Eating out at a restaurant doesn’t have to mean you’re cheating on your diet or forgoing your health. In fact, you can still stay on track when you’re eating out. How would anyone survive otherwise? Eating out – whether it’s on the go or sitting down with friends – is a part of life, and having a social life is just as important to a healthy lifestyle as eating a healthy, balanced diet.
It’s slowly becoming more common for restaurants to display their nutritional information right on the menu, but you won’t find it everywhere. That’s why it’s important to read menu descriptions and be able to figure out which options are healthy and which ones to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done! For example, you’d think ordering a bowl of Chicken Noodle soup would be a healthy starter, but at P.F. Chang’s that starter will cost you nearly 800 calories and 24 grams of fat!
It might be tricky, but with a little will-power and these helpful tips, you’ll learn how to decode menus and never feel guilty about going out to eat again!
1. Ask how food is prepared. If the menu doesn’t specify how something is cooked, there is nothing wrong with asking! You might think you’re ordering a healthy chicken and vegetable dish, but then it comes out swimming in oil. You can usually ask that your food be cooked with less or no butter or oil, and if you order a chicken sandwich, make sure the chicken is grilled, not fried.
2. Always get dressing, gravy, and other sauces on the side. Salad dressing can turn a 400-calorie salad into a high-fat, 800-calorie disaster! By ordering it on the side, you can control how much you use. And you usually don’t need half of what they give you!
3. Avoid items on the menu that say fried (crunchy or crispy), au gratin,braised, buttered, creamed or escalloped. Anything “smoldered in cheese” is also usually a red flag. Look for baked, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, or steamed instead!
4. Skip the bread and butter. In fact, ask that it not be brought to the table at all – if no one else wants it, of course. Instead of loading up on carbs before your meal, order a side salad or something light that will help fill you up in a healthy way. One breadstick from Olive Garden has 150 calories, and it’s pretty hard to stop at one!
5. Substitute sides or toppings. Ask for a baked potato or side salad instead of french fries, or a low-carb lettuce wrap in exchange for a sandwich bun or bread. TGI Friday’s Cobb Salad has 1245 calories. Asking for dressing on the side, and getting rid of the bacon and cheese will save you a couple hundred calories. Most restaurants will be happy to accommodate, either for free or a very small charge, and you’ll save hundreds of calories.
6. Order from the “light” menu. Many restaurants now offer a healthy, lower calorie menu that still offers plenty of delicious options. This makes it a whole lot easier to pick something healthy. These options usually have the nutritional info right there on the menu, so you can pick the best one for you, whether it’s something lower in calories, sodium or fat. Some even have “skinny” cocktails!
7. Share an entree. Portion sizes are much bigger than they should be in restaurants, so why not share an entree? Order a starter salad (with the dressing on the side!) for each person and then ask to share the entree plate. Most restaurants will be nice and actually bring out the dinner on two separate plates. If no one wants to share, or you want to have something to bring home with you, ask for a to-go box when your meal comes. That way you can put half away before you’re tempted to eat the whole thing – sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs!
8. Stick with water with lemon or unsweetened iced tea. Avoid soda and juice, and especially fancy cocktails that sound like desserts. If you’re going to drink alcohol, stick to one glass of wine.
But remember, eating out is supposed to be fun! Don’t stress out too much about every little thing you eat, or everytime you go out to eat. It’s okay to treat yourself once in a while!