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Eating out

Eating out is a part of our busy modern lives. Even though you need to be careful, it is possible to go out and enjoy yourself while staying healthy.

If you know how to pick the right foods, you can go to almost any type of restaurant. Stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets. The temptation for overeating can be hard to resist at these places. Be aware that the portion sizes at many restaurants are very large.

Think and plan ahead:

  • If you know you're going out, check out the menu online so you can make healthy choices ahead of time.
  • Eat a few less calories earlier in the day.
  • Get some extra exercise on the same day, perhaps a walk before or after you eat out.
  • Avoid eating out when you are very hungry. Eat a small healthy snack, such as carrots or a small apple, shortly before going out.

When ordering, don't be afraid to ask to have something cooked in a healthier manner.

Basic Ground Rules for Eating Out

Look for and choose:

  • Salads and other vegetable side dishes
  • Foods that are broiled, grilled, steamed, poached, roasted, or baked
  • Chicken, turkey, seafood, or lean meats

Treat yourself only once in a while to:

  • Anything creamy, fried, crispy, breaded, battered, or au gratin
  • Sauces or soups with lots of butter, cream, or cheese
  • Thick or creamy salad dressings
  • Most casserole dishes

A few easy tips to keep the calorie count down include:

  • Split a meal with someone, or ask for a take-out box and take half of your meal home.
  • Order the "lunch size" of an entrée’ rather than the "dinner size"
  • Drink water or low-fat milk. Don't waste calories on fluids that have no nutrition.
  • Limit how much alcohol you have with meals. Wine is better than frozen drinks or mixed cocktails that have juice in them.
  • Share your dessert with someone.

Fast Food

Avoid fast food restaurants. If you must eat fast food, try these tips to limit calories:

  • Choose a place that broils or grills hamburgers, fish, and chicken for their sandwiches.
  • Order only a sandwich. Avoid ordering the value or combo meal.
  • Whether it's a sandwich, milkshake, or French fries, stay away from large sizes.
  • Order a salad instead of French fries.
  • Pizza is OK, but limit yourself to only one or two slices. Replace some of the cheese with extra sauce. Add a salad to your meal.

Healthy Eating at All Types of Restaurants

Sandwich restaurants or deli counters allow you to better manage what you eat:

  • Choose low- fat turkey, chicken, or ham. Other cold cuts tend to have too much fat. If it is salty, it probably has extra fat.
  • Replace extra meat and cheese with vegetables, such as peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
  • Ask for an open-faced sandwich. Ask for whole-grain bread rather than white bread. You can also choose a wrap instead of bread.
  • Replace high calorie condiments like mayonnaise or creamy salad dressings with mustard or a small amount of olive oil and vinegar.

Chinese restaurants offer healthy choices if you're careful:

  • Most deep fried options are high in calories. Instead, choose dishes that are steamed without added oil or sugar.
  • Limit dishes made with sweet and sour, hoisin, or other heavy sauces.
  • Choose low-fat dishes that are lightly stir-fried, such as brown rice and Chinese vegetables with seafood, chicken, or bean curd (tofu).
  • Some healthy choices include wonton soup, chicken skewer, and moo goo gai pan.

Indian restaurants:

  • Select foods that have chickpeas or lentils, vegetables, and sauces made from yogurt.
  • Good choices include mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, kebabs, naan bread, and lassi.
  • Avoid fried foods, creamy curry sauces, an Indian cream sauce called korma, and foods made with coconut milk (molee) or a clarified butter call ghee.

Italian restaurants:

  • Pasta dishes with a red or marinara sauce are healthier than sauces made with cream, butter, or cheese.
  • Look for the word primavera, which will not include creamy sauce. Order dishes with seafood, grilled meat, fish, chicken, or vegetables.
  • Avoid lasagna, antipasto, alfredo sauce, and garlic bread.
  • Watch out for large servings of pasta.

Mexican or Southwestern restaurants:

  • Choose foods that are not fried and have only a small amount of cheese.
  • Good choices include gazpacho, chicken with rice, rice and black beans, soft tortillas, and items that are baked.
  • Avoid nachos, chips, and quesadillas.

Family restaurants and pub food:

Stick with grilled chicken and meats, or a pot roast or meatloaf.

  • Stay away from foods -- even vegetables -- that are fried, breaded, au gratin, or creamy. Order a small or medium-sized baked potato with a touch of butter or low-fat sour cream rather than French fries or mashed potatoes.
  • Salads are a great idea, but avoid creamy dressings, along with toppings such as cheese or bacon. Ask for your dressing on the side so you can control how much you eat.
  • Clear broth soups are usually best. Avoid thicker soups with cream or cheese in them.
  • Review the tips above in the section about sandwich restaurants and deli counters.
  • Watch out for larger portion sizes.

Update Date: 10/28/2010

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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