For those watching their weight, the joys of dining out are often tempered by the temptations of large portions and too many choices. And, without knowing exactly how foods are prepared, it's hard to know exactly what you're being served, or how many calories you're taking in.
Some people try to swear off restaurant dining while trying to drop a few pounds, but realistically, eating out is a fact of our busy lifestyle. With a little knowledge and planning, you can learn to make the best choices when you eat out and still stick with your diet.
In 2002, the typical household spent more than $2200 on foods eaten away from home – or a little over $900 per person. More than a third of the calories we eat - and 40 percent of the fat we consume – come from restaurant foods. Not surprisingly, fast foods provide the most calories from any food source.
Steering away from the drive-through is probably a good first step towards healthy dining out. Although some fast food restaurants do offer healthy alternatives, the usual fare is often much more enticing. Instead, choose a restaurant where you know you can get what you want, prepared how you want it.
When glancing at a menu, it helps to have a plan. Zeroing in on appetizers is a good strategy – the portions are small, and a couple of carefully chosen starters with a salad and a light soup makes a great meal. You can also keep portions reasonable by splitting an entrée with a companion (ask for an extra salad or veggie on the side).
Since we tend to eat whatever we are served – whether it's a little or a lot – ask to have half your meal set aside for carry out before it's served. That way, you'll eat half as much but you can still have the satisfaction of cleaning your plate.
Restaurants don't often skimp on fat – it adds a lot of flavor and texture to foods and it's an inexpensive ingredient. Fried foods are an obvious no-no, but added fats such as spreads, dressings, sauces and gravies should be limited, too. Salads and veggies are the healthiest foods around, but not if they're swimming in dressing or drenched in butter or rich sauces. Ask for these foods plain, with the toppings on the side so you can control how much you add. Read entrée descriptions carefully, and ask your server if you're not sure how something is prepared. "Crispy", "creamy" or "batter-dipped" foods are likely to be fatty and rich, while foods that are steamed, baked, broiled, roasted or grilled are usually safe. On the side, try skipping the starchy rice or potato and ask to swap it for an extra serving of vegetables.
Don't be fooled by the word "salad" – it's a term that is often used loosely to mean any combination of foods, but they're not all healthy. The addition of bacon, cheese, sour cream, fatty meats and mayonnaise-rich potato or pasta salads to a bed of greens can send calories skyrocketing. Ditto on those salads served in huge bread bowls or fried tortilla shells.
Even though Americans say they're calorie conscious, they do use dining out as an excuse to indulge – about 87 percent of us have dessert to finish off our restaurant meals. If eating out is something you do rarely, or only on special occasions, go for it. But if you know your way around your local restaurants better than you do your own kitchen, you might want to think twice about dessert – a piece of cheesecake can set you back as much as 1000 calories. Instead, try some herbal tea, a dish of fresh fruit, or some fat-free sorbet to close your meal. Or, see if someone will share – the first couple of bites are the best, anyway.
Think about how you usually eat when you're sticking to your plan, and try to find similar foods on the menu so you can enjoy your meal without guilt. If you're armed with a little menu savvy and a good strategy, dining out and dieting can go hand-in-hand.
Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.