healthy diningBack in the day, going out to a restaurant was a rare opportunity. When I was growing up, eating out meant dressing up and very likely celebrating a major milestone. Otherwise, tradition had us eating meals at home. Today, eating out is the norm. As calendars overflow with appointments and free time a rare commodity, fast-food restaurants save the day. However, it has come at a cost. Obesity and heart disease are prevalent. As March welcomes National Nutrition Month, there’s no better time than now to learn to eat out with less guilt and better health.

When eating out it’s often difficult to stay within healthy guidelines. Unfortunately, all too often convenience trumps health. However, if you’re willing to make small changes by ordering differently and speak up when selections are limited, it might not be all doom and gloom.

To start, don’t feel awkward about making special requests at a restaurant. Believe it or not, many items on a menu can be tweaked to be more heart friendly, simply by requesting low-fat ingredients and less salt. If you’re not comfortable asking in person, consider calling ahead and find out if they can accommodate your needs. My hunch is they will.

In addition to assuring your food is prepared with health in mind, order smaller portions. Frequently, people struggle with weight because they don’t realize how much they’re eating. Cutting down on portions is the surest way to cut down on your waistline. If the restaurant doesn’t offer half-portions, share entrees with a friend or immediately put ½ of your meal in a to-go box for later.

Beyond those basic rules for eating out, here are some suggestions to help make restaurants choices healthier:

  • If the menu says fried, pan fried or sautéed, walk away. These foods are going to be loaded with calories, consisting of mostly salt and fat. Instead, stick with broiled, grilled, steamed, baked, or roasted foods. If you’re not sure, ask. It’s your server’s job to make sure you’re well taken care of so you walk away happy.
  • Inquire as to the type of oil they use to cook. Ideally, you want to look for canola, olive, or sunflower oil. If they cook with butter, request a healthier option.
  • Avoid high-sodium foods by staying away from pickled, sauces, smoked, au jus, soy or teriyaki sauce. Be sure as ask that your food be prepared without added salt or MSG.
  • If you must have gravy, sauce or dressing, request they be served on the side so you can control the amount you eat. A better option for dressing is oil and vinegar which allows you to control the amount of oil/ fat you’re consuming.
  • If a restaurant puts bread on the table immediately after you’re seated, kindly ask that they take it away. Not only do you not need the extra calories, but the bread served is typically white and holds little if any nutritional value. If you’re hungry, opt for a salad instead.
  • If you enjoy a glass of wine prior to dinner, save it until your dinner is served. Drinking alcohol reduces inhibitions and can increase caloric intake. I suggest 1/1 ration of water to alcohol. Limiting your alcohol consumption is not only better for your health, but you’ll be less likely to overeat.
  • In lieu of dessert, ask instead for fresh fruit or sorbet. It’s a wonderful alternative to the high calorie, high sugar desserts commonly offered. If a dessert is part of the nights festivities, order one and share it with the table.
  • When it comes to fast food restaurants, if you have to go use common sense. Skip the fries or anything else fried. Limit heavy dressings on salads or sandwiches. Cut what you normally eat by a 1/3 or ideally a half. Skip the soda and opt for water.

Going out to eat can be tasty as well as healthy. You just have to know what you want and prepare what you’re looking for ahead of time. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate your requests in hopes of bringing you back to their establishment. So don’t be afraid to ask. It ends up being a win-win, they garner a new customer and you keep your health in check. Celebrate Nutrition Month by making healthier choices for a healthier you!

For more information on National Nutrition Month, visit www.eatright.org