I used to feel that eating in a restaurant was a treat, and treats, by nature, didn’t always have to be healthy. While it’s true that the occasional treat never hurt anyone, these days I find myself eating in restaurants several times a week, and that’s more than occasional. If like me, you eat out regularly, it’s important to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of restaurant menus.
Eating healthy at home is easy when you’re committed to it. You have complete control over the products you buy and the ingredients you choose. But eating in restaurants can be a lot more challenging. With less control, limited choices and a whole lot of temptation, many of us find ourselves making less-than-ideal choices when we eat out.
But eating in a restaurant doesn't have to mean sabotaging your efforts. More and more restaurants are offering healthy choices. We’re even seeing grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and organic greens on an increasing number of menus. But no matter where you go, armed with a few smart strategies and your commitment to healthy choices, it’s possible to make eating in a restaurant an enjoyable and healthy experience.
Start with smart choices
Some suggestions are obvious: avoid deep fried menu items, fatty meats and heavy cream sauces. Stick with simple grilled fish, seafood or chicken dishes. Steer clear of white bread, white pasta and white rice dishes in favour of whole grain options, and eat at most half the portion of these – restaurants are notorious for piling plates with outrageous portions, especially of cheap ingredients like carbohydrates.
It’s also important to look beyond the basic item you’re ordering and consider how it’s prepared. Anything with the word “crispy” in the description is probably deep fried. Anything with the word “creamy” is usually loaded with – you guessed it – cream, or butter or cheese. In addition to watching out for sources of unwanted fat, it’s important to look out for added sugar, which is lurking in anything called “sweet,” “honey” or often “glazed,” and anything with ketchup or teriyaki in the sauce.
To get what you want ... ask for it
Probably the most important thing you can do to avoid making poor choices in restaurants is speak up. Much to my family’s amusement, I rarely order something off the menu without first asking a few questions, and often requesting a substitution as a result. Many – though not all -- kitchens are quite amenable to reasonable changes to menu items to suit your preferences.
For starters, I always ask about how things are prepared, what’s in a sauce or dressing and what comes with or on my meal. Most restaurants are happy to change a creamy dressing to an oil and vinegar one. I’ll often swap the side dishes that come with my entrée for healthier choices that are served with another. Even restaurants that aren't keen on substitutions will usually give you extra vegetables instead of a carbohydrate side dish. Of course, you can always simply ask to omit heavy sauces or ingredients you’d rather avoid, such as bacon and cheese. In their place, why not ask for additional flavour-packed healthier options such as Dijon mustard, avocado, roasted peppers, onions, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, or olives? Hint: if you see it somewhere else on the menu, you know they have it in the kitchen. They can always decline your request if it inconveniences the kitchen, but there’s no harm in asking.
Another important step in keeping the damage to a minimum when eating out is to avoid drinking your calories. Of course, water is always the best beverage choice. Order it with sliced lemon for more flavour. Sparkling water with lemon or lime feels like a treat, without any unwanted calories or artificial sweeteners. When it comes to alcohol, while I wouldn't recommend it every day, for many of us, there are times when a drink is a part of a social occasion. It’s best to avoid mixed drinks which are packed with sugar. Red wine is a better choice and even contains anti-oxidants, although not enough to justify drinking too much or too often. Even when drinking wine, stick to a glass or two and continue drinking lots of water at the same time.
When it comes to dessert, it’s hard to find a reasonable option on a restaurant menu. If my dining companions are having dessert (and they often do), I usually order a chamomile tea so I have something to enjoy while they’re enjoying theirs. If that’s not enough to keep me happy, I usually make sure I have a square of dark organic chocolate or a healthy treat like these Raw-kin Mint Madness Cookies waiting for me at home. And if that’s still not enough, I allow myself one spoonful of someone else's dessert. Because a spoonful – no matter how decadent -- is just a spoonful. And everyone deserves an occasional treat.
Rena Rubin-Hines is a nutritionist specializing in women’s health issues. Rena's philosophy is if we eat better, we feel better and we look better. With a no-nonsense approach to health and nutrition, Rena offers straight answers, practical advice and effective solutions to a wide range of women’s health issues including weight loss, anti-aging, digestive health, as well as prevention and treatment of a variety of health conditions. Rena is dedicated to helping women live healthier lives, naturally.