For some of us, eating out is a luxury that we indulge in only occasionally. For others, it’s a way of life born of busy days and conflicting family schedules. Wherever you fall on that continuum, here are some DOs and DON’Ts for healthy eating out:
• Know what you’re eating. You would be amazed at the unhealthy ingredients that are hidden in many restaurant foods. And I’m not just talking about fast food. Sauces, mashed, smashed or whipped foods, reductions and the like can be loaded with salt and fat. Try to stick to broiled meats and/or vegetables, and keep dressings and sauces on the side. You don’t have to forgo them completely, but it’s best to stay in charge of how much you’re eating.
• Dine at places you know use fresh, high quality meats and produce. There are an increasing number of restaurants that cater to the health-conscious. I’m not suggesting that farm-to-table is the only way to go, but restaurants that use top shelf ingredients are usually enthusiastic about saying so.
• Ask for ‘specials’. The specials on the menu, particularly if fish, will most likely be the freshest options.
• Divide and conquer. More often than not, a restaurant meal is the equivalent of two meals. If you have trouble with portion control, ask for a takeaway container with your meal and stow half before you start eating. If it’s take-out, request an extra container at check-out or ask them to divide the meal before packing it up. And if both options feel uncomfortable or high-maintenance, just leave half on the plate and doggie bag it.
• Drink water before your meal. A couple of 8 oz. glasses of water as you’re waiting to be served can keep you from overeating. It’s also a good idea to stay hydrated, particularly if you’re having a glass of wine with dinner.
• Eat slowly. It usually takes your brain about 20 minutes to send a signal to your stomach that it’s full. Chances are that if you eat more slowly, you’ll feel full faster and eat less. Clearly, eating take-out can mean you’re on the run to a swim meet or a piano lesson, but it’s better to chew more and eat less on the way there. You can return to it later, if you’re still hungry.
• Eat at restaurants that do a few things well. I have found that the eateries with chapters in their menus aren’t the best. A short repertoire generally means the food is fresher and, often, just plain better.
• Be afraid to ask questions. You’re paying for a meal, so you have a right to know what’s in it. Ask your wait staff about how things are prepared and what ingredients are used. They might even have an ingredients list available for you. If they don’t, they should be more than happy to offer the information. Believe me; they’re used to it given the prevalence of allergies and food restrictions.
• Go to a restaurant starving. If you’re ready to chew off a limb, you might make questionable food choices. Have a salad as your first course. Or, better yet, keep a stash of raw or roasted, unsalted almonds in your car. A handful of these have saved me countless times by staving off hunger and evening out blood sugar.
• Ask for bread. If it’s offered, pass it up. If it’s at the table, ignore it. If it’s at the table when you’re seated and it gets the better of you, certainly don’t ask for more.
• Eat fried food if you can help it. Swearing off fried food entirely may not be realistic. If you’re dying for some French fries, have a small amount to satisfy your craving. But it’s best to avoid these foods whenever possible.
• Eat fast food, period. I can’t stress this enough. Food that’s made ahead of time and costs a dollar will definitely cost you in the long run. You’re better off going to a grocery store and buying a pre-made salad or an apple and a chunk of cheese. You’ll feel better and your body will thank you, not only immediately but in the long run as well.
• Stand in line for your dinner. “All You Can Eat” is a recipe for disaster. Buffets are not only an invitation to overeat, but are also usually fraught with large quantities of sub-par food.
• Eat out more than you eat in. I get it; we’re all busy and tend to be over scheduled. But the best kind of eating is the kind you do at your own table. Nothing rivals preparing fresh, healthy foods yourself, and sitting down as a family to eat them. You can be in control of ingredients, preparation methods, portions and cost. If your lifestyle has you on the run most of the time, try preparing portable foods ahead of time and keeping a cooler in the car. A little organization and planning can go a long way when it comes to your health.
In a time of frenetic family and work schedules, eating may seem like the least of your worries. But how you fuel your body directly impacts how well you can keep up with your daily demands. It’s definitely food for thought.