The National Restaurant Association estimates Americans consume four to five meals per week away from home. As anyone who has tried it at some point in his or her life can tell you, eating healthy while dining out can be a tricky task. It can be particularly tough if you’re watching what you eat or are on a specific diet. When friends or family members decide to plan a night out at a restaurant, you suddenly may become flooded with concerns about what will and won’t be okay to eat. Can you splurge just this once? Will that set off a chain reaction of breaking your diet rules? Questions like these have led to the rise of many myths about healthy dining out.
Registered dietitian Heather Pierce with the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center says there are ways to enjoy a night out at a restaurant and still eat healthy foods. “It’s not always easy to make healthy choices because there are so many potential pitfalls at restaurants,” she said. “For example, some will tell you to simply get a salad if you want to eat healthy. Many salads, however, can have more calories than a fast food meal consisting of a burger and fries. If you’re choosing to eat a salad, be sure to watch out for high-calorie traps, such as croutons, dressing, candied nuts, fried tortilla strips and cheese,” she explained. “Another myth is that chicken and fish always are good choices. Yes, these are good sources of protein, but the key is in the preparation. Don’t hesitate to ask how something is prepared if the wording isn’t clear on the menu. Find out if something is cooked in butter or oil and whether it comes covered in cheeses and sauces that can add sodium, fat or calories. Also, remember to choose smaller cuts of meat around 6 or 8 ounces,” she said.
Pierce says the myths about dining out aren’t limited to traditional meat dishes, though. “Some people believe that vegetarian dishes always are a safe bet and they can, in fact, be a great way to incorporate more vegetables into your diet. The trick is to avoid dishes such as macaroni and cheese or rice, that some restaurants consider ‘vegetables.’ Be sure your vegetarian dish has a good source of protein, but watch out for dishes that have excess cheese,” Pierce explained. “Another common myth is that dining out is a special occasion, so it’s okay to splurge. This might be true if it was limited only to ‘special occasions,’ but many of us dine out several times per week. If you have to splurge on a dessert, for instance, try having a simple scoop of ice cream in lieu of that triple-layer decadent dessert,” she said. You’ve also probably heard that fast food restaurants do not have healthy selections. Not so, says Pierce. “If you’re eating oatmeal and apple slices from McDonald’s, for example, that’s a high-fiber, heart-healthy breakfast,” she added.
“It all boils down to watching what you eat,” Pierce said. “For help with this, you can use websites such as www.healthydiningfinder.com. This is a guide reviewed by dietitians that covers several casual dining restaurants and lists the approved menu items. Apps such as ‘Kids Live Well’ can serve this same function for kids’ restaurant choices. Also, the website www.calorieking.com offers nutritional information on several fast food and chain restaurants,” she said. “Just do your research before you order,” she added.