There are nearly 200,000 “table side” restaurants in the United States today, a number that continues to grow. But like fast-food outlets, these dining establishments can be ticking time bombs when it comes to nutritional health. Government surveys find that the food you typically eat when you’re not home is nutritionally worse in every way than the food you eat at home.
Nearly all the chains have added healthier options to their menus—if you know how to look for them. You can also rely on these tips to help making eating out a healthier treat.
1. Ask for it your way. Dining out is no time to be a meek consumer, notes Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and coauthor of the book Restaurant Confidential. “You need to be an assertive consumer by asking for changes on the menu,” he says. For instance, if an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with french fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Ask for a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of the salad; for salad instead of coleslaw; baked potato instead of fried. “Just assume you can have the food prepared the way you want it,” says Dr. Jacobson. “Very often, the restaurant will cooperate.”
2. Ask to “triple the vegetables, please.” Often a side of vegetables in a restaurant is really like garnish—a carrot and a forkful of squash. When ordering, ask for three or four times the normal serving of veggies, and offer to pay extra. “I’ve never been charged,” says dietitian Jeff Novick, R.D., director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida. “And I’ve never been disappointed. I get full, not fat.”
3. Ask how the food was prepared; don’t go by the menu. For instance, cholesterol-free does not mean fat-free; the dish could still be filled with calorie-dense oil. Neither does “lite” necessarily mean light in calories or fat.
4. Order from the “healthy, light, low fat” entrées on the menu. Most chains will even list the calories and nutritional content of such foods. Applebee’s, for instance, offers approved Weight Watchers options, Bennigan’s has its Health Club entrées (which it will serve in half portions), and Ruby Tuesday lists the nutritional information for its entire menu.
5. Beware of the low-carb options. Restaurant chains have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon, offering numerous low-carb options on their menu. But low-carb doesn’t mean low-cal. For instance, at Ruby Tuesday the Low-Carb New Orleans Seafood packs 710 calories and 42 grams of fat—ouch! A much better bet—the Low Carb Veggie Platter—leaves you with just 297 calories and 16 grams of fat.
6. Ask to box half your entrée before it ever gets to the table. Or split an entrée with your dining partner. A CSPI survey found that restaurants often serve two to three times more than food labels list as a serving.
7. Try double appetizers. If there is a nice selection of seafood- and vegetable-based appetizers, consider skipping the entrée and having two appetizers for your meal. Often, that is more than enough food to fill you up.
8. Order a salad before ordering anything else on the menu. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University found that volunteers who ate a big veggie salad before the main course ate fewer calories overall than those who didn’t have a first-course salad, notes Novick.
9. But remember: Salads shouldn’t be fatty. This is a vegetable course—keep it tasty but healthy. That means avoiding anything in a creamy sauce (coleslaw, pasta salads, and potato salads), and skipping the bacon bits and fried noodles. Instead, load up on the raw vegetables, treat yourself to a few well-drained marinated vegetables (artichoke hearts, red peppers, or mushrooms), and for a change, add in some fruit or nuts. Indeed, fruits such as mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, and pear are often the secret ingredient in four-star salads.
10. Watch the add-ons to vegetable salads. Even salads that are mostly raw vegetables are a problem if they’re loaded with cheese and meats. Take the typical Caesar salad in most restaurants (the one topped with chicken or shrimp as well as plenty of cheese and mayo in the dressing). Add in the fried croutons and the calories add up to a whopping 560, with 36 grams of fat, 6 of them saturated. Italian antipasto salads also are a health challenge, with all their salami, spicy ham, and cheese. Get the salad, but ask for vegetables only.
11. Do the fork dip. The best way to combine salad dressing with salad? Get your dressing on the side, in a small bowl. Dip your empty fork into the dressing, then skewer a forkful of salad. You’ll be surprised at how this tastes just right, and how little dressing you’ll use. Plus, your lettuce won’t wilt and drown in a sea of oil.
12. Check the menu before you leave home. Most chains post their menus on their Web sites. For instance, Ruby Tuesday’s Smart Eating menu tells you the restaurant only uses canola oil and even provides nutritional information on its salad bar. You can decide before you ever hit the hostess stand what you’re going to order. Conversely, if you don’t see anything that’s healthy, pick another restaurant.
13. Read between the lines. Any menu description that uses the words creamy, breaded, crisp, sauced, or stuffed is likely loaded with hidden fats—much of it saturated or even trans fats. Other “beware of” words include: buttery, sautéed, pan-fried, au gratin, Thermidor, Newburg, Parmesan, cheese sauce, scalloped, and au lait, à la mode, or au fromage (with milk, ice cream, or cheese).
14. Ask the waiter to skip the bread basket. If you must have something to munch on while you wait for your order, ask for a plate of raw vegetables or some breadsticks.
15. Skip the fancy drinks. If you must order an alcoholic drink, forget the margaritas, piña coladas, and other exotic mixed drinks. They include sugary additions that only add calories. Opt instead for a glass of wine, a light beer, a vodka and tonic or a simple martini (without the chocolate liquor, sour green apple schnapps, or triple sec).
16. Top a baked potato with veggies from the salad bar. Or ask if they have salsa—the ultimate potato topper, both in terms of flavor and health. Just avoid the butter and sour cream.
17. Order fish. Just make sure it’s not fried. When the CSPI evaluated food served at seafood chains and independent restaurants, researchers found low-fat and low-sodium options abounded. Plus, you can order seafood so many different ways—steamed, baked, broiled, sautéed, blackened, or grilled. Nix any sauces, or ask for them on the side.
18. Drink water throughout the meal. It will slow you down, help you enjoy the food more, and let the message get to your brain that you’re full—before your plate is empty.
19. Always dress up to go out. Even if it’s just a regular family restaurant. If you view eating out as an event or a treat, rather than a way to get an everyday dinner, you won’t eat out as often. And that’s good from both a health and a cost standpoint.
20. Skip the dessert. You can always have some sorbet or even a small piece of chocolate at home. That is much better healthwise than the Triple Chocolate Meltdown or a mountain of ice cream topped by a second mountain of whipped cream.