Just like fast-food outlets, restaurants can be ticking time bombs when it comes to your health. Government surveys find that the food you typically eat when dining out is nutritionally worse in every way than the food you prepare at home.
Nearly all the restaurant chains have added healthier options to their menus—if you know how to look for them. You can also rely on these tips to help making eating out a healthier treat.
1. Ask for it your way. Dining out is no time to be a meek consumer, notes Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and coauthor of the book Restaurant Confidential. “You need to be an assertive consumer by asking for changes on the menu,” he says. For instance, if an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with french fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Ask for a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of the salad; for salad instead of coleslaw; baked potato instead of fried. “Just assume you can have the food prepared the way you want it,” says Dr. Jacobson. “Very often, the restaurant will cooperate.”
2. Ask to “triple the vegetables, please.” Often a side of vegetables in a restaurant is really like garnish—a carrot and a forkful of squash. When ordering, ask for three or four times the normal serving of veggies, and offer to pay extra. “I’ve never been charged,” says dietitian Jeff Novick, R.D., director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida. “And I’ve never been disappointed. I get full, not fat.”
3. Ask how the food was prepared; don’t go by the menu. For instance, cholesterol-free does not mean fat-free; the dish could still be filled with calorie-dense oil. Neither does “light” necessarily mean light in calories or fat.
4. Order from the “healthy, light, low fat” entrées on the menu. Most chains will even list the calories and nutritional content of such foods.
5. Beware of the low-carb options. Restaurant chains have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon, offering numerous low-carb options on their menu. But low-carb doesn’t mean low-cal. Check out these 25 Ways to Get More “Good Carbs” Into Your Diet!
6. Ask to box half your entrée before it ever gets to the table. Or split an entrée with your dining partner. A CSPI survey found that restaurants often serve two to three times more than food labels list as a serving.
7. Try double appetizers. If there is a nice selection of seafood-and vegetable-based appetizers, consider skipping the entrée and having two appetizers for your meal. Often, that is more than enough food to fill you up.
8. Order a salad before ordering anything else on the menu. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University found that volunteers who ate a big veggie salad before the main course ate fewer calories overall than those who didn’t have a first-course salad, notes Novick.
9. But remember: Salads shouldn’t be fatty. This is a vegetable course—keep it tasty but healthy. That means avoiding anything in a creamy sauce (coleslaw, pasta salads, and potato salads), and skipping the bacon bits and fried noodles. Instead, load up on the raw vegetables, treat yourself to a few well-drained marinated vegetables (artichoke hearts, red peppers, or mushrooms), and for a change, add in some fruit or nuts. Indeed, fruits such as mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, and pear are often the secret ingredient in four-star salads. Check out 6 More Salad Tricks to Help You Lose Weight!
10. Watch the add-ons to vegetable salads. Even salads that are mostly raw vegetables are a problem if they’re loaded with cheese and meats. Take the typical Caesar salad in most restaurants (the one topped with chicken or shrimp as well as plenty of cheese and mayo in the dressing). Add in the fried croutons and the calories add up to a whopping 560, with 36 grams of fat, 6 of them saturated. Italian antipasto salads also are a health challenge, with all their salami, spicy ham, and cheese. Get the salad, but ask for vegetables only.