How to Dine Out Healthfully and Smart

From the WebMD Archives

You ordered the squash casserole at your favorite restaurant instead of the french fries; your spouse opted for the eggplant parmesan over the T-bone steak. Three cheers for both of you!

Eating out at your favorite fast food place or sit-down restaurant probably doesn't give you many chances to feel virtuous. But when you select a vegetable entree instead of a meat and potato-heavy meal, you deserve some kudos, right?

Well, not always. Give yourself an "A" for effort, but choosing veggies isn't always the best choice when dining out. As a matter of fact, sometimes it can be an outright diet disaster.

To understand why, WebMD talked to the pros, dietitians who shared their tips on what to watch for when eating out, then offered helpful hints on how you can you make healthier restaurant and fast food choices.

Healthy Restaurant and Fast Food Eats

Butter, cheese, fat, fried. For such small words they can sure have a big impact on the meals you enjoy when eating out -- even when you choose the veggie options.

That's because it's just as easy to load up vegetarian items with fat, sodium, and cholesterol as it is non-veggie options, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Vegetarian does not mean low-calorie."

Frying in oils or butter, breading, sauces, cheese, and large portions; they're all just a few of the ways good-for-you veggies can turn into diet destroyers.

"Eggplant parmesan, for example, is often egg-washed and batter-coated, pan- or deep-fried and then loaded with tons of cheese," says Gerbstadt. This means your veggie entrée can sometimes weigh in with more total fat, calories, and sodium than a modest-sized serving of lean roasted or broiled meat, as the eye-opening table below shows.

Dinner

Calories

Fat (g)

Saturated Fat (g)

Sodium (mg)

Carbs (g)

Fiber (g)

Eggplant Parmigiana
(Entrée size portion)

850

35

10

1,900

98

19

Black beans and rice

(1 cup of each)

412

2.5

<1

1,055

80

12

6 ounces filet mignon; medium baked potato; 1 tablespoon sour cream

320

8

4

85

27

2

Continued

Of course, many vegan entrées (meals that don't use any animal products, including dairy) can be low in calories and fat, and high in fiber and vitamins, but lacto-ovo vegetarian restaurant meals -- often made with dairy-based foods like cream and cheese -- can hide "sneaky calories," Gerbstadt tells WebMD.

It's not just hot veggie entrees that can fool you; even a salad bar meal may be mined with calorie bombs if you're not paying attention. Potato and pasta salads are often loaded with fatty mayo, while extras like fried croutons, bacon bits, and olives can pile on the calories. Then there's the ultimate sneaky salad setback: Dressing. Just one ladle of creamy blue cheese, Caesar, or ranch can add a whopping 300 calories.

With all those hidden calories waiting to do harm to your healthy eating plan, what can you do?

12 Hints for Healthier Eating When Eating Out

Throw your diet a life vest when dining out. These easy ideas from healthy eating pros can help you get started.

  • Choose the right restaurants. When you're eating out, choose places you know offer plenty of healthy, fresh foods. While that doesn't mean you have to forgo fast food every time, focus on eateries that offer fresh options such as cafeterias or look for restaurants with salad bars, then start your meal with plenty of fresh vegetables.
  • Avoid portion distortion. No food is off limits if you keep portions small. Share an entrée. Order an appetizer as your main course. Split a small, rich dessert.
  • Scan your menu for high-fat hints. Is your veggie appetizer or entrée described as breaded, batter-dipped, or tempura? All of those terms mean one thing: fried. And fried means fatty. You'll also want to avoid foods described as crispy, creamy, breaded, béarnaise, alfredo, or au gratin. Pick menu items described as flame-cooked, roasted, grilled, or broiled, as well as steamed, poached, or in-its-own-juices. All of these terms usually mean a lower calorie meal.
  • Think outside the veggie box. "Make a quarter of your plate a veggie-tized entrée," suggests David Grotto RD, LDN, former spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. Think veggie burger, bean burrito, or a lightened eggplant parmesan.
  • Savor the right sauces. Avoid buttery, creamy veggie soups, stews, and sauces, and instead choose vegetables cooked in wine, or in stock-based sauces. Not sure how your veggie entrée is made? Ask your server.
  • Cut the fat. Really want that cheesy dish or one that's floating in a cream sauce? Ask if the kitchen will halve the cheese or sauce. Or "order the sauce on the side and drizzle some over the entrée," Grotto says, this way you control the flavor and the calories.
  • E is for effort: No matter which entrée you order, try picking something that takes a little effort to eat, which can slow you down and help you eat less: Think sautéed artichokes, corn on the cob, or shrimp still in the shell.
  • Get the most nutritious bang for your buck. Choosing a side salad? Order one made with rich, dark greens like spinach, chard, or romaine. Do the same at the salad bar and then select better-for-you proteins like hard-cooked eggs, lean meats, beans, tofu, or cottage cheese.
  • Dress down your salad. Use fat-free or low-fat dressing in small amounts. You can make the rich taste of your favorite creamy dressing stretch further by using half as much and then adding a touch of oil and vinegar.
  • Save that sandwich. Ordering a fast food sub? Amp up your nutrition on the go by skipping the mayonnaise and other fatty sauces, and go for extra veggies, flavored with mustard or vinaigrette.
  • Learn to set limits. When restaurant eating, make sure your portion fits on a standard dinner plate, suggests Grotto. "Are you being served on China or a platter that could feed all of China?" If you'll be dining out at an eatery specializing in massive meals, ask wait staff for a carryout container at the start of your meal, Grotto says, then wrap half of everything except for the veggies.
  • Choose comfort foods occasionally. Really want some fries or are you craving the comfort of mac and cheese? Indulge your desire now and again, but order fatty favorites like these from the kids' menu.

Try a few of these quick tips the next time you're dining out and you'll not only rescue good-for-you meals drowning in creams and sauces, you can even get a few of the five servings of veggies you need daily. Now that's tasty.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 21, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, CDE, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

David Grotto, RD, LDN; author, 101 Optimal Life Foods and 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.

American Dietetic Association: "Tips for Eating Out," "Eating Out."

Palo Alto Medical Foundation: "Restaurant Eating Tips."

University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority: "Tips for Healthy Eating Out."

USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

© 2011 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination