Mastering the Menu
An insider's guide to eating well when eating out.
With Americans eating more and more meals outside the home, an old adage needs an update: “You are what you eat—and
Yes, Americans love eating out—five to six times a week on average, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA 2015a). We also spend 47% of our food dollars in restaurants, meaning they surpass grocery stores as our main food source (NRA 2015b). The dining-out dynamic has changed dramatically in recent years. What used to be a now-and-then special event has become an everyday health buster, especially since restaurant meals now offer generally larger portions than we would make at home—with more calories and fat.
Eating out isn’t helping the global obesity and healthcare crisis, either. In study after study (e.g., Diliberti et al. 2004; KeystoneCenter 2006; Lin, Frazao
Guthrie 1999), the frequency of consuming restaurant food correlates with higher body weight and body fat. If we indeed eat out the average five times a week, we stand to gain up to 10 pounds a year.
Yet we’re also seeing changes in the dining mindset. The National Restaurant Association reports that three-fourths of American adults say they’re trying to make more healthful choices at restaurants than they did 2 years ago (NRA 2013). And restaurants are noticing, offering menu items that are healthier and smaller in both portion size and price.
I have the honor of cochairing the Healthy Menus R
D Collaborative at The Culinary Institute of America®.
The Collaborative is a group of food-service operators who are developing tasty solutions for changing appetites. The group’s efforts are centered on planning strategic calorie design, adding more produce to the plate, improving carbohydrate quality and reducing sodium. The results? Many restaurants now offer menu items—often below 600 calories (CIA 2015)—that are fresh, fun and flavorful, giving guests choices that are delicious
In December 2016, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to post nutrition information about the foods they serve (FDA 2015). But that’s next year, and it might not apply to your favorite local restaurants. With that mind, consider these insider tips to help you and your clients navigate their menu and restaurant experiences—making the decision to eat out a wellness booster, not a health buster.
Choose the Restaurant Well, and Plan Ahead
Try to be the person who chooses the restaurant for your outing. Look for places that have healthy, lighter options on the menu, so you’ll have better choices. Before you go, visit the website of the place you’ve chosen, and scan for nutritional information. If you don’t see anything healthy, pick another restaurant.
At the restaurant, a vast array of great-sounding menu items can be so overwhelming that you may feel rushed to decide when ordering. This is why it’s so important to plan ahead. With a clear idea of what you might order, you can plan your day’s exercise and food choices accordingly. I generally suggest sticking to one “extra” item beyond the entrée: enjoying an appetizer or a dessert or a glass of wine—but not all three.
Power-Snack Before You Go
Go ahead, spoil your appetite! A light, protein-rich snack a few hours before a meal can dull your hunger and help you eat more selectively. Don’t arrive at the restaurant famished; you don’t want to fall headfirst into the bread basket or an indulgent appetizer.
Watch for Warning Signs
Scrutinize the menu for red flags that indicate high-calorie, fat-rich foods—anything creamy, crispy, fried, breaded, stuffed or smothered. Instead, pick foods that are grilled, roasted, steamed, poached or broiled.
Be on guard for menu descriptions that contain words like
buttery, bisque, pan-fried, au gratin, Thermidor, Newburg, Parmesan, cheese sauce
Au lait, à la mode
(with milk, ice cream or cheese) likely mean loads of saturated fat or even trans fat. Fats are not necessarily unhealthy. The key is to take charge of the quantity and the type (beneficial fat, as found in avocados, nuts and olive oils).
generally means the food is cooked with extra fat; I usually ask to have it prepared with as little oil as possible.
Scan for Better-for-You Options
Order from the lower-calorie or lighter-choices section on the menu, if it’s available. Many restaurants are putting great creativity and flavor into those dishes, and the menu often lists the nutrition content. Look for these:
- fish, seafood and fresh, seasonal produce that’s grilled, steamed or roasted
- tomato or fruit salsas or chutneys
- pico di gallo, marinated vegetables, citrus vinaigrettes, beans and whole grains
Get Exactly What You Want
Be prepared to mix and match. This is a powerful key to the dining kingdom: Ask for it your way! Dining out is no time to be meek. Restaurants are in business to please their guests—and they are accustomed to special requests, so don’t fear asking the server to make changes to the menu. For example:
- If an item is fried, simply ask to have it grilled. For example, “crispy” fish in fish tacos can be grilled instead.
- Instead of a side of creamed spinach, ask for it sautéed with lemon. Order your broccoli steamed rather than bathed in cheese sauce.
- If a dish comes with french fries, au gratin potatoes or mac and cheese, ask for a side of grilled, steamed or roasted veggies or fruit instead.
- Ask for brown rice or whole-grain pasta in place of white, or replace the rice with extra veggies or beans.
Ask that heavier sauces and salad dressings be brought on the side, so you decide how much to drizzle—a little goes a long way. Alternatively, replace them with a salsa, pico di gallo or citrus vinaigrette.
- Turn any salad into an entrée salad by asking to have it topped with simply grilled fish, shrimp or meat—with dressing on the side or lightly tossed in half the normal amount.
Bottom line: Assume that you can have the food prepared the way you want it. And don’t forget you can become the chef of your own plate—ask for lemon or lime, balsamic vinegar, black pepper and sriracha to flavor it your way.
