March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Eating at a restaurant doesn't have to sabotage your healthy diet. Use smart-eating strategies: Plan ahead, consider the menu and choose foods carefully.
Have a plan. Eat a light dinner if you ate a big lunch that day. Or, if you know ahead of time that you're going to a restaurant, plan to have lighter meals during the day. Knowing menu terms and cooking basics makes ordering easier, especially if you have special dietary needs.
Choosing a Restaurant
Think ahead. Consider meal options at different restaurants and look for places with a wide range of menu items. Check online menus, if available, for nutrition information ahead of time.
Be deliberate when ordering. Balance your meal by including healthier selections from all the different food groups such as lean protein foods, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Look for freshly made entrée salads that give you "balance in a bowl." For example, entrée salads with baked or grilled chicken, beans or seafood provide protein along with fiber and other nutrients. Ask for dressing on the side so you can control the portion size.
For sandwich toppings, go with veggie options including lettuce, tomato, avocado and onion; if using condiments, choose ketchup, mustard, relish or salsa.
Round out your meal by ordering healthy side dishes, such as a side salad, baked potato or fruit. Boost the nutritional value of your baked potato by topping it with vegetables, salsa or chili.
Substitute. Ask for a side salad with dressing on the side to replace fries in a combination meal. Many restaurants honor requests, so don't be afraid to be assertive, ask menu questions and make special requests to meet your nutritional needs.
Control portions. Many restaurants serve huge portions, sometimes enough for two or three people. Eat a smaller portion and bring leftovers home for another meal. Or, order an appetizer in place of an entrée and add a small soup or salad.
Eat slowly. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message from your stomach that you are no longer hungry. Fast eaters often are overeaters, while slow eaters tend to eat less and are still satisfied.
Eating Out with Kids
Choose a restaurant that caters to children. This will increase the likelihood that a restaurant has a healthy children's menu that includes smaller portion sizes and meals designed to provide ample nourishment for smaller bodies.
For new foods, offer a bite or two from your order. Otherwise, let kids order their familiar favorites when they eat out. Pick two or three suitable menu items and then let your child pick one. Substitute healthier sides in place of fries, such as carrots or apple slices, or share an order of fries, and order plain foods with sauce on the side.
Calcium is important at all ages, but especially for growing bones. To get more calcium, opt for plain or chocolate milk for a beverage, or add a slice of cheese to their sandwich. Choose dairy-based desserts such as yogurt or a smoothie.
Restaurants may be intimidating to people trying to stick to a healthy eating plan, but with preparation and confidence you can enjoy your restaurant meal without abandoning healthy eating.