Restaurant dining—both in fast-food and sit-down venues—poses seemingly insurmountable obstacles to healthy eating. Portion sizes are absurdly overlarge. “Hidden calories” make the actual caloric content of menu items difficult to gauge. Even foods that are supposed to be good for us, such as vegetables and salads, are often brought to the table drenched in high-calorie or high-fat sauces or dressings. And if you’re trying to keep kids on the nutritional straight and narrow while dining out, well, you’ve definitely got your work cut out for you!
Considering the challenges, it might seem as if the only option is to throw up your hands and accept the fact that overindulgence is an unavoidable part of the restaurant-dining experience. But, believe it or not, it is possible to enjoy restaurant food without totally compromising nutrition. Here are some practical tips that will help you and your family eat healthier when dining out:
Ban the buffet
If you’re looking to get the most bang for your food buck, all-you-can-eat buffets are a great option. They’re also a nutritional nightmare for that very same reason. The more food that’s put in front of you, the more you’re going to eat. It’s a natural temptation to eat your money’s worth and more when there are no limits.
Skip the soda
Regular soda pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages are just loaded with empty calories, and it’s easy to overdo it with refills while you’re waiting for your meal to arrive. For a lower-calorie alternative you might choose diet soda, but plain old water (perhaps flavored with a slice of lemon) is a much healthier—not to mention much cheaper—option.
Get fast food to go
Taking fast food home rather than consuming it in the venue’s dining room is a better choice for several reasons. One, you can’t run back up to the counter because you have a hankering for another order of fries or a chocolate shake. Two, studies indicate that people tend to eat less when dining at their own table. Three, you have the option of forgetting about the fries and substituting healthier sides from your own fridge, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Support nutrition-conscious venues
Some fast-food chains are beginning to offer healthier alternatives, such as low-fat milk and apple slices in kids’ meals instead of soda and French fries. Parents should vote their approval of such measures by spending their dollars at nutrition-conscious venues.
Ask for a box at the beginning of the meal
Before heading out for a sit-down meal, remind yourself that portion sizes in most restaurants contain the caloric equivalent of two to three meals. When you order, ask your server to bring a box or doggie bag with your food. Before you begin to eat, divide the portion in half, setting aside one half for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner.
Order smaller portions
Alternatively, ask your server if the restaurant offers half sizes or if they offer lunch-size portions at dinnertime. If neither option is available and it’s impractical to take a portion of your meal home (e.g., because you’re traveling), leave a portion of the meal—at least one third—on your plate.
Look to the light menu
Some restaurants make it easy to find the healthiest choices they offer by listing them and their nutrition information on a light menu. Order from this menu whenever possible. If a light menu isn’t offered, choose foods that are baked, steamed, broiled, poached, or roasted rather than fried. Try to steer kids away from fried chicken tenders, fingers, or nuggets and toward offerings like baked chicken with vegetables. Also, when it comes to kids’ meal options, keep in mind that spaghetti with tomato sauce is a more nutritious option than macaroni and cheese.
Be suspicious of sauces and salads
Many restaurants offer what appear to be healthy vegetables and salads, but when you order them, it turns out that the veggies are drenched in a heavy sauce and the salads are swimming in high-calorie dressing and/or laden with cheese, meat, and croutons. Before ordering seemingly healthy items, be sure to ask how they are prepared, and don’t be afraid to special order items the way you want them cooked. Simply substituting low-calorie dressing for regular can make a big difference in your total caloric intake. Or, ask your server to bring sauces and salad dressings on the side so you can control how much goes on your food.