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Americans consume about one-third of their calories from restaurants and takeout meals. Researchers at Tufts University found that the average meal at a non-chain restaurant had 1,205 calories, similar to meals at chain-restaurants. An average adult needs somewhere around 570 calories per meal (depending on age, activity level, body size, gender, eating frequency, and other factors). Ninety-two percent of the restaurant meals analyzed contained more than 570 calories.
There are many aspects to eating out that get in the way of healthy eating, starting with large portions and what can feel like too many choices. Then there’s the fact that many menus lack healthy options, although this is starting to change, as more restaurants offer at least a few choices that are lower in calories, as well as plant-based and gluten-free options. Browsing a long list of mouth-watering possibilities can make it tricky to stick to smart food choices. Before you go out to eat, put some thought into how you can enjoy your meal while making food choices that support good health.
Many restaurants post their menus online, so you can check their websites beforehand. Also, many chain restaurants and fast-food places provide extensive nutritional information on their menu items. If you must eat on the run, review your options so you’ll know what to order ahead of time and avoid being distracted by the glossy images of double cheeseburgers, meatball subs oozing with melted cheese, or Mexican-style fare dripping with sour cream and chipotle sauce.
#1. Be Mindful of Portion Size
Visualize MyPlate as you consider your meal order. Does the fast-food restaurant offer salad, fruit, or vegetables that can make up half your meal? If the dine-in restaurant offers a bread basket, appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, and dessert, what would all that food look like piled on a single plate? If your fellow diners are willing, ask the waiter not to bring bread to your table. If you’re offered free appetizers, politely decline them. Appetizers often are the right size for a meal, so feel free to order one as an entrée. You can even ask to have half the entrée boxed up before it comes to the table or ask for a container at the start of the meal and pack half away for the next day. This can help prevent you from mindlessly eating more than you need to satisfy hunger.
#2. Make Smart Protein Choices
Protein foods should take up only one-fourth of the space on your plate, but they often dominate restaurant meals. A protein portion, such as a chicken breast, sirloin steak, or salmon fillet, should be about the size (length, width, and thickness) of a deck of cards. Order a smaller option when it’s available, or plan to take the excess amount home to enjoy for lunch or dinner the next day.
#3. Embrace Vegetables and Fruits
If an entrée comes with French fries, ask to swap them out for the vegetable of the day, a garden salad, or any other healthy vegetable option you see on the menu. If there is an upcharge, think of it as money you are investing in your health.
#4. Build a Better Breakfast
Going to your favorite diner for breakfast? Fruit instead of home fries or hash browns is usually an option. If you order an omelet, request that the cook add mushrooms, onions, peppers, and/or spinach. Skip oversized muffins, which are nutritionally similar to cupcakes, and order whole-wheat toast instead. Avoid the carbohydrate overload trap—pancakes, waffles, toast, biscuits, muffins, and potatoes are all high in carbs. Choose one carb and balance out your breakfast with protein and produce, such as eggs and fruit. If you’re going to splurge and order bacon, ask for crispy bacon, which has more of the fat cooked out.
#5. Consider Preparation Method
Foods that come breaded, battered, smothered, stuffed, or crispy are more likely to be high in saturated fat, and are certainly higher in calories than menu items that have been blackened, broiled, grilled, baked, and steamed.
#6. Request Condiments on the Side
Avoid drowning your food by asking for salad dressing, barbecue sauce, or gravy on the side. You can dip a forkful of food into the sauce but dipping your fork into the sauce before picking up the food will help you use even less. This will likely cut down on sodium and calories and often reduces saturated fat.
#7. Drink Wisely
By drinking water instead of soda or alcohol with your meal, you’ll save calories and cash. It’s common to overlook how many calories beverages can contribute to your diet but including just a few caloric beverages each day can easily add up to more than a quarter of your total calorie needs for the day.
For more information on adopting a healthy eating plan, purchase Change Your Diet; Change Your Life at www.UniversityHealthNews.com.