Today, Americans spend nearly half their food dollars on meals and snacks eaten outside the home. And meals that restaurants serve up tend to contain more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium than the ones consumers prepare for themselves at home. Even for those who eat out less often than the average American, the extra calories can add up quickly.
To further complicate matters, a number of “eating out traps” can thwart even the most well-intentioned diner looking to order a healthful restaurant meal. Knowing where to look for those hidden calories, however, is half the battle; read on to steer clear of some of the biggest calorie culprits:
Oversized portions and value meals
Over the past two decades, restaurants portion sizes have significantly increased. And studies show that when individuals are served larger portions, they tend to eat more in a given sitting than when they are served smaller meals. Unless you’re careful, when dining at a restaurant you can easily consume two or three times the amount of food you might serve yourself at home. The “value meal” only exacerbates this problem. Economically, spending only pennies more for a larger portion makes sense; given that “supersize” options tend to be available only for cheap, unhealthy foods (such as French fries and soda), however, they can be a diet landmine. To keep your portions in check, try the following tips:
- Split an entrée with a family member or friend, and order a side salad or extra veggies to round out your meal
- Save half of your meal for lunch or dinner the next day (ask for a box at the beginning of the meal and put away your “second portion” if you doubt your ability to leave half on the plate)
- Just say “no” to supersizing – in fact…
- Order a kid’s meal at a fast food restaurant, and pay less to eat less
To determine whether you’ve been served one meal or three, remember these estimates:
- 3 ounces of meat = a deck of cards
- 1 cup of potatoes, rice, or pasta = a tennis ball
- 1 slice of bread = audiocassette tape
- 1 ounce of cheese = pair of dice
- 1 tsp butter, margarine = tip of a thumb
- ½ cup of ice cream = half of a baseball
In theory, a salad should be a great choice when dining out. In practice, too many tasty toppers often send salad calorie counts soaring. Many chain restaurant salads pack in well over 1,000 calories, more than other menu options that seem less healthy. Luckily, you can easily transform these less-than-healthy offerings into a nutritious – and still delicious – meal with a few tweaks:
- Keep fried items off of salads, bypass the tortilla bowl, and request that anything “crispy,” “crunchy,” or “crusted” not be served on your salad
- Cheese, nuts, bacon, and avocado are fine on top of healthy greens, colorful vegetables, and lean protein – but not all together; pick one or two, and request that the kitchen keep the rest
- Order dressing on the side, and use creamy dressings sparingly; if you like your salad more heavily dressed, order a low-cal dressing option and remember that an appropriate serving is still only two tablespoons, rather than a small bowl
Bottomless bread baskets
There’s nothing wrong with a little bread and butter to start or finish your meal. It can be far too easy, however, to pack away half a loaf – or more! – while waiting to order or for your meal to arrive, particularly with free and frequent refills. Try to limit yourself to a piece or two, and if you can’t stop there, kindly request that your server remove the bread basket.
Creamy sauces and hidden fats
At restaurants, it’s often the meal components that you can’t see that turn seemingly healthy dishes into diet disasters. Sautéed proteins and vegetables may contain far more oil than you would ever use at home, and everything from lean steak to broccoli is fair game, when it comes to an unexpected pat of butter. To avoid unhealthy cooking methods, ask your server how dishes are prepared and request a style of preparation that works for you.
- Healthy preparation styles include the following: broiling, roasting, baking, steaming, poaching, blackening, grilling (grilled veggies may contain a lot of oil, so ask before ordering)
- Less healthy preparation styles: fried, pan-fried, deep-fried, sautéed, battered, breaded, crispy
When it comes to sauces and sides, terminology can also help lead you towards healthier options and away from fat-traps:
- Opt for: broth-based soups, tomato-based pasta sauces, plain baked potatoes, whole grains
- Avoid (or consume with caution): au gratin, buttered, cheesy, béarnaise, creamy, hollandaise, alfredo
If you don’t want to pass up your favorite high-fat sauce, order it on the side and use it sparingly.
Salt, salt, salt!
While not a “calorie culprit,” salt nevertheless deserves its own section when it comes to eating out traps, due to its overabundance in American restaurant and packaged foods as well as the health risks that come with excessive consumption. To decrease your intake of sodium while dining out, follow these tips:
- Choose made-to-order meals over buffet-style dining or fast food, and request that your meal is prepared without added sodium
- Ask your server for low-sodium menu suggestions
- Avoid (or sparingly consume) the following items
- Soy sauce
- Smoked, cured, and salted meat, fish, and poultry
- Ham, bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats
- Pickles and olives
- Processed tomato sauce
- Canned vegetables
- Eat low-sodium, non-processed foods the rest of the day when dining out, in order to keep your daily sodium intake within reason