It’s so easy to overeat when you’re out to eat. Not only is everything super delicious, but there is also just so much of it. And if you’re like me, if it’s there, you’ll eat it. Plus, sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly you’re getting when you put in your order. But with a little restaurant know-how, you can lighten up any restaurant order and have a strategy for eating a healthy portion when you’re out on the town.
Beware the Bread
When you hit the restaurant starving, it’s oh so easy to dive face first into the bread basket. But if you don’t watch out, you risk consuming hundreds of calories before your meal even arrives. You have a couple of options with the bread dilemma. If warm, crusty carbs are your ultimate weakness, you could ask the waiter to keep it in the kitchen altogether. You could also make a pact with your dining companion to keep the bread to a minimum, and keep it to one piece per person. So by all means enjoy the bread, but don’t go overboard.
Soup or Salad
A great way to avoid the main-course binge is to minimize the hunger pangs before the big meal arrives at your table. A great way to do this is by ordering a soup or a salad. A simple cup of a broth-based soup is enough to warm up and tame your tummy—just avoid thick, cream-based soups, which are high in calories and fat. A side salad to start with is also a great way to get some greens into your meal, especially if your entrée isn’t heavy on the veggies. It’s also a wise idea to order the dressing on the side so that you have control over how much you’re getting (and having worked in food service, I’ve seen just how many gallons of dressing go on salads!).
On the Side
It’s so easy to order the smothered potatoes or yummy french fries to go along with your main meal. But it’s also so easy to suck it up and get a healthier item. Restaurants are more than happy to make substitutions, and you can always throw in a side of steamed veggies, a plain baked potato or a side salad instead of the heavier items. You might also want to make sure butter and sour cream come on the side for baked potatoes and that steamed veggies aren’t smothered with oil or butter. Just ask nicely. As a former server, I can tell you that we’ll put up with a lot of special requests, but a “pretty please” goes a long way.
Even if you follow the above tips, oversized entrées can have you overstuffed in a hurry. If you’ve got stellar self control, just plan ahead how much you’re going to eat. A trick I like is to ask for a to-go box as soon as the server delivers your meal or the first time he comes to check on you after your meal arrives. This way you can box up half of the main dish, save yourself the calories and have lunch for the next day ready to go. Or, if you and your dining companion have similar food tastes, you can split the meal. My husband and I have found that a side salad or light appetizer and a split meal is typically enough to make both of us perfectly content, not to mention it keeps the wallet happy.
As you know, we are all about everything in moderation, so I’m not about to tell you to swear off dessert. Don’t order the sweets every time, but treat yourself every now and then or on special occasions. Making them an off-limits food will only mess with your mind and give them too much power. When you do order dessert, just make sure you ask for a spare fork or two for sharing. Options with fresh fruit tend to be a lighter pick than heavy cheesecake or ice cream options, but go with your craving and listen to your hunger.
Certain words on menus are guaranteed to mean delicious, but those same words typically spell danger for your waistline. Anything that sounds terribly decadent—smothered, stuffed or loaded, for example—probably is. Lots of words can also tip you off to meaning “fried,” such as the tell-tale battered, crispy or crunchy. Likewise, anything creamy, cheesy or buttery is probably loaded with fat. Avoid “bottomless” and “all you can eat” traps, too. Words to look for include broiled, baked, grilled and fresh—and when dealing with pasta, go for red sauces over whites when you’re watching the calories. For a great list of more good and bad food words, check out this list on SparkPeople.
Bottom line: Don’t run away from restaurants in fear. I guarantee that if you’re paying attention, you can have a delicious and nutritious meal out on the town without blowing your diet. Just knowing common restaurant traps can help you keep your head in the game. And no matter what you order, just remember to always listen to your hunger. —Erin