5 Steps to a Healthier Meal While Dining Out

While my children were growing up, I insisted on cooking most nights. Ever the health-conscious mother, I knew that my meals would be more nutritious than takeout, even though during the busy sports and after-school activity season, the convenience of pulling into a parking lot and ordering through a microphone would have made my life so much easier (and probably would have made my boys much happier, too).

Now, as the need to cook for a family fades, I’m experiencing—along with a too-often stab of nostalgia for those hectic, crazy, family times—a fading interest in cooking. When I think about it, it’s really no surprise. I cooked dinner an average of five nights a week for many years. Let’s say, with shopping, prepping and cleaning up, that takes two hours each day. That’s 600 minutes each week spent on dinner! Over 20 years, that’s 10,400 hours preparing 5,200 meals, save for the occasional meal of leftovers, sandwiches or pancakes—or those stomach-churning nights when you send your kids to bed without dinner, because they were just too naughty.

Yeah, I’ll admit that I’m plenty cook-weary—I’m weary just thinking about all this! Chances are you are, too. The thing about empty-nesting and not having to be tethered to the stove is that there are so many more opportunities to go out with your significant other or have have girl’s night out—both worth embracing!

But eating out comes with its set of challenges, problems and enticements. There’s a certain lack of control—no, not while you’re eating the meal (there might be that), but also in the kitchen. You’re not there to control ingredients like salt, butter and other things that can push a so-called healthy-sounding dish into the unhealthy category.

And even if you’re eating at a large restaurant chain, which is required by the Affordable Care Act to list calorie counts on menus, consumer behavior hasn’t changed all that much. A review of 31 studies found that the overall impact was negligible (but the groups that did pay the most attention were women, dieters and upper-income diners; thankfully, someone is listening).

So, how can you modify your eating behavior when you’re at a restaurant?

1. Do some advance sleuthing. Almost all menus are available online. If not, the restaurant may fax you a copy. Check it out. You may be surprised to find that the restaurant you’ve been dying to try doesn’t actually offer things you’d consider eating (or for that matter, things you’d consider to be particularly healthy). Conversely, you may be able to decide what you’re ordering ahead of time, so when you get there you’re not tempted by poor choices. You’ve got to admit that the descriptions of some of the dishes on the menu are worded to make you drool in advance.

2. Start with a salad. The clams casino might very well seem like a good start, but you can bet that all the breadcrumbs and butter and bacon—the reason why it tastes so good—tips it way off the health meter. Salad has lots of volume, which helps fill you up. And it has few calories, unless you drown it in dressing.

3. Ask for dressing on the side (see above). Most restaurants serve salads with way too much dressing. And salad dressing is a hidden source of added fat, salt and sugar. Ask for dressing on the side and avoid the creamy-types. If you do like your salad already tossed, ask for “light on the dressing.” I like to use the “fork method.” I dip my fork into the dressing, then spear a piece of lettuce or other veggie. One more important thing to know: balsamic dressing, though it might sound healthy, may still contain a lot of calories. If you’re looking to cut way down, ask for balsamic vinegar—made from grape pressings and boiled down to a thick syrup and then aged. It’s so flavorful and rich, that a little goes a long way, and you may not miss the oil.

4. Instead of a main entree, order two appetizers. Most restaurant portions are way larger than you really need, and it’s too easy to eat everything on the plate before you realize you didn’t need to eat that much. Unless you are really hungry—or disciplined enough to leave half or more and bring it home—you are probably better off with two appetizers. The portions are more reasonable, yet filling. On a similar note, when ordering pasta, ask for a half-portion. Many places, even though they don’t advertise it, will do it for you. And you’ll find it’s absolutely satisfying and plenty.

5. Don’t be afraid to speak up. I used to be hesitant to ask for things like, “hold the salt,” “sauce on the side,” “no oil” or “broiled, not fried.” And sometimes I can sense the waitperson rolling their eyes when I doask. But no matter. You are paying and you have a right to eat the way you want to eat, not the way the chef deems necessary. (My apologies to the creative, hard-working chefs out there who have their special “vision” for a dish.) There’s nothing worse than not speaking up and eating something you really don’t want or like.

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