How to Eat Healthy When Eating Out

Eating out can be synonymous with eating well. Just ask nutritionist Hope Warshaw.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans eat an average of five restaurant meals every week. That’s a lot of time spent not really in control of what ends up on your plate (which might also have something to do with our national epidemics of obesity and related diseases like diabetes). But with a little knowledge, a few skills and a bit of willpower, dining out doesn’t have to be a diet wrecker, says Hope Warshaw, R.D., author of Eat Out, Eat Well: The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant (American Diabetic Association, 2015). Here, she shares her advice with Healthy Eats.

Healthy Eats: What is the biggest mistake people make when eating out?

Hope Warshaw: People tend to think of going out to eat as a treat, but if you’re eating at a restaurant several times a week, not every meal can be a special occasion. You need to think about how we’re encouraged to eat on a daily basis — fewer fatty meats and high-fat dairy, more fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish — and try to maintain that even when eating out.

HE: What is the most-important thing to focus on when ordering food at a restaurant?

HW: People need take control of the amount of food that ends up in front of them. Research shows that the more that’s in front of you, the more you’ll eat, so it’s important to find ways to limit the size of the portion you get. You can ask to split an entree or order two appetizers — one as a starter and have the other brought out as your entrée — or mix and match small plates or sides to create a meal.

HE: Is eating “family style” a good idea or a diet disaster?

HW: Done correctly, this can be a great way to eat at a restaurant. Get input from everyone you’re dining with about which dishes to order, but order less food than the number of people at the table. That way you get to experience lots of different tastes but still control the overall quantity of food.

HE: What’s the best way to make special requests — without being a nuisance?

HW: While it’s true that chefs at very high-end restaurants sometimes resist modifying their dishes, I find that most places are pretty accommodating of special requests. Don’t be afraid to ask for things like extra veggies added to a meal or replacing fries with a cup of soup or side salad. But always acknowledge that you’re willing to pay for the extras.

HE: What skills do people need to learn in order to more successfully navigate dining out?

HW: It’s important to learn to recognize key words on menus that are red flags for unhealthy foods or green flags for healthy ones. At a Mexican restaurant, for example, red flags would be things like chorizo, con queso, refried beans, chimichangas, while green flags would be mole sauce, burritos, fajitas, black beans.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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