For many Americans, dining out is a part of modern life, especially for those of us who travel frequently for business or even pleasure. Recently, there is increased attention on the calorie-laden entrées found in many restaurants where one meal can easily contain anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 calories. However, with a few simple strategies and a little personal effort, it is possible to dine out and avoid gaining weight.
To make smarter choices, it’s helpful to understand why restaurant meals are so high in calories. The three primary reasons are: greater than recommended amounts of fat; extra embellishments; and over-sized portions. Any one of these can add unwanted calories; most restaurant meals feature all three!
Restaurants have a goal: to make money and stay in business. To do so, their food needs to taste really good. So they add fat. Of course, a certainly amount of unsaturated fat is part of a healthy diet. However, restaurants add more fat than is healthy. It’s simple to avoid deep-fried foods and those smothered in rich cream sauces, which is a great start. However, it does get a little trickier than that. While we probably wouldn’t add oil to pasta before adding sauce, restaurants often do. Most of us think that it’s okay to eat olive oil with bread as a healthier choice compared to butter. While olive oil is good for us, we need to think about the extra calories. If you have four tablespoons of olive oil (at 130 calories per tablespoon) with two pieces of bread, it adds approximately 700 calories before your meal.
An entrée salad seems like a healthier choice, but beware of the dressing. A four-ounce ladle (restaurant standard) of ranch dressing (equivalent to eight tablespoons), adds a whopping 640 calories! You can save a few hundred calories by making a special request to have light dressing or better yet, have it on the side. By using two tablespoons instead, you can save a few hundred calories that can make a big difference over time. (Remember, an extra 100 calories per day is ten pounds in one year.)
Embellishments added to foods such as a baked potato or salad also add up. Those special items such as nuts, cheese, tortilla strips, cranberries, or croutons really do make food taste great, but do you really need four of them in one salad? Limit your options to just one or two favorites for more calorie savings.
Studies show that the more food that is on your plate, the more you eat. Most restaurant portions are really enough for two people, especially if you start with salads or vegetable soups without cream. A common mistake for “waist watchers” is to make a healthier choice but still consume too much quantity. Try splitting meals and desserts with your companion. Request that half your entrée be placed in a takeout box in the beginning of the meal so you are not tempted to finish everything on your plate. Ask your waiter if you can have an appetizer or lunch-sized portion of an entree. Depending on the restaurant, this may not be less expensive, but you have the benefit of control by limiting the amount of food that is actually on your plate.
Following are several more tips to make smarter dining choices in restaurants, which can help you save a few hundred calories at each meal:
• If you eat one to two pieces of bread before your meal, request double veggies in place of rice or potatoes to control both the amount of calories and carbs at the meal.
• Order grilled seafood when possible at 30 calories per ounce versus red meat at 70 calories per ounce.
• Order salad dressing on the side and limit it to 1 to 2 tablespoons per meal for a savings from 150 to 400 calories.
• When ordering a steak, choose the smaller cut on the menu such as the petite filet, or ask your friend to split the larger portion with you.
• Order fruit, salad, or vegetables instead of fries.
• Ask for light cheese in salads or pizza to save calories and to decrease saturated fat.
• Skip the extra beans and rice when eating other Mexican food choices that contain tortillas.
• When ordering an omelet, choose a veggie filling instead of more meat and cheese to decrease calories and saturated fat.
• Limit olive oil for bread to 1 tablespoon (silver dollar size portion of olive oil is 1 tablespoon).
• Remember that one bite of most desserts is 50 calories; share one dessert with the table.
• Pop a breath mint in your mouth as soon as you think you should be done eating. This clears your palate and diminishes the craving for more food.
Healthy dining out is not easy. It definitely takes assertiveness on your part to be successful. Most restaurants are now used to special requests and are more than happy for your business. Just remember to request special instructions when you first place your order and be nice about it. “Having it your way” may be the slogan for a fast food chain, but it’s even a greater motto for those of us who are really trying to make better choices.