It’s easy to eat mindfully at home—fresh ingredients and measuring utensils for the win! The real problem is when you hit a new restaurant with friends or stop in for a quick bite somewhere. Your healthy eating plan can totally be derailed the second your server hands you a menu.
If you’re not sure whether “pan-seared” or “pan-fried” is the way to go, or if you’re lost when it comes to alcohol and dessert options, you’ve come to the right place. Here, two registered dietitians share their secrets for decoding the major diet traps while dining out.
1. Remember your “ideal plate” A good rule of thumb: half your plate should be filled with veggies (potatoes don’t count). So when you think about your meal as a whole while ordering off the menu, try to keep half of what you’ll consume vegetable-based, “Whether that means adding extra greens on the side, starting with salad and making sure your main also includes veggies, or even adding extra veggies to a pasta dish,” says Jackie London, M.S., R.D.N. “It will rack up the fiber content, which will help you feel full faster, and stay that way.”
2. Don’t fear splitting or special requests You will not be loathed by waitstaff if you make special requests to lighten up a menu item or if you ask to split a dish. “It’s important to share—you save so many calories that way,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N. “Being in a restaurant is not like going to a friend’s house for dinner. You are paying,” she says. Which means you can order one great main dish to share and two side salads, ask your server how a dish is prepared, request veggie subs for high-cal sides, ask for less butter or oil to be used for cooking—whatever, it’s your meal! (Helpful advice: If you’re splitting a meal with a friend, tipping as though you’d ordered two main courses is always a nice gesture.)
3. Choose dressing and sauce carefully “The number one pitfall my clients run into is picking items that would otherwise be healthy, but instead racking up a high-calorie-from-fat content due to cream or cheese-based dressings or sauces,” says London. The most common offenders? Caesar, ranch, creamy balsamic, and Thousand Island dressings; cream-based soup and alfredo sauces; mayo or aioli on anything; and potatoes, polenta, and other starch-based items like “creamy” risotto and pasta. All of which are butter- and cream-laden. Ask for dressing on the side and don’t use the whole pitcher—use only what you need, or opt for a tablespoon of heart-healthy olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead. Avoid cream-based main courses, or order sauce on the side there, as well. “Choosing a tomato-based sauce or vegetable broth is an easy swap—you’ll cut calories and keep the veggie-based fiber content high,” London says.
4. Forget about cleaning your plate You don’t have to be a member of the Clean Plate Club, says Taub-Dix. “Think about it,” she says. “If a 6’4” male construction worker and a 4’11” mother order the same dish, someone is getting a very wrong portion size.” Don’t rely on the restaurant to tell you how much you should eat—know what a common portion size looks like and take the rest home to enjoy as another meal later. (The Mayo Clinic has a slideshow of some common healthy portions.)
5. Look for healthy words on the menu There are good and bad menu buzzwords. The good ones: steamed, grilled, roasted, broiled, boiled, poached, “lightly” sauteed, pan-seared, and blackened. “These imply less added butter, oil, sauce, cream and breading, allowing you to enjoy the meat you choose without a lot of added calories,” says London. Some bad buzzwords: crispy, crunchy, deep-fried, pan-fried, stir-fried, breaded, parmesan, doughy, dumpling, rolls, and creamy. “These signal added calories from oil, breading, or both,” says London. “When you’re in a scenario where people are sharing appetizers or the whole meal in general, pick one of the more treat-like items, spring rolls or dumplings for instance, and have a few bites before passing it on.” This keeps calories in check so you can have your cake and eat it, too. Speaking of cake, this rule also applies to dessert. “I am never one to skip dessert, so I understand when clients don’t want to miss out on this either,” London says. “Choose one item that’s special to you, share it with a friend or date, have about three bites, and be done with it.”
6. Drink smart Don’t forget about liquid calories. Every glass adds up, and alcohol can skew your judgment, causing you to reach for the bread basket or order that extra dessert. Oops! Taub-Dix suggests sipping water while drinking alcohol at dinner, which has the added bonus of making sure your body isn’t mistaking thirst signals for hunger pangs so you don’t overeat. London recommends skipping mixed drinks, fruit-based beverages, and other cocktails, and ordering one clear drink only: wine (red, white, or champagne), spirit and soda (seltzer or diet cola, but no tonic), or the hard stuff on the rocks. “This will keep calories to a minimum and limit the double-hangover—feeling the residual effects of a high-sugar beverages,” she says.
What do you look for first when you pick up a menu?
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