Dining out can be a challenge for anyone looking to eat healthfully. Between the large portions and rich food, your goal of self-control can quickly go out the window. So long, New Year’s resolutions.
But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid setting foot in a restaurant. The key is to approach your meal with a strategy, one that doesn’t necessarily involve giving up everything you enjoy.
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“Eating healthy, I think, is all about balance,” said Maria Trabocchi, who runs four Washington restaurants with her husband, chef Fabio Trabocchi. Eat what you like, she said, but in moderation and not all the time: “You have to be very disciplined to learn how to say no.”
Here are some tips that might help you eat a little smarter at your next restaurant meal.
Look at the menu in advance.
“It’s one thing to think, ‘I’m going to get something that’s a little healthier,’” but it can be another to actually do it once you start seeing and smelling all the tempting food, said Betsy Crisafulli, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Virginia Hospital Center Physician Group.
That’s why she recommends checking the menu in advance and deciding what you’re going to order before you arrive at the restaurant, because diners tend to consume more calories when they make a decision closer to the actual meal.
Avoid words like “fried,” “cream” and “battered.”
Peruse the menu and look for descriptors that indicate which dishes won’t meet healthful thresholds.
Also look for “hidden land mines,” said Jeff Tunks, the chef and restaurateur behind PassionFish, TenPenh and Acadiana, who took off more than 100 pounds and has kept it off. That means thinking about what’s in a dish even when ingredients aren’t explicitly stated.
Consider butter, for example. It can be melted over steak, brushed on a bun or tossed with vegetables. Mayonnaise usually finds its way into potato salad. Cream is often used to enrich soups. These ingredients may not be listed on the menu, so be upfront with your server about your concerns.
Don’t order everything at once.
When it comes to the various, and often confusing, plate sizes on menus these days, don’t be shy about asking for guidance. (But don’t let yourself be oversold, either.) You can always order more food, and the proliferation of small plates makes it easier to order as you go. That way, you don’t end up overeating.
Also, if you find portion control challenging, it can help to box up a part of your meal before you start eating. Another option, Crisafulli said, is to avoid main courses and look to the appetizer menu, where portions are smaller. “It’s an appropriate amount for many people,” she said.
Try to be the first person to order. By starting things off, you set the tone for the meal, Crisafulli said. And you won’t be swayed by what your friends are getting.
Seek out lean proteins and vegetables.
Lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, can make you feel full without a lot of calories. Ditto for vegetables, which you should not only seek out, but also double up on.
Tunks allows himself one cheat day a week in which he eats red meat, but otherwise he relies heavily on broth-style soups, which can be filling, not to mention flavorful, without a lot of fat.
Trabocchi said more and more diners are opting to take the lean-protein route: Sales of fish have increased at all of the couple’s restaurants in the past two years. Fiola Mare, with its emphasis on seafood, is particularly popular with people looking to eat lighter.
But the way these foods are cooked matters. The menu can help guide you: “Grilled,” “broiled,” “poached,” “lightly sauteed” and, for sauces, “on the side” are all good signs.
Salads aren’t always the best option.
One reason: the dressing. You don’t always know what’s in it, and there can be a lot of it. Feel free to ask for it on the side, and keep in mind that salads tossed with oil and vinegar are often a better option than, say, ranch dressing.
Another problem: Chefs tend to serve salads with hefty toppings. The result? “It ends up being a lot of food,” Crisafulli said, especially heavy ones that feature such proteins as breaded chicken tenders (grilled is better) and such garnishes as croutons and large amounts of cheese. The ever-popular Caesar salad, which in many restaurants has evolved into a sodium-laden calorie bomb of cheese and croutons, should usually be avoided.
But Crisafulli said that doesn’t mean you should avoid all salads — and the ones you do order don’t have to be boring. Look for varieties packed with fruits, vegetables and ingredients like roasted nuts and bold cheeses, which pack a flavorful punch in relatively small quantities.
Cut back on the alcohol.
The federal government’s U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest women consume no more than seven drinks per week, men twice that much. (A drink is considered to be about 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of liquor.) If you imbibe, stick to the basics — a shot with such no-calorie mixers as club soda, or a glass of wine, for example.
Trabocchi’s strategy involves skipping alcohol at lunch. She said it’s also a good idea to set a two-glass maximum for wine per meal. After that, if you want something interesting to sip while being social, think tea or sparkling water instead.
Split dessert with your dining companions.
“Generally, I don’t discourage people from having desserts,” Crisafulli said. That can put you in a deprivation mind-set, one that can make you crave them even more and eventually cause you to give in and overindulge. Her advice: Take three bites — those first few tastes can be the most flavorful and satisfying — and then share with the rest of the table.
Fruit-based sorbets are a good alternative if you want to eat more dessert without so many calories.
Recognize when you’re full.
Even with careful ordering, it can be easy to overeat, especially among the distractions of a lively environment and friends. On a hunger and fullness scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being “Thanksgiving Day full” — Crisafulli said you should aim to stop eating when you’ve reached 7 or 8: full but not uncomfortable.
“That is a hard point to recognize for many people,” she said. “So many of us are trained to eat everything on our plate.”