According to a 2010 USDA report, eating just one meal at a restaurant adds an average of 134 calories to your daily energy intake, so a once-a-week dining-out habit translates to roughly 2 pounds gained per year (Todd, Mancino & Lin 2010). Now consider that most Americans eat away from home an average of 5.8 times per week—a fifth of their meals and a third of their total calorie intake (Berman & Lavizzo-Mourey 2008)—and the importance of bolstering your eating-out expertise becomes clear.
With that in mind, consider these practical strategies for eating healthfully while dining in restaurants, from Megan Senger, writer, sales consultant and fitness instructor based in North Carolina.
Plan Before Eating
Check online offerings before making dining decisions. Restaurants with easy-to-find online nutrition information have much lower caloric, fat and sodium content across all menu offerings than eateries that provide information only upon request, a recent study found (Wu & Sturm 2012).
You can also look for smartphone apps that help you monitor your meals. For instance, www.HealthyDiningFinder.com, a dietitian-driven website published by Healthy Dining, based in San Diego, offers an iPhone app called yumPower, a free download in the App Store. “All Healthy Dining-approved menu items are listed [for participating restaurants], along with corresponding nutrition information,” says dietitian Lauren Rezende, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for Healthy Dining. The app can also help you find zip code—specific menu choices in a variety of customized categories, including fiber-rich foods and dining for diabetics.
Make the Most of the Menu
Ask the waiter how and with what a dish is prepared. For example, are the veggies steamed and then served, or steamed and doused with flavorful butter? Plus, find out what comes with the meal, says Rezende. “If it’s served with fries or garlic mashed potatoes, request steamed brown rice or a plain baked potato instead.”
Also make sure you get enough veggies in your meal. Did you know that away-from-home dishes contain up to a third less fruit, vegetables and whole grains than at-home meals, and levels of whole fruit and dark-green and orange vegetables are hit particularly hard (Todd, Mancino & Lin 2010)? To counter this, always order a side of vegetables, says Mary Jane Detroyer, MS, RD, dietitian, exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer, and ask how they are prepared. The best bet? Steamed veggies without butter, oil or cream sauce.
Manage the Meal
To sidestep supersized selections, consider sharing an entrée with a friend, along with an added salad, says Rezende. You could also piece together a healthy meal by pairing an appetizer with a side dish, as HealthyDiningFinder.com suggests. Bear in mind, though, that restaurant appetizers have, on average, more calories, fat and sodium than any other category of menu item (Wu & Sturm 2012).
Also, you don’t have to feel stuffed after a meal to get value for your dollar, says Ryan Johnston, executive chef and partner at restaurants Whisknladle and Prepkitchen in San Diego. Instead, he suggests, ask the waiter to wrap up half of your entrée before digging in.
Berman, M., & Lavizzo-Mourey, R. 2008. Obesity prevention in the information age: Caloric information at the point of purchase. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 300 (4), 433-35.
Todd, J.E., Mancino, L., & Lin, B.H. 2010. The impact of food away from home on adult diet quality, ERR-90, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err90/; retrieved May 28, 2012.
Wu, H.W., & Sturm, R. 2012. What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutrition (May 11), 1-10.