Healthy Restaurant Meals: Choose Well to Avoid Pitfalls!

Healthy Restaurant Meals: Choose Well to Avoid Pitfalls!
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

Healthy eating can be one of the best choices you can make if you are trying to lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. Home-cooked food gives you advantages such as controlling what goes into your food and how much you serve yourself, but eating out is indispensable for most people for reasons such as relaxing, socializing, taking a break from the kitchen, celebrating, and working – in short, we need restaurants!

As the Lark DPP check-in mentioned, some restaurant choices are way better than others. It is possible to get a healthy meal that supports weight loss at almost any restaurant, but it is also possible to end up with a meal that is higher in calories, carbohydrates, sodium, and fat, and lower in fiber and other beneficial nutrients, than you had hoped. You are already doing yourself a favor by thinking about getting a healthy meal. Now, here are some pitfalls to watch out for so you can get exactly what you bargained for.

1 . Oversized Portions.

These are common among restaurant meals, as restaurants naturally want you to feel satisfied with your visit. The result can be a plateful of food with enough for 2 to 5 (or more) servings, and 1,000 or 1,500 calories. This can apply to pasta, burgers, chicken and fish dishes, sandwiches, stacks of pancakes, and pretty much anything you could order. To protect yourself, try checking the nutritional info first so you know how much you are getting. If you are a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, ask the server to bring a doggie bag with your food and pack up everything but a single (small) portion. That way, you can clean your plate and stick to a reasonable meal size.

2. Non-Diet “Diet” Menus and Items.

Menus or dishes may be called “Skinny,” “Diet,” or “Under 600 Calories,” for example, but they may not be the best choice for weight loss, let alone health. That 600-calorie count may be more than you need anyway, and it may not include condiments, sides, and beverages, much less appetizers. Your server should be able to tell you what those calorie counts include so you can make smart choices.

3. Misguided Salads.

A salad may be the obvious choice for weight loss, but restaurant salads can range from great to disastrous. Many have over 1,000 calories due to ingredients such as bacon, breaded chicken strips, cheese, crispy noodles, croutons, dried cherries or raisins, and large amounts of dressing. You may be able to build a more reasonable salad by asking for ingredients such as lettuce, other vegetables, grilled chicken or tuna, and dressing on the side.

4. Restaurant Versions.

A home-made grilled cheese or turkey sandwich might have 300 calories, while a restaurant sandwich might have 600 or more. Assuming that a restaurant-made dish will be similar in nutritional content to a home-made one can be a big mistake. The extra calories may come not only from larger portions, but also from sauces or spreads, and fat used in cooking.

5. Healthy Foods Outweighed by Unhealthy Ones.

Menu items with vegetables, fruit, or other healthy foods in their names can sound virtuous, but they are not always. For example, eggplant parmigiana can have more cheese and breadcrumbs than eggplant, spinach artichoke dip can be higher in fat and calories than queso dip, pumpkin pancakes can have more sugar than regular buttermilk pancakes, and a blueberry muffin is just as high in calories and sugar – up to 600 calories and 40 grams of sugar! – as a chocolate chocolate chip muffin. Veggie burgers and fruit smoothies are other tricky choices that can be downfalls. When ordering, the best choices are the ones with the healthy ingredient as the dominant one (think about a beef and broccoli stir fry with more broccoli than broccoli cheese soup) and without much added fat, sugar, or starch (think about fresh strawberries as a topping instead of sugary strawberry syrup).

6. The “Extras.”

The beverage(s), appetizer, and dessert can add up to enough calories for an entire meal (or 2 or 3), while providing very little in good nutrition. Though it may seem reasonable, the calories in a glass of wine (120), chicken wings (2) with ranch dip (300), coffee with cream and sugar (150), and ½ of a brownie a la mode (250) add up to 820 before talking about the main course and sides. Ice water and hot and cold tea or coffee without cream or sugar are the best beverage bets for during and after the meal, raw veggies, salads, and broth-based soup are best for appetizers, and fresh fruit is the lowest-calorie dessert choice.

7. Distractions.

Restaurants may tempt you with descriptors such as “gluten-free,” “locally-sourced,” and “made in house,” but none of those mean, “low-calorie” or “healthy.” They may be fine to choose, but only if they also meet your other criteria, such as being based on lean proteins and vegetables.

8. Great bargains.

Restaurants try to make you think you are getting a better value by charging very little extra for bigger portions or for extras such as another side or a fountain beverage. These add-ons certainly increase the calories per dollar that you are paying, but they may not be truly increasing the value according to the person who matters most – you – if you are not looking for those extra calories. Buffets, casual restaurants, and fast food joints have the highest value when they give you a meal that is delicious and good for you.

9. Foods You Would Not Eat at Home.

The “special occasion” or “my friend is eating it” mentality can lead common sense to fly out the window while at a restaurant, leading you to order dishes or extras that you would never have at home. Whether the item in question is butter or syrup on toast or pancakes, bacon on a sandwich or salad, fried instead of baked or steamed foods, or mashed potatoes on the side, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you would eat that way at home. If not, you might want to think twice about whether you truly want to order it at the restaurant.

It is great to try to order healthily when you eat out, but there are quite a few sneaky pitfalls on menus. Still, it is usually possible to get away with a healthy, filling meal that works with your dietary goals!