We love our restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans eat about 24 percent — almost one quarter — of their meals away from home.
Restaurant food is meant to look, smell and taste great, and that means nutrition can sometimes fall by the wayside when menus feature main dishes drenched in butter or rich sauces, salads with creamy dressings, and few whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Eating at a restaurant doesn't have to sabotage your healthy diet. Try these strategies for enjoying a meal out while sticking to a healthy eating plan.
1. Sleuth It Out
These days, you can find healthful foods almost everywhere. The trick is to know what you're getting into before you get to the restaurant and are tempted by enticing menu descriptions. Many restaurants have their menus online — some with nutrition information readily available. You'll be able to choose the destination with the healthiest options, and go into the eatery ready to order the best meal and ask for substitutions where necessary.
Before you head out, make 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.
- Make a commitment to 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.
- Make physical activity part of dining out. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes. Pick a restaurant that's a 10- or 15-minute walk. You'll get your meal, 30 minutes of physical activity and avoid the parking hassles. Or, get moving as a group before or after eating. A brisk walk before a meal gives you time to chat. A stroll afterward helps your digestion.
2. Don't Split Your Plate
You've probably read advice to ask for half portions or share your meal with a friend. But given the huge portion sizes doled out at some restaurants, half may still be too much. Practice visualizing what your plate would look like at home and trying to replicate that in your restaurant meal.
And, 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.
3. Add to Your Meal
Think eating healthfully is all about what you can't eat? Focus on what healthy items you can add to your plate instead of only what foods to avoid. Look for whole-grain breads, pastas and sides; opt for foods with healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds; be sure to order lots of fruits and veggies; and go for lean meat, turkey, chicken or fish.
4. Don't Go Overly Hungry
You sit down starving, and before you know it you've scarfed down several pieces of buttered bread before your main meal arrives. If you're ravenous before you leave for the restaurant, nosh on a small snack such as a piece of fruit. Or, at the restaurant, order a cup of broth-based soup or small salad to stave off hunger.
5. Watch for the Wording
The way a dish is described on a menu can give you clues to how it's prepared. Look for words including "grilled," "broiled" or "steamed," meaning the food is cooked with less fat, and avoid dishes with descriptions such as "fried," "breaded," "smothered," "alfredo," "rich" and "creamy."
6. Ask, Ask, Ask
Don't be afraid to ask your server to help you healthy-up your meal. For example, you could ask for a salad in place of the usual fries or chips with a meal. You can also ask for items to be prepared with less oil or cheese, ask the server to take away the bread basket and serve salad with dressing on the side, and request an appetizer portion of a main meal.
You can even often order "off-menu" — for example, ask what vegetarian dish the chef can prepare for you or if it's possible to make grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. Many restaurants are happy to comply.
If you enjoy dining out, don't think you have to stop if you want to stay healthy. With some preparation and savvy substitutions, you can order meals that are as nutritious as the ones you prepare at home.