How to dine out – and stick to your health goals - Cape Cod Healthcare

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Published on September 21, 2021

How to dine out – and stick to your health goals

Dining Out

If the long lines and abundant help wanted signs at local restaurants are any indication, many people are tossing aside their masks and gleefully returning to dining out.

If you have added dining at restaurants back to your social calendar, beware of the health pitfalls it brings, says Falmouth Hospital dietician Michele McGann. Chefs like to make food taste better and the way they do that is by adding more fat, salt and sugar than may be good for most people. 

Add to that the fact that most Americans gained weight during the pandemic and eating out may be even more troublesome for your health. But there are ways to enjoy a meal out without breaking the health bank.

Here are some tips from McGann for making healthier choices when dining out.

Pay attention to portion size

“The portion sizes at restaurants are generally at least twice as much food than what is recommended to eat,” she said.

With that in mind, McGann suggests that you ask the server for a takeout container as soon as he or she brings your meal (or bring your own). Put half of the meal in the container before you begin eating. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get distracted by dinner conversation. Before you know it, you have eaten more than you should. The same applies to takeout meals.

Skip the bread basket

McGann suggests that you just say no to beginning a meal with bread. In most cases, that just fills you up with empty carbohydrates, she said. If you really do want to splurge on carbs like bread and pasta, choose whole grains whenever possible.

“We recommend that half of your grains be whole grains,” she said.

Choose healthier side dishes

Just because a sandwich comes with French fries, doesn’t mean you have to eat them. Instead, substitute a vegetable or portion of fruit for the fries or onion rings. Or, if you are at a fried seafood shack and crave fries, choose broiled fish for your main dish. Better yet, order broiled or baked fish or chicken with a baked potato and side of broccoli. Even a place that specializes in fried food offers some healthier choices, said McGann.

It’s also smart to ask for all sauces and salad dressings to be brought on the side. That way you can control the amount you put on your food. Less is better.

“Even if a restaurant is not known for their healthy options, you can always find something and customize it to make it a little better,” she said.

For example, if you are getting takeout pizza, skip the pepperoni and sausage and stick with vegetable toppings like mushrooms, peppers, sliced tomatoes and broccoli.

Not all salads are virtuous

“Just because it’s a salad, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier,” McGann said. “If it’s made with fried chicken, cheese or bacon, or has creamy dressing it’s not a very good choice.”

Sometimes people assume they know what is healthier, and the truth might come as a surprise. For example, chicken seems like a healthier choice than a burger, but a small McDonald’s hamburger has 250 calories, while their spicy crispy chicken sandwich has 530 calories. A McDonald’s hamburger also has fewer calories than a Wendy’s apple pecan chicken salad, which clocks in at 520 calories with an additional 100 calories, if you choose ranch dressing or 70 calories if you choose vinaigrette.

Most chains have all of their nutritional information available online, so McGann recommends doing your research before you order. The same thing is true for those on a low-sodium diet. Salt has a way of hiding in places you don’t expect, like salad dressing or pasta sauce.

Make smart beverage choices

Most people know that soda isn’t a healthy choice. A serving of Coca Cola at Burger King has between 213 and 507 calories, so even a small one adds empty calories and too much sugar. If you do want to splurge resist the urge to super-size it even if it seems cost effective, McGann said. Also say, “No, thank you,” to free refills.

“Calories can really add up with beverages,” McGann said. “I’m not saying you can’t have a glass of wine before dinner but be mindful of the beverages you are choosing when you go out because they can definitely add up, especially if you are getting takeout.”

That goes for smoothies too. Even though they can be nutritious, they can also pack in the calories, depending on the ingredients.

It’s okay to indulge once in a while

“If you are doing takeout and you never do takeout, and you want to try something or there is something you really enjoy, that’s okay,” she said. “Just split it in two or share dessert with more than one person.

“People are dying to get out. If you’re going out to eat three times a week, that can really add up. If you are going out once every three weeks or less and you decide to splurge, that’s different.”