Take Charge of Your Portion
Whether you’re eating fast food or sit-down fare, monstrous portions can undermine your best intentions for healthy eating. It’s not unusual for a single restaurant meal to contain an entire day’s worth of calories. Research shows that when portion sizes are larger, most people tend to eat 30%–50% more (Wansink
Van Ittersum 2007).
To avoid this, order an appetizer and a salad (or two seafood- and vegetable-based appetizers) in place of an entrée. If you are eating with someone else, try sharing a more indulgent appetizer or sharing an appetizer or salad and then splitting an entrée. Or order the entrée, eat half and take the rest home for another meal. If you question your resolve to stop at half, ask to have half of your entrée boxed before it ever gets to the table. Again, if food is in front of us, we tend to eat it, even when we’re full.
One trick to discourage overeating is simply to slow down. When we eat too fast, we often eat too much. Eating fast short-circuits the digestive system’s natural fullness signals—it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full. So take it down a notch. Enjoy the company of those you’re with, and try putting your fork down between bites. Sip water after a bite; don’t wash food down with it (or with wine either!). This might take a little practice, but it does make for a more leisurely meal.
Another way to avoid overeating is to order a salad or broth-based soup as your first course. There is some evidence that when people eat a broth-based soup or a veggie salad before the entrée, they tend to eat fewer calories for the entire meal (Penn State 2007; Rolls, Roe
Meengs 2004). And evidence also suggests that eating your food in calorie order—that is, eating low-calorie foods like vegetables first, grains second and protein last—satisfies hunger more quickly.
Rethink the Drink
It’s easy to forget about the calories in the drink we order, whether it’s an alcoholic beverage or a glass of iced tea. One serving of sweetened tea or a Frappuccino®, for instance, can have 200–250 calories. A glass of wine has only about 120–150 calories, but some mixed drinks can be well over 300 or 350 calories.
Drink plain water or sparkling water with your meals and with your glass of wine. Water helps fill us up, so we tend to consume less alcohol. Skip the fancy cocktails, and opt for a glass of wine, a light beer, a vodka and tonic or a simple martini, without sweet liquors or simple syrups.
Reconsider—or Just Say No to—Dessert
No one wants a “boat sinker” after a meal, but we often want something sweet. One restaurant dessert can suffice for 4–6 people: if you can’t skip this course, you can share. The trend toward mini-indulgent desserts has taken hold, which is great, but you can always have some sorbet—or even a small piece of dark chocolate at home.
Remember, we can totally control what we order and how much we eat. It is more than possible to dine out—frequently and adventurously—and enjoy great food that is great for you, without compromising your wellness or fitness goals. Bon appétit! n
Pamela M. Smith, RD, is the co-creator of Darden’s restaurants Bahama Breeze© and Seasons 52©. She cochairs the healthy Menus R&D Collaborative at the Culinary Institute of America© and has hosted culinary demos and events at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival for 20 years. She has written 15 books, and her daily radio spot, Living Well, is heard on over 800 stations nationwide. Visit her at www.pamsmith.com.
CIA (Culinary Institute of America). 2015. Healthy Menus R & D collaborative. Accessed Sept. 15, 2015.ÔÇ®
Diliberti, N. et al. 2004. Increased portion size leads to increased energy intake in a restaurant meal. Obesity Research, 12 562-68. ÔÇ®
FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). 2015. Overview of FDA labeling requirements for restaurants, similar retail food establishments and vending machines. Accessed Sept. 15, 2015. www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabelingNutrition/ucm248732.htm. ÔÇ®
Keystone Center. 2006. The Keystone forum on away-from-home foods: Opportunities for preventing weight gain and obesity. Washington, DC: The Keystone Center.ÔÇ®
Lin, B-H., Frazao, E,, & Guthrie, J. 1999. Away-from-home foods increasingly important to quality of American diet. Economic Research Service/ USDA. Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 749. ÔÇ®
NRA (National Restaurant Association). 2013. Restaurant Nutrition Initiatives. 2013. www.restaurant.org/getattachment/Industry-Impact/Food-Healthy-Living/Nutrition-Report_Final_low.pdf.ÔÇ®
NRA (National Restaurant Industry). 2015a. 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast. www.restaurant.org/News-Research/Research/Forecast-2015.ÔÇ®
NRA (National Restaurant Industry). 2015b. Facts at a glance. Accessed Sept. 15, 2015. www.restaurant.org/News-Research/News/Restaurant-sales-surpass-grocery-store-sales-for-t. ÔÇ®
Penn State (Pennsylvania State University). 2007. Eating soup will help cut calories at meal. Accessed Sept. 15, 2015. www.psu.edu/story/196394/2007/04/25/eating-soup-will-help-cut-calories-meal. ÔÇ®
Rolls, B.J., Roe, L.S., & Meengs, J.S. 2004. Salad and satiety: Energy density and portion size of a first course salad affect energy intake at lunch. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104, 1570-76. ÔÇ®
Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. 2007. Portion size me: Downsizing our consumption norms. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107ÔÇ¿(7), 1103-1106.ÔÇ®