Healthy Living

10 Ways To Make The Healthiest Choice When You're At A Restaurant

Just because you're eating out, doesn't mean you're going to wild out.
03/03/2016 03:26pm ET | Updated March 4, 2016
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Making food at home is a crucial part of healthy eating. But on some days (like Fri-Yays!), you just want a break from the stove to treat yourself to a delicious meal or a night out with friends that doesn’t require you to cook beforehand or clean up afterwards. However, restaurants present a challenge to anyone who wants to eat nutritious, filling food served in healthy portions.

Most restaurant meals have way more calories, two to three times more salt and more added sugars compared to foods prepared at home, and this goes for both sit down restaurants and fast food joints. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to eat well while eating out. Laura Manning, a clinical nutrition coordinator at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says there are still plenty of ways to make your restaurant meal as healthy as you want it to be. She helped us come up with ten ways to curb the calories and make healthier choices during a lunch or dinner out.

But before you dive in to Manning’s advice, keep this in mind: Indulging in a restaurant meal or two on the weekends should be no cause for alarm for the conscious eater. Past research has shown weekend indulgences can actually be part of a healthy pattern of eating, even if you’re trying to lose weight. Brian Wansink, author of Slim By Design and researcher at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, says that as long as people re-calibrate Monday morning, the weekend’s often unpredictable and unusually social meals are nothing to be afraid of.

Pick and choose from these tips to make your restaurant meal the healthiest it can be, while still enjoying yourself and having fun with friends. Happy weekend!

1. Check out the menu online first.

That way you’re not overwhelmed by the delicious smells and sights at the restaurant, or pressured to share dishes with friends that you wouldn’t normally order on your own.

"This is about having a plan and being organized before you go," says Manning -- crucial planning steps for anyone who is trying to keep their diet or their weight in check.

2. Portion size, portion size, portion size.

Going out to restaurants is a big part of the way we entertain ourselves and socialize with friends nowadays. In that environment, Manning says, we can get distracted and over-eat very easily, without meaning to.

Ask for a to-go box as soon as you’re served, and pack half of your meal away before you start eating. Many different studies have demonstrated that people in general suck at portion control, or suck at listening to their body’s hunger and satiety cues. We also tend to eat more in the company of other people, perhaps because transforming meals into social events prolongs the time we take to eat, or perhaps we're imitating social cues about what we should be eating. Putting a half or third-portion of your food out of sight means you’ll likely eat less, without feeling hunger pangs.

3. Go for the small plates trend.

Some intriguing studies suggest that smaller portions of food actually help us feel fuller, faster than big portions of just one meal. Maybe it’s because our eyes are fooled into perceiving abundance when they see food cut up into several small pieces, or maybe it’s because smaller plates make food appear larger than it actually is. Either way, you’re eating less food and getting to try more of what the restaurant has to offer.

4. Skip heavy sauces.

Sauces like alfredo, bolognese, vodka and teriyaki sauces are loaded with saturated fat and added sugar, two nutrients that Americans should try to eat less of.

5. Consider the cooking methods.

Manning advises readers to avoid one-pot meals or stews. You can’t really tell what’s in that stew, first of all, which is why separate components more often than not make for a healthier meal, she says. Instead of mystery pottages, order meals that are baked, grilled or broiled.

"Dry methods of cooking have much less calories," Manning said.

And avoid fried foods to keep fat consumption down -- or, ya know, don’t. Eat those french fries because you’ve earned it, goddamn it. Just remember to dial it back by Monday.

6. Go for that marine life.

Seafood has a higher amount of healthy-for-you fats, like monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, than meat does. These “good fats” actually lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and are delicious, to boot.

Seafood also has fewer calories per ounce than meat, which can help anyone watching their weight or counting their calories.

7. Don’t forget your veggies.

If you want to go even healthier, consider a vegetarian main course, says Manning, or order a veggie side. Most Americans don’t eat enough vegetables every day, which is a shame. They can help keep disease and extra weight gain at bay, while keeping your poops regular and your skin looking glowy. Nutritionist Nancy Farrell, spokeswoman of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells all her clients that lunch and dinner should include at least one vegetable dish every time.

8. Have fruit for dessert.

Chinese restaurants get it right. After a delicious meal, all you really need to finish it off is a couple of slices of fresh orange. However, bringing your own birthday cake to a restaurant is now considered gauche, so servers probably don't look kindly upon you bringing your own watermelon for them to cut up. If your restaurant isn’t down to serve you a cup of fresh fruit from their kitchen, that means that the truly committed may have to skip dessert. We vote for ordering one dessert and splitting it with your friends -- advice that Manning was fine with, too.

9. Go easy on the alcohol.

Studies show that your body has a harder time sensing liquid calories compared to calories found in food. While eating food starts to make you feel full, knocking back drinks doesn’t produce that same feeling of satiety, which means it gets really easy to rack up a bunch of calories without trying.

Secondly, alcohol is what nutritionists refer to as “empty calories” -- foods that come with a lot of energy but not very much nutrition. Finally, the more crunk you get, the harder it is to stick to what you planned to eat because the alcohol impairs your judgement. Stick to one serving of alcohol and spend the rest of the night sipping seltzer, Manning advises. Your stomach, head and wallet will thank you in the morning.

10. Walk home.

Or go for a long walk after your meal, says Manning. This tip doesn’t really have anything to do with “burning off” the calories you’ve just eaten. After all, the average restaurant meal has about 1,128 calories, which would take you about 11 miles to walk off. Instead, it’s more about aiding digestion. Walking helps food moves through the digestive tract faster than an espresso or a digestif, and it also helps lower blood sugar levels, which spike after a meal.

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