It's an all too familiar situation--you've been taking great pains to make sure that every home meal you cook and every snack you purchase is healthy and nutritious, but as soon as the family goes out to eat at a restaurant, it seems like any notion of healthy eating gets tossed out the window.
Making healthy food choices at a restaurant can definitely be an uphill battle, especially when there are so many delicious but calorie-laden items on the average restaurant menu...and let's not even talk about the dessert section. So how can you combat this situation without coming across like a stick-in-the-mud? Below are some useful tips to help you make healthy food choices for the whole family the next time you go out to eat.
1. Look for the lower-calorie menu options.
Many restaurants will have the calorie amounts for each meal posted on their menus, in a separate pamphlet or on their websites. If your average daily intake is about 2,000 calories, you know that the 1,400-calorie Super-Stack-Em Burger is going to blow your whole plan out of the water. Use the calorie listings as a general guide for the family, but also watch for the extra calories that can come pouring in by way of beverages, dips, dressings and so forth.
2. Think twice about your drink options.
It's always tempting to go all-out when you're at a restaurant and load up on soft drinks or other extra-sugary beverages (e.g., sweet tea, milkshakes, etc.). Asking for water with lemon is always a good move, and low-fat milk or unsweetened tea are other good drink options for the family as well.
If you're going to be ordering an alcoholic beverage, try to stay away from all of the fancy mixed drinks like margaritas, pina coladas, etc., as they can be surprisingly high in sugar-laden calories. A glass of wine or a light beer are decent alternatives to consider. If any one of your family members simply must have some type of carbonated or sugary drink, choose the smallest size, and then ask for some water on the side as well.
3. A first-course salad is a good way to go.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that people who chose to eat a nice-sized salad before tackling the main course ate fewer calories overall than the ones who chose not to have a first-course salad. When you're out to eat, order a salad for everyone first. This will encourage each person to opt for a more reasonably-sized main course.
4. Monitor the add-ons.
In light of the above point, keep a good eye on add-on items such as heavy salad dressings, butter, oils and other various toppings. A baked potato is a nice, healthy side item, but a baked potato slathered with gobs of butter and sour cream is going to be a calorie-fest.
5. Avoid fried foods as much as possible.
Fried foods are perhaps the most calorie-heavy category of menu items at the average restaurant. If your food has been breaded, buttered or battered, you can almost guarantee that it's going to be loaded with unhealthy saturated fats. In cases where you or a family member wants a menu item that is fried, ask the waiter if you can have it grilled instead. If your meal choice comes with french fries on the side, see if you can substitute vegetables. As a general rule, when you order dishes that have been broiled, steamed or grilled, you'll usually come out better than you would with items that have been sauteed or fried.
6. Portion control is key.
Many restaurants really love to pour it on when it comes to serving generous portions. While this shows a desire on their part to fully satisfy their customers, it can wreak havoc on your calorie count. In these cases, see if a smaller size is available, or ask to have half of the entree boxed up before it even arrives at the table.
As with most things in life, moderation is always the key. You have to approach this with a healthy balance, because while you want your whole family to make good food choices, you don't want to come across as a calorie Nazi either. Keeping the above tips in mind will help make your next trip to the restaurant a healthy and fun experience for the whole family!