If you travel often or entertain corporate clients, eating out may be an essential part of your life. Or maybe you just want to blow-out your hair, skip the grocery store, and enjoy a meal out, leaving the dishes on the table for someone else to take away. Restaurants can be a saving grace when we want to give ourselves a break, meet with friends, or even impress a new love interest. On the downside, restaurants aren’t always the epitome of health. In their effort to meet budget constraints, make food taste great, and feed hundreds of hungry diners, chefs aren’t preparing food like you would at home.
For one, the portions are waaay bigger. In fact, it’s one of the first things I noticed after living in London for two years; portions in America are larger than those in most European countries—in fact, some portions in America seem larger than some European countries!
Second, restauranteurs can’t afford to use high-quality ingredients and keep prices low. In other words, chances are, your local pub is not serving grass-fed burgers on sprouted-grain toast with organic ketchup.
Lastly, there are hidden offenders—sodium, sugar, and other additives—that creep into even the healthiest-sounding entrée. Have you ever ordered a simple raspberry vinaigrette and thought, “Wow, this tastes really sweet?” It’s probably because it was made with more sweetener than raspberry.
Of course, this doesn’t all end with me telling you to swear off restaurants and move overseas. As a nutritionally conscious chef—and someone who does enjoy a good meal prepared by someone else—I’ve developed simple menu strategies to help you eat out and keep it clean.
- Make your own meal from the sidelines. As mentioned, most entrée portions are large (and expensive), so I like to check out the appetizers, sides, and salads to create my own meal. For example, order the grilled chicken skewer appetizer and a papaya salad. The hummus dip platter and a veggie soup. Or a baked fish taco and a side of rice and steamed vegetables. You may be surprised by how many healthy options are sitting on the sidelines.
- Eat half; save half. This works especially when you want to indulge. Say you’re at an Italian restaurant and they have a homemade spaghetti and meatball or lasagne dish. Go ahead and order it, but split it with a friend. If it’s not enough food, get a salad to start and maybe even a side of sautéed spinach. Odds are, half is just the right amount to satisfy your craving without overeating. If you’re dining alone, take the other portion home for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner.
- Learn the lingo. I read menus like I read food labels. You can uncover hidden offenders, like excess butter, oil, and additives, simply by understanding the cooking and preparation methods. Look for buzzwords like: grilled chicken, poached salmon, baked fish, and steamed vegetables. These are cleaner cooking methods that usually aren’t prepared in gobs of fat and topped with thick sauces and gravies. Conversely, steer clear of descriptives such as fried, smoked, loaded, and smothered. It’s okay to indulge, but healthy eating is all about balance. Either way, be grateful for the food on your plate and enjoy it, as well as the luxurious dining-out experience!