Do you diligently monitor your diet, only to “blow it” when you eat out? Do you struggle to maintain healthy eating habits because a lot of your meals come from take-out or dining out?
You’re not alone. A study by researchers at Tuft University found that restaurant meals accounted for 21 percent of Americans’ total calorie intake. Almost one-quarter of the meals we eat come from fast food and full-service restaurants. Why is that bad?
Well, for one thing, the nutritional quality in almost all restaurant meals is poor. The Tuft study found that at fast-food restaurants, 70 percent of the meals were of poor dietary quality and at full-service restaurants, about 50 percent were rated poor. The remainder were of intermediate nutritional quality. Even more alarming is that less than 0.1 percent – so basically, none — of all the restaurant meals consumed were of ideal quality.
It’s not that chefs are incapable of cooking nutritional fare; it’s that the American palate has been trained to recognize tasty food as salty, fatty, and processed. Therefore, that’s what restaurants serve. Then there’s the hefty portions that are usually two to three times the recommended serving sizes. And here’s the final blow – we tend to eat more when we are socializing, and this frequently happens at restaurants. Strike three and we’re out.
My friend Rebecca works as a travel and food-and-beverage writer, and no matter where she goes, she struggles to find healthy food. The culture of the city is reflected in the food, whether that’s southern-fried, heavy soul food, northeastern lobster rolls, or gigantic salads laden with hidden calories and fat and twice the size of her head. And bacon. Bacon is everywhere in American restaurants.
She quickly realized that if she ate everything presented to her, she’d gain 5 pounds a week. So she’s picked up some pointers to help you navigate American restaurant menus.
- Stick with foods you know are healthy. Vegetable-heavy meals are perfect, especially if you ask the server to hold the butter or sauces that often accompany them. If you order a salad, be sure to check all the extra ingredients. Dried fruits, nuts, cheese, processed meats – they all turn your “healthy” salad into a caloric nightmare. And always order salad dressing on the side, dipping into it sparingly. Even the healthiest vegetables can be sabotaged by dressings.
- In a choice of entrees, order seafood. Make sure it’s grilled or broiled, not fried or sauteed in butter. Avoid breading of any kind, since this is filled with carbs and fat. If you’re at a burger joint, seek out a leaner option. Some restaurants offer elk or venison burgers that are much leaner than cow meat. Or order the veggie burger. But beware of the sauces – again, ask for these on the side. And don’t get the French fries!
- For breakfast, stick to simple eggs and avoid breakfast skillets, greasy meats like bacon and sausage, home fries, and Texas toast. None of these are your friend, and they’re a horrible way to start the day. Ask for a side of fruit with your eggs, or even vegetables if that’s an option. A veggie omelet is a great choice. Don’t fall into the trap of believing yogurt or oatmeal is automatically good for you. If it’s topped with high-calorie granola, whipped cream, brown sugar, or any sweetening additives, the bad outweighs the good.
- Since you know that restaurant serving sizes are out of control, get in the habit of eating only a portion of your meal. Think about what you would reasonably eat at home, not what’s staring up at you from the plate. Then package up the rest or leave it there. Don’t feel guilty about wasting food. After all, you didn’t ask for enough food to feed four people.
- Be mindful of drinking. Restaurants love to start you off with a cocktail, then suggest another drink, offer wine with your entree, and an after-dinner drink for dessert. These are huge money-makers, and unfortunately for you, they are also lots and lots of useless calories. Even if you eat everything with health in mind, you can still gain weight if you’re drinking mixed drinks, wine, and beer. Pace yourself and seek out drinks that are fairly basic, such as a gin & tonic. They tend to be less caloric than drinks with several added mixers filled with sugar.
- And of course, watch out for fillers. This includes a bread basket and huge, fatty side dishes like mac & cheese, fried egg rolls, a side of pasta, or virtually any appetizer. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a healthy one, so save yourself the money and calories.
Thanks, Rebecca! These are all such great healthy tips for ordering healthier foods at restaurants. Please feel free to share this post or to add your own healthy eating tips at restaurants in the comments! If you are having a tough time managing your weight or you need help with your own personal meal plan catered to your goals and lifestyle, reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.