Dining Out Healthfully

Dining out can be a great option on those days when you're just too busy to spend time in the kitchen.

Yet sticking to a healthy diet can be difficult when you're at a restaurant, especially when you're tempted by large portions and the urge to splurge. But with a little planning ahead and menu smarts, you can enjoy a meal away from home without overdoing it on calories and fat.

CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital Registered Dietician, Kelli Wimberly, provides the following tips for staying on track when visiting a restaurant.

Snack first. Have a light snack, such as fruit or a glass of skim milk, before you leave home. This will take the edge off your hunger and help you have more control when ordering. "Never skip a meal because you're going to have a meal out," says Wimberly. "If you get too hungry, you're more likely to overeat."

Choose restaurants carefully. Some restaurants post their menus on an outside window. Review the menu for healthy choices. You could also call ahead and ask about the menu or check to see if the menu is available online.

Pay attention to how dishes are prepared. "Ask the server exactly what comes in a dish," advises Wimberly. "Never assume anything. For instance, a garden salad could come garnished with cheese and high-fat croutons."

Also, double-check items listed as "healthy." Some dishes may still be high in calories from oils, nuts and cheese.

To help you navigate the menu, try these tips for each course:

Appetizers. When ordering an appetizer, healthy options might include a salad, fruit cup, marinated vegetables, a broth-based soup, a seafood cocktail or raw vegetables with a yogurt dip or salsa. Stay away from anything that's fried.

If you're prone to overindulging on bread or tortilla chips brought to the table, take a reasonable amount and then ask your server to remove them.

Main course. Foods described as fried, basted, braised, au gratin, crispy, escalloped, pan-fried, sautéed, stewed or stuffed may be high in fat. Instead, look for entrees that are steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached or roasted. You might also:

  • Order a smaller portion size. You may be able to get a half-portion or lunch size at dinner.
  • Split an entree with a friend.
  • Have a salad first, and an appetizer as your main course.
  • Ask for healthy substitutions. For instance, ask for sauces on the side and vegetables prepared without butter.

Dessert. One way to have your cake and eat it too would be to split a dessert with a friend.  Other options might include fresh fruit, sherbet or sorbet.

Finally, Wimberly says "remember to enjoy the whole experience of eating out, including the atmosphere and good company. Eat slowly, and enjoy every bite."