Plan for Healthy Dining
Smart choices make for healthier dining out
For many of us, dining out is about more than food. From a restaurant’s atmosphere and menu to the service and other guests, dining out is all about the experience.
So, when it comes time to order, we often choose food to enhance that experience. But as great as our appetizers and main courses may taste, they may also be unhealthy. If you eat out regularly, the amount of fat, calories, sugar and salt can add up quickly.
The New Year is a great time to reassess your eating habits and find ways to develop healthier ones. The nutritionists at Chester County Hospital have gathered ways you can ditch unhealthy foods when dining out and replace them with healthy (but still delicious) options.
Here are a few ideas to get started.
Watch Portion Size
Restaurants often serve portions that can feed more than one person. When dining out, consider ordering smaller amounts (small plates), splitting your meal with another diner, or saving some for later to prevent overeating. You can ask the server to save half your meal to take home, even before it’s brought out.
Some simple tactics to gauge healthy portion size include using the palm of your hand to estimate the correct serving size for boneless meat and a closed fist to estimate a cup of starch. And consider starting your meal with a salad and olive oil/vinaigrette dressing to help curb your hunger so you don’t eat everything you’re served.
Swap Refined Grains for Whole Grains
Many plates at restaurants are centered around grains — from mashed potatoes to fries to pasta. But these are often refined grains that have less nutritional value than whole grains.
Refined grains include foods like white flour, white bread and white rice. Unfortunately, the process of refining grains takes away about a quarter of the protein and up to two-thirds of the nutrients.
When you can, swap out refined grains for whole grains, such as whole-wheat flour, oatmeal and brown rice. If you’re feeling ambitious, opt for vegetable “grains,” like cauliflower mashed potatoes, zucchini noodles or carrot fries.
Add More Fruits and Vegetables
A simple way to improve your nutrition is to throw in more fruits and veggies. And even for a dinner entree, fruits and vegetables should make up at least half your plate.
Unless you’re ordering a salad, restaurant entrees don’t usually follow the half-plate rule, making them less nutritious. The solution: add vegetables to your pasta. Mix fruit into your ice cream. Choose mushrooms and green peppers as pizza toppings. Order the seasonal vegetables as your side. Swap a beef patty for a veggie patty.
These aren’t magical fixes and won’t neutralize the high levels of some other unhealthy ingredients like sodium and sugar or the total calories. Still, fruits and veggies add a nutritional boost to an otherwise heavy meal.
Avoid Fried Foods
Fried foods are a delicious part of many restaurant dishes (especially appetizers), but eating too many can be unhealthy. While frying food provides a different taste and texture, it also creates a different nutritional makeup.
Fried foods absorb oil, resulting in a high-fat product and increased calories. These foods are traditionally high in trans and saturated fats, which, if consumed excessively, can increase blood cholesterol levels and potentially damage the walls of your arteries.
Saying goodbye to fried foods can be difficult, but there are plenty of healthier options. For example, consider these swaps:
- Shrimp cocktail instead of fried calamari
- Grilled or baked chicken instead of fried chicken
- Vegetable or fruit side orders instead of French fries
- Stir-fried chicken and veggies instead of deep-fried foods
- Fresh spring rolls instead of traditional fried spring rolls
Choose Healthier Meats
Fried chicken and cheeseburgers might be your go-to when dining out, but they aren’t the healthiest choices. For instance, both fried foods and beef tend to be high in saturated (bad) fat.
Instead, choose lean meats like skinless poultry (chicken or turkey) or fish, and get the bonus of lean protein, zinc, iron and B vitamins — and less fat. A ground turkey patty contains just 3% of the average daily fat value, while a beef burger can be nearly 20%.
Also, rather than ordering fried meat, opt for healthier preparations, like baked, broiled, roasted, stir-fried or air-fried. For instance, roasted chicken and a grilled turkey burger keep plenty of taste without the added fat.
Select Healthier Drinks
If you’re trying to cut down on calories, be mindful of what you’re drinking and when you’re drinking it.
It’s best to fill up on water before and during a meal. Or drink fruit-flavored sparkling water, which can also be a terrific substitute for bubbly, alcoholic beverages.
Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages can significantly increase the calories and sugar in your meal. By ordering smaller drink portions, like a small glass of wine, you can save the extra calories while still enjoying a drink. If you choose cocktails containing spirits like gin, vodka or whiskey, consider blending the alcohol with a diet drink rather than fruit juice or a mixer with added sugar.
You can also opt to nix the alcohol altogether. Today, many restaurants have mocktails on their drinks menus. And if you don’t see mocktails listed, ask the bartender to hold the alcohol while making a traditional cocktail.
Order Healthy Desserts
If dessert is what puts the cherry on top of your meal, you’re not alone. Many people want sweets to cap a delicious dinner out — maybe ice cream, cake or crème brûlée.
You can avoid overloading with sugar by finding healthier alternatives. Some ideas include:
- Low-sugar and dairy-free options
- Sorbets instead of ice cream
- Fruit-based desserts or desserts topped with fruits
- Dipped or drizzled chocolate instead of chocolate covered
- Baked desserts instead of fried
By tricking your mind into thinking you’re indulging in the sweetest desserts, you can meet your sweet tooth’s needs without consuming excessive sugar.
Slow Down at Mealtime
It’s fine to enjoy dining out. But be aware it can be too easy to overindulge in appetizers, large plates and those French fries that automatically come as a side. When you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, you may end up eating way more than you ever intended.
So, if you decide to order your favorite heavier dish, be sure to take the time to enjoy it. Savor the flavors, don’t rush through your meal. That way, you can enjoy a reasonable amount without overdoing it.
Dining out is a treat. You shouldn’t feel that you can’t enjoy your meal because you want to be healthy. With a bit of planning, you can choose healthier options without sacrificing the deliciousness of your meal. And by finding ways to make your dining experience a little more nutritious, you can help ensure your body is healthy for many years to come.
Julie Alliger, RD, LDN, CDCES, is a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist at Chester County Hospital. As a member of the Nutrition and Diabetes Services team, she provides both individual and group diabetes education. Julie educates clients in healthy eating, including weight management, heart health, vegetarian and plant-based nutrition, as well as nutrition for chronic pain.
If you want to learn more about improving your nutrition, Chester County Hospital’s Outpatient Nutrition team has the expertise and programs to help. Visit ChesterCountyHospital.org/Wellness for more.