Eating out is very American, and in my case nicely linked to my family. As a kid I spent summers with my grandmother who believed in a three-hour lunch at a good restaurant. And to this day, my mother and I do our catching up at our favorite restaurants. Dietitian or not, in my family a restaurant table is equivalent to a kitchen table.
I’m happy to report, it’s not impossible to enjoy restaurants while still meeting your nutrition goals, if you prepare. When you know what to look for, you can go restaurant hopping and feel great about your choices. Here are three must-know tips for how to order guilt-free.
Learn how to read the menu: No, I don’t mean educate yourself on some fancy French words for sauces, but rather the age-old lexicon of cooking. Menus are designed to entice you into ordering as much food as possible. So sometimes you need to look past the persuasive descriptions to know exactly what’s being said.
On the other spectrum, be wary of words such as “sautéed,” “battered,” “fried,” and “coated,” which indicate heavier, fat-laden foods.
Are you staring down a menu of dishes “smothered in cream sauce,” or described as “cheesy”? Then expect your dish to be covered in saturated fat and calories.
Instead, look for tomato-based sauces and words like “drizzled,” or “sprinkled.” Can’t pass up the cream sauce? Order it on the side so that you control the amount you add.
If it’s possible, sometimes viewing a menu online, or in a phone book, before you go can help you decide if a restaurant is the best place for you. It may be hard to find healthful options at Fred’s Fried Palace, so check beforehand.
Finally, don’t be afraid to go to another restaurant if you do arrive and find the menu isn’t to your (healthful) satisfaction. Or, don’t be afraid to ask how dishes are prepared or whether you can make changes. If you want steamed vegetables instead of sautéed, ask! The server and chef should be happy to meet your needs.
Empower yourself to make more healthful choices and habits: Have you ever gone to a restaurant starving and suddenly found yourself on a second basket of bread before you’ve ordered your drink? Me, too. Instead of blaming yourself, realize that being famished has taken away your ability to think rationally. Suddenly words like “creamy” or “battered” sound perfect, and grilled salmon sounds like rabbit food. Before you know it, you have a gigantic fisherman’s platter in front of you and a cheesecake on the way!
Have a snack before going to a restaurant. It’s essential to eating out guilt-free. It may seem counterintuitive, as we’ve been warned since we were young about ruining our appetite if we ate before dinner. You are “good” when you avoid eating before dinner!
The truth is you are setting yourself up for guilt (and indigestion) later on. Empower yourself to make healthful habits by having a small snack an hour before going to a restaurant. Think protein, whole grains and a fruit or vegetable. Options include:
- Apple slices with a tablespoon of natural peanut butter
- 5-7 whole grain crackers with 2 tablespoons of hummus and 5-7 baby carrots
- Romaine lettuce rollup with 2 ounces of deli meat
Know your portions: American restaurants rarely serve “normal” portions. You can easily eat a day’s worth of calories, sodium and fat before dessert arrives. To practice portion control, don’t worry, you don’t have to go to a restaurant with measuring cups in your purse. Instead, keep the following in mind:
- 3 ounces of steak, chicken or pork = a deck of cards
- 3 ounces of fish = a checkbook
- 1/2 cup of rice or couscous = a light bulb
- 1 cup of pasta = a baseball
You can also use the Healthy Eating Plate to judge portion sizes, which suggests half your plate be fruit or non-starchy vegetables, a quarter grain and a quarter protein. If you feel that you may not be able to stop yourself from cleaning the plate, ask your server to wrap half before the food is brought to the table.
Beyond these three essential tips, be sure to enjoy the experience, savor your food and be proud for treating yourself and your body to a healthful meal.
How do you dine out guilt-free?
— Caitlin Quinn MS, RD, LDN