In spite of the recession, the National Restaurant Association reports that American consumers eat about 25 percent of their meals away from home.
A study by Forbes shows that in 2009 restaurants accounted for the largest slice of America’s discretionary spending, eating up $392 billion.
But diners beware: Although restaurant food is meant to look and taste great, nutritional content can sometimes fall by the wayside. All too many eating establishments have menus featuring main dishes drenched in butter or rich sauces, salads with creamy dressings, and too few whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Here are the best tips for enjoying a meal out while sticking to a healthy eating plan.
• Scrutinize menus — healthful foods are almost everywhere. The trick is to know what you’re getting into before you get to the restaurant. Many restaurants have their menus online, some with nutrition information readily available. You’ll be able to choose the destination with the healthiest options, and be ready to order the best meal.
• Do not split the plate with anyone. Half portions usually do not work, given the huge portion sizes doled out at some restaurants. Half may still be too much. Rather, visualize what your plate would look like at home and try to replicate that in your restaurant meal.
• Add better options to your plate. Think about what healthy items can be added to the meal instead of only what foods to avoid. Look for whole grain breads, pastas and sides; choose foods with healthy fats, like olive oil, avocadoes and nuts; order lots of fruits and veggies; and go for lean meat, turkey, chicken or fish.
• Do not arrive starving. When too hungry, it is all too easy to scarf down several pieces of buttered bread or a tasty rich appetizer before the main meal arrives. If you are indeed hungry before going, have a small snack such as a piece of fruit or a 6-ounce light yogurt. If that is not an option, to ease hunger pangs order the restaurant’s cup of broth-based soup or small salad.
• Check out preparation. The way a dish is described on the menu provides clues to preparation. Look for the words “grilled,” “broiled” or “steamed” — foods cooked with less fat. Avoid descriptions like “fried,” “breaded,” “smothered,” “alfredo,” “rich” and “creamy.”
• Talk to the server. Seek that person’s help in ordering. For example, ask for a salad instead of fries or chips and request that those items are prepared with less oil or cheese. Ask the server not to bring or to take away the breadbasket. Get salad with dressing on the side. Even better, select an appetizer in place of a main meal.
Further, ordering “off-menu” has become standard procedure. Vegetarians and vegans — or those with specific food intolerances or allergies — can inquire about suitable dishes the chef will prepare. Many restaurants are happy to comply.
E. Kresent Thuringer is a registered member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is in private practice as a weight management specialist and medical nutrition therapist.