I’ve had patients tell me that when they’re trying to watch what they eat, they’ll sometimes just stop eating in a restaurant altogether. Between the tempting menu descriptions, the huge portions and no way of knowing how many calories they’re eating, they often feel like they’re simply better off just staying home.
Since going out to eat is a pleasure you probably don’t want to give up forever, I think that learning your way around a menu and figuring out how to ‘dine responsibly’ are skills worth mastering.
If you only eat out a few times a year, I’d probably just tell you to go out and enjoy yourself. On average, we eat about a third of our meals away from home, so it’s worth paying attention to some of these common restaurant diet traps.
• Don’t get derailed from your usual meal plan. You should have a general plan in mind for what you usually eat for your meals, and you should stick to it. If you normally eat some combination of protein, veggies and salad for lunch, then look for something similar on the menu. And don’t let your eyes wander towards a sandwich or a pasta dish.
• Watch out for foods that sound healthier than they are. Sandwiches can be healthy if they’re made with lean meats, veggies and whole grain breads. But the calories can add up fast if you add cheese or mayonnaise, or if the sandwich is a foot long. Watch those healthy-sounding salads, too. A Chinese chicken salad can rack up more than 1000 calories, thanks to the crunchy fried noodles and heavy dressing.
• Beware of the daily specials. Your server might come by with a mouth-watering description of the daily special, so watch out. A lot of times specials can’t be modified, meaning that you might not be able to skip the sauce or gravy, or have the fish grilled rather than pan-fried. If the special fits the bill, great—but decide on something from the regular menu ahead of time. That way, you’ll have a backup.
• Don’t fall in the supersize trap. You really need to stand firm when you’re offered more food than you want, even if it sounds like a good value. When your server says, “For just a dollar more, you can have a side of fries with that,” think to yourself: “For just a dollar more, I’ll be getting 600 more calories and an extra 40 grams of fat.”
• Read calorie counts on menus carefully. A recent study showed that the calories you eat might be nearly 20% higher than what the menu says. Also, the calorie counts usually list the items separately, not the calorie count for the whole meal as it’s served. So, while you’re noting the calories for the entrée, don’t forget to add in the calories for the sides.
• Finally, restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entrée with your dining partner and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you’ve eaten your portion. When it comes to supersizing, restaurants may be able to afford to pile it on—but you can’t.