beverages in the 1600 calories. Obviously, many beverages have significant calories and these calories count. Everyone knows that alcohol can be high in calories, but also remember that juice and soda can have a lot of calories. Since some restaurants refill drinks as a courtesy, it is easy to lose track of how many calories you are drinking. Watch your beverage intake and do your best to minimize the calories from beverages, especially as some can be full of sugar and light in nutritional content.
- Share a dish. Another strategy related to ordering is to share dishes when possible. If you’re at a restaurant with a good friend or your spouse, think of ways to share dishes rather than each person ordering a separate appetizer and entrée. Can you share an appetizer or an entrée? Restaurant portion sizes these days can be large and some dishes can easily provide two, if not three, portions. Speak candidly with your server about the size of the dishes and see if sharing might work for you. Of course, this isn’t an option at a business meal but, if possible, consider sharing dishes. It can be a nice way to cut down your portion size and, as a bonus, also save on the cost of the meal.
- Use small plates. As explained in habit 3, studies show that using smaller plates, bowls and glasses can help control portion sizes. Restaurant plates can be enormous and using a larger plate encourages you to eat more food. One defense against this is to use smaller plates at restaurants. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use the entree plate as a serving plate. Ask for serving utensils and a small plate and serve the food onto the smaller plate, which makes it easier to eat smaller portions. Forcing yourself to take that moment to decide whether or not to take another serving can help to curtail the size of your portions. When eating from the main plate, it is easy to just keep eating until all the food is gone. However, by having to take another portion from a serving platter, you create a breakpoint in the meal. This slows you down and gives you opportunities to stop eating if your body indicates that you’ve had enough.
Try your best to follow the above steps to make healthy choices, even when dining out. Also, think about reducing how often you eat restaurant food, take-out food, and leftover meals from restaurant food.