A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2016 found that 92 percent of restaurant meals exceed the recommended calorie requirements for a meal. In some instances the calories in one meal exceeded the recommended intake for a whole day. To add to this unpleasant truth, this is without drinks, appetizers, or desserts being factored in.
Restaurant meals can be overloaded with salt, saturated fat, and calories that cannot only affect our weight but our overall health, especially if we have a condition that requires nutrition intervention. Does this mean we stop eating out? Well, this is not a realistic option or a welcome one. Eating out is a treat for many of us and something to be enjoyed—not feared—while maintaining our waistline.
Here are suggestions to take the guilt out of eating out and enjoy the time out with friends and family, while keeping true to your personal health and nutrition goals.
Eye on the prize
Keep a mental or written (I think written makes it more real) checklist of your goals. Goals should always be followed with a plan of action for each. It helps break them down into realistic steps to get to where you want to be and helps lay out how you’re going to get there.
Think ahead before an event or going to a restaurant for a meal. Have a strategy in mind on what selections you can make. Check out the menu offerings ahead of time and tag some items that may work. If you are prepared there is less chance of being derailed from your plan.
At the restaurant, ask the server if certain items can be changed for you. The establishment should be accommodating with simple requests. Some examples include: swapping out the fries for a baked potato, or even better yet, grilled vegetables. A favorite of mine is switching out the hash browns at breakfast for tomato slices and asking unbuttered toast. Sometimes it’s not what we are ordering, but the extras (sides, condiments, and preparation methods) that sabotage our efforts.
And here is a good time to address the bread basket dilemma. In general, bread is nutritious, but like they say, everything in moderation. If you’re like me, you love bread so much that an entire basket of bread sitting in front of you is pretty hard to resist! I find that if I politely ask the server to bring my serving of bread as a side with my meal, I can avoid overdoing it.
Skip the appetizer, maybe
Since an entrée will give you plenty of calories, perhaps skip the appetizer, or split it with others. Better yet, opt for a salad instead. Studies have shown that eating a salad or soup before an entrée caused people to eat less of the main meal, saving calories overall. Salad and soup are both filling, due to either the water or fiber content. If you choose a salad, ask for dressing on the side, preferably choose an olive oil and vinegar dressing, and use the fork dip method, which simply means dip the fork into the dressing and then pick up the salad. Avoid the extras on salads, e.g. bacon bits and croutons. If you choose soup, go for the broth over the creamy style.
I will keep it simple: avoid them. That is, unless you can keep yourself to one plate of food with any seconds only being a veggie or salad, watching portions, and skipping dessert. Buffets can be very difficult to stick to your plan, so this would be more of a special occasion rather than a frequent one. For instance, if your kids want to take you to a Mother’s Day Brunch at a fabulous hotel, go for it. However, if you just want to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet down the street because the dollar price is right, think twice about what that may be doing to your waistline and if it’s worth paying that price.
Watch out for empty calories here. Stick to water, coffee, unsweetened tea, and diet sodas if you choose to consume sugar substitutes. My usual go to is ice water or hot lemon water depending on the meal. Avoid regular sodas, sweet teas, and lemonades packed with sugar and empty calories. If you drink alcohol, just practice moderation. The guidelines call for one drink for women and two for men.
There are a few actions you can take here that can make a difference in your calorie intake. You can split an entrée with a dinner partner. You can eat half of the meal and take the rest home for lunch the next day. The point to be made here is to be mindful of portions and not to feel you have to eat everything on the plate in order to have a good time. Eating consciously does not have to go out the window just because you’re eating out.
Order lighter fare when available, but be careful here by reading the menu descriptions, as the titles can be deceiving. Look for baked, roasted, grilled, broiled, steamed, marinara/tomato sauce, cooked in own juices, broth or tomato-based soups, or choice and select cuts of meat. Fish is usually a healthy option; just avoid the breaded or fried type. Also watch out at times for the low-carb options, as they may be packed with calories and fat without your even realizing it. When an option, request add-ons or substitutes such as vegetables or fruit. These are filling without packing on the calories.
Unless it is a special celebration, avoid ordering desserts every time you go out. Considering the average American eats a meal or snack from a restaurant 5.8 times a week (according to the United States Healthful Food Council), that is going a little overboard with dessert. Wait until you go home and have a piece of dark chocolate or a piece of fruit to satisfy that sweet tooth and still eat healthy. If that’s just not going to cut it on any given time, try splitting the dessert among others at your table.
This last point may seem a bit silly, but the reason behind it is two-fold. First, I like to think of eating out as an occasion rather than just something I have to get out of the way to move on to the next task on the to-do list. Second, if you are dressed up with a more tailored look, that means no sweats or elastic stretchy bands, that may help you eat less simply because your clothes remind you to stop. Since the clothes have no room to grow or expand, neither will you. I have found it helpful especially at social gatherings where eating is a several hour affair.
Since Americans spend half of their eating dollars eating out, it’s worth considering how you are spending your money and how you are fueling your body. In the end, we are what we eat.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information