Healthy Eating: The DOs and DON'Ts at restaurants

Navigate menus with these tips and tricks; learn to steer clear of those unhealthy eating traps.

November 17, 2010 17:11
Caeser Salad

Caeser Salad 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

From weekend brunch to your favorite Asian restaurant to that cute French bistro down the street, navigating the menu can be a nightmare when you want to eat healthy. Some people avoid restaurants entirely when they are watching their weight or just want to eat “right," while others repeatedly fall into the same unhealthy traps at restaurants. However, with a few tricks, you can safely enjoy your favorite restaurants.

Here are some basic tips on what to eat and what avoid when eating out:

Starting off on the right foot

Bread BasketAvoid the bread basket: Who doesn’t love the freshly baked bread basket that conveniently arrives well before any of your food? When you eat out with other people, you tend to pay less attention to what you are eating. As a result, you are not really focused on how many dinner rolls you are consuming – and the calories add up…quickly I might add.

TIP:  If you are going to eat a dinner roll – I suggest dipping it in some olive oil (avoid butter at all cost). The olive oil will give you some added nutritional value, and will also slow down your digestion, keeping you full longer.

A salad of misconceptions: Caeser SaladWho doesn’t love Caesar salad? While Caesar salad contains the word salad, please don’t be fooled. The lettuce has no fat; however, this salad is swimming in dressing, which unfortunately, though delicious, can have as many calories as a plate of French fries and this is before you add the fried chicken bits, crouton and extra parmesan cheese.

TIP: Instead if you are ordering a salad for a starter – opt for one with a low fat dressing. My personal suggestion is olive oil and lemon or olive oil and balsamic vinegar – which you can mix by yourself to make sure you have only one tablespoon of olive oil.

 If salad is your main course, make sure to include a protein with it.  I have gone to “salad lunches" so many times with my girlfriends, because they are either on a diet or just want to eat healthy. Time after time I see them make the same mistakes. They skimp on a portion on chicken, tofu or even meat because they are trying to cut down on calories. However, protein is much more effective at keeping our bodies full than carbohydrates and fats combined. Of course I suggest you choose a low fat cut of meat – such as grilled or even blackened chicken (if you like spicy). Tofu and fish are also great choices – but opt for the ones that are not fried and coated in a buttery batter.

A brunch of mistakesOrange Juice

Fruit Juices: At brunch, that extra large freshly squeezed orange juice is certainly very tempting. While orange and grapefruit juices are filled with vitamin C, they are also loaded with sugar.  The next time you order an orange juice, take a look and see how many oranges are being squeezed into your drink – I have counted up to 12. Would you sit around your house and eat 12 oranges in a row?

Cappuccino or Latte:  Most people need caffeine to function (I certainly do). But bear in mind that caffeine stimulates insulin production, and therefore encourages your appetite – so try to limit your coffee intake (if you can).

TIP: Also, many people love to finish off a meal with a nice latte or cappuccino (again me included). Ask for skim or 1% milk. While they contain the same amount of protein and vitamins as regular or whole milk, they contain fewer calories and far less saturated or "bad" fat. 

When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie...Mi Amore Pasta

When people are trying to watch their calorie intake, pasta is right up there at the top of the “no no” list. Pasta has gotten a bad rep as fattening or high in cholesterol when it fact it is low in both. The problem with pasta is not the pasta, but rather the sauce and the portion size.

TIP:  Choose your sauce wisely
Pasta with ChickenA common misconception is that the calories from your pasta dish come from the noodles – wrong as pasta has only 200 calories per cup. The calories mostly come from the sauce. Sauces that contain a lot of cream (such as fettuccine alfredo) and oil, contribute far more calories to a pasta dish than the pasta does.

These sauces are also not very filling – and you tend to then eat more of the pasta than you would have liked. Instead, opt for pasta with a simple red sauce and that contains a protein such as grilled chicken or even, my favorite, Bolognese sauce - the meat will fill you quicker, causing you to keep the portion of pasta you eat in check.

TIP:  When in as the Romans do
Portion size is a “big” problem when it comes to pasta, as restaurants tend to overfill your plate with this inexpensive food rather than extra meat or vegetables. In Italy, pasta is generally served as a side dish or as one course of a many course meal (either the prima or the secondi piatti)- not in the large amounts that we see today. My suggestion is "sharing is caring," so the next time your having Italian, split the pasta dish with friends for your starter. If pasta is your main course, a great trick is ask for penne instead of spaghetti, fettuccine or linguine as there were will actually be far less pasta on your plate. Also, go for the ravioli filled with cheese or a meat, which is generally a smaller portion.

Don’t be blind to the “sides”

So you order a steak, a blacked chicken breast or grilled salmon – all healthy options, but what does it come with? Even the “healthiest” meal can be tainted by the accompanying side dish. Steamed Sea Bass draped over mashed potatoes or a piece of grilled chicken next to a pile of French fries are not the same as if they were served with steamed broccoli or sautéed spinach . Most restaurants serve these dishes with a side of “something”- and it is this “something” (i.e French fries, onion rings and mashed potatoes) that alters the health balance of your entire meal. Sweet Potato

TIP: Sweet potato instead of regular potatoes – don’t be fooled by the word “sweet”, sweet potatoes are among the healthiest foods around (packed with Vitamin A and C as well as tones of fiber) and are surprisingly low is calories – less than half that of regular “white” potatoes.

Next week: Learn which ingredients to substitute in order to transform your favorite recipes into low-fat, low calories and healthy treats.

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