There are over 600,000 restaurants in the United States today, and the number is growing. Americans are eating out more and consuming more calories. But if you know what to look for, you can dine out and still maintain your waistline. The first rule is to choose a restaurant that offers healthy options. Many list their menu online. If you don’t see healthy choices, pick another restaurant. If you are celebrating an occasion and you think you might overeat, have a small apple 30 minutes before you go. This will help you to be less hungry and make a more thoughtful choice at dinner.
Many restaurants start with a complimentary basket of bread or fried chips. Ask to skip this course. A plate of fresh raw vegetables makes an excellent appetizer; crunchy, flavorful and not too filling. Choose a calorie free beverage such as water, unsweetened tea or an artificially sweetened beverage. A glass of wine or beer has fewer calories than a sugary tropical drink. Drinking water during the meal slows you down which helps you enjoy the food more, and gives your brain time to signal that you’re full - perhaps before your plate is empty.
Starting the meal with a salad will reduce hunger and make you feel satisfied longer. Just remember where the calories are in a salad. Where? Dressings, cheese, meats and fried croutons. Salads in creamy sauces like coleslaw, pasta salad or potato salad are high calorie choices. Make this a veggie course. All vegetables are low calorie. Always ask for salad dressing on the side. Dip your fork into the dressing and then into the salad for dressing on every bite and a lot less calories. Fruits such as mango, kiwi, melon and pear are often the ingredients that make a four-star salad. They are low calorie and packed with flavor and nutrients.
In order to make informed choices, question the server about how dishes are prepared. If an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with french fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Watch for terms like creamy, breaded or stuffed. These items can be loaded with hidden fats. Thermidor and Newburg refer to rich sauces. Ask for clarification before you choose these dishes.
Calories are concentrated in meat and dairy foods. So choose main dishes that include vegetables, such as stir fries, kebobs, or stews. Fish is always a low calorie and heart healthy choice. Even shell fish are a lower calorie choice than many meat entrees. Just pass on fried options and request sauces on the side. Think portion size. Ordering an appetizer and side dish instead of a plated entrée can save calories and dollars. Share your main dish or have the server pack half of it to go.
Calories are also concentrated in fats. Always order your baked potato with the trimmings on the side. Butter, sour cream, cheese are sources of fat and can more than triple the calories of your potato. When condiments are served on the side, you are in control of how much you eat. Remember that one level teaspoon of butter is 45 calories.
Skip dessert or choose fruit. Let’s get our palates used to less concentrated sweets. This makes our food journey more interesting and less of a calorie burden. Here’s to a happy and healthy dining out experience!
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at https://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.