In fact, many of us are eating at least 50 percent of our meals away from home. We do it for convenience, for pleasure, and out of necessity.
Typically, when we dine out our calorie intake is much higher than when we eat at home because we tend to overdo it—eating larger portions and indulging more than when we eat at home. In addition, food in restaurants is prepared in ways that add extra calories, and more often than not we tack on extras (such as appetizers, bread, and dessert) that we may be less inclined to eat at home.
Although a calorie splurge is okay for a special occasion, we need to curtail those splurges if we are dining out more than once a week or we risk gaining unwanted pounds. Every meal away from home increases an adult’s average daily calorie count by about 135 calories when the same foods are compared (a homemade grilled cheese sandwich versus a restaurant version, for example), according to the US Department of Agriculture. But chances are good that the actual calorie increase is probably even higher because when we dine out most ofus order food items that we do not make at home (think French fries with a burger).
If you are among the many who dine out often, keep in mind that there are strategies for restaurant dining that can improve your health and help keep your calorie count in check. Becoming savvy about making healthier choices can keep what should be a pleasurable experience from becoming dangerous to your waistline while helping lower your risk of chronic disease.
Tailor the meal to meet your needs. Do not be timid about asking for what you want. A simple request can save you hundreds of unwanted calories. Sauces and salad dressing on the side, double the vegetables, and holding the white rice—all can make a difference. While the chicken Caesar salad may seem like a good idea, if you do not ask for the dressing on the side and limit it to two tablespoons, you can end up eating a meal with more calories than a burger and fries.
Asking for less cheese or only half the pasta is an easy request for a restaurant to accommodate and can make a real difference in how much you consume. It is much harder to face a large portion or too much cheese and resist the urge to eat what is in front of you than to request less upfront. Or, if you do get a full-size portion, request a “to go” container and box up half the large portion for another meal. Too often we consume more than we need to just because it is on the plate in front of us.
Beware Red Flags
When you look at the menu and consider your choices, get in the habit of avoiding some especially unhealthy options upfront. Preparations and descriptions to avoid include crispy, fried, and smothered—all indicate higher calorie content. Instead look for dishes that are grilled or broiled—both healthier cooking methods. If you order something sautéed, ask for light butter or oil.
Control Your Portions
While you may not always be able to control what is available, you can control how much you eat. Split an entrée if possible; most restaurant meals are enough food for two. If you are splitting an entrée but feel you will not be satisfied, consider ordering a broth-based soup or small salad with dressing on the side to round out the meal—or order a side of vegetables to fill up the split entrée plate. Not only will you have plenty of food but the additional vegetables will promote good health.
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Ordering an appetizer in place of an entrée can be a good idea, too. A few crab cakes with a salad, dressing on the side, and one slice of bread can make for a delicious light meal. (Just be sure to avoid those that are breaded or fried.)
Watch What You Are Drinking
Make sure you are ordering non-caloric drinks; a sweetened beverage can easily add 150 to 300 calories to a meal, which can add up to pounds of weight gain. A cocktail or glass of wine is fine on occasion, but think of it as an indulgence like dessert. Try drinking more water at meals—it is not only calorie-free but also helps fill you up. Beware of the server’s giving you refills on sugary drinks and wine; politely refrain and drink more water instead.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE*, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.*
If you are heading out in search of entrées that you feel you cannot possibly create at home, consider revising your repertoire to include tasty restaurant-style dishes like chicken Marsala—revised to be healthy and delicious.
This lighter version of the favorite classic Italian entrée is usually made with a lot of unhealthy fat and a heavy sauce. This take is a flavorful and still-delicious alternative.
4 boneless, skinless, organic chicken breasts
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon no-trans-fat margarine
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
3 cup Marsala wine
½ cup reduced-sodium, fat-free, organic chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Pound chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap to ¼-inch thick.
- In a shallow dish, mix flour, salt, and pepper.
- Lightly coat chicken breasts in flour mixture. Place on plate.
- In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add chicken and brown for 3 minutes; turn over and brown the other side for one minute.
- To finish cooking the chicken, add 2 tablespoons water and quickly cover pan to steam chicken for 1 minute. Remove lid and transfer chicken to a clean plate.
- Add margarine to the sauté pan and melt over medium heat. Add mushrooms and garlic and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add Marsala wine and broth and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.
- Return chicken to sauté pan and spoon sauce over it. Simmer for 2 minutes until sauce thickens.
- Garnish with chopped parsley.
Yield: 4 servings
Calories per serving: 200
Calorie equivalent: 4 oz. protein, 1 vegetable, 1 fat