How to Make Healthy Food Choices When Dining Out

You’re hungry, on the go, and need something fast and tasty. Most days, you’re armed with a cooler full of meals and snacks—nuts, yogurt, fruit, veggies and hummus—so you can handle hunger when it strikes. But today things didn’t go quite as planned and now you’re faced with choosing from the myriad fast food and restaurants near you. One question looms: Can you find something healthy to eat?

The short answer is: Yes. However, be aware that most items from restaurants (let’s use this term to include all dining establishments) are high in fat, sodium, sugar and calories. And while they may be convenient, these meals can put a big dent in your wallet if eaten too often. Restaurants love to add lots of salt to their food because it enhances flavor. Sugar hides in most sauces, marinades, dips and dressings. Extra fat, like oil and butter, lurks in dishes as a cooking medium as well as a flavor and texture component. It’s no wonder that most entrees clock in around 1,000 calories!

The good news: You can avoid these nutrition traps. These tips will help you breeze through the menu of any restaurant:

Pre-read the Menu
Thanks to technology, you can read through a restaurant’s menu on its website to see what they have to offer. The best time to look at an online menu is before you get hungry, so your hunger isn’t driving your decisions.

 

Choose Veggies and Protein
Let’s talk basic nutrition. Foods high in protein, fiber and water go the furthest in filling you up. These foods take longer to digest and will keep you full for longer. Choose lean proteins such as grilled chicken, turkey, grilled fish, beans, tofu and veggie burgers. Limit cheese and anything battered or breaded, as these items are usually deep-fried.

Read through the salad section to see the range of options. Some of our favorite options are:

  • Grilled fish tacos with salsa and guacamole
  • Chinese chicken salad (hold the fried wonton strips and ask for the dressing on the side)
  • Turkey burger loaded with veggies and wrapped in a large lettuce leaf
  • Sashimi, edamame and cucumber salad
  • Baja bowl with black beans, grilled chicken or fish, lots of salsa and sliced avocado

Cooking Method Matters
How a food is prepared can make a huge difference in the fat and calorie count. The following words should have a red flag next to them as they are code for “food bomb:” breaded, fried, deep-fried, creamy, crispy, cheesy, au gratin, Alfredo, scalloped. Instead, look for these key terms that indicate a healthier option: grilled, baked, broiled, roasted, chargrilled, steamed, stir-fried. Some fat is good, but it’s best to get it from avocado, nuts and seeds, especially when you don’t know what kind of fat they are using in the kitchen for cooking.

Portion Size
Over the past few decades, portion sizes have grown significantly bigger. It probably has something to do with the “Supersize” trend that had people wanting more food for their dollar. Bigger was always better from a value perspective, but from a health perspective, this is not the case. Bigger portions equal more calories, which are more likely to lead to unwanted weight gain and an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Stick with the smallest portion size for foods such as burgers (junior or single vs. double), sandwiches (6-inch vs. 12-inch) and fries. When it comes to veggies, bigger can be better, as long as it isn’t doused in dressing. For protein, aim for something that’s the size of the palm of your hand. For starches (rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, tortillas, etc.) and fruit, one portion is about the size of your fist. Aim for two fistfuls for veggies.

Watch the Sides
French fries. Potato salad. Macaroni salad, Mashed potatoes and gravy. Chips. What do all of these have in common? They’re fatty, salty starches with lots of calories and not a lot of nutrients. We’re all conditioned to want to have chips with our sandwich, but the extra fat and salt will have your pants fitting a little tighter. Opt for a side of fruit or veggies and hummus or guacamole or just skip it all together.

Don’t Drink Your Calories
Too often we find our clients taking in hundreds of calories a day from seemingly innocent juices, smoothies, coffee drinks and sports beverages. Yes, juices and smoothies are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but they are also full of calories and sugar and will not leave you feeling full. In fact, you’re more likely to feel hungrier faster after drinking a juice because liquids digest quicker than solid food. Plus, all of that sugar will get metabolized quickly (due to the lack of fiber, protein and fat) and leave you with a low blood sugar level. Hydration is important and water is one of the keys to satiety (along with protein and fiber). If it’s difficult to get your requisite 2 liters of water a day (or more if you sweat a lot), look to unsweetened tea (green or black) or coffee, as well as sparkling water to satisfy your needs.

Don’t Be Afraid to Special Order
Do you remember the famous restaurant scene in the movie When Harry met Sally, where Meg Ryan’s character orders her apple pie a la mode but has all sorts of special requests so that she can have it just the way she wants? Sure, the waitress may have looked at her a little funny, but the point is that it’s O.K. to ask for your food to be prepared a certain way. It’s your meal and you’re paying good money for it, so why shouldn’t it be just right? To keep fat, sugar and calories under control, watch out for condiments (mayo, salad dressing and BBQ sauce), added cheese, anything crunchy (croutons, wontons, fried onions, chips) and side dishes (see above). Ideally, half of your plate should be filled with vegetables, with the other half divided between a lean protein and a whole grain. Better ways to brighten your dish is with pepper, fresh lemon juice, mustard, hummus, guacamole, salsa and vinegar.

Be Mindful
If you are going to choose a burger and fries or pizza over a salad or sandwich, make sure to be present and mindful when you eat it and really enjoy it. You should never feel any guilt or shame because you indulged in French fries or onion rings. Food is meant to nourish you and give you energy, not put you in a bad mood.

The Bottom Line
Dining out doesn’t have to turn into a diet disaster if you watch portion sizes and choose items on the menu that have more nutritional value. Limiting restaurant meals to once or twice a week should provide a good balance for being able to achieve weight and health goals.

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