One of the biggest struggles I face in losing weight is learning to navigate restaurant meals. Making choices that are in line with my healthy eating plans require planning. Below are 10 of the tips I follow to make healthy choices when dining out. Make these habits both before you go and once you get there and you will consistently make healthy choices
Know Before You Go
1. Check the Restaurant’s Website
Most restaurants with a web site include their menus and many are now including the nutritional information for some, if not all of their menu items. You may have to hunt around the site to find the nutritional information. You may not find it in the most obvious place – the menu page. Look at the bottom of the web page for a Nutritional Facts link. Also try checking their FAQ or Contact links. What you are looking for may be buried within those pages.
In the past few years, several states have enacted legislation that requires restaurants with a minimum number of locations to make nutritional information available on the menus or upon request. The Health Care Reform Act (Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010) will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to include the calorie content of most regular menu items right on the menu. The additional nutritional information must be available in writing upon request. Apparently the FDA is still working on a standard, so I was unable to uncover a definite date this will go into affect, but this is good news if you want to make better choices when dining out.
We may start seeing the impact of the law soon. According to a recent New York Times article, McDonalds is expected to begin including the calorie information on their menus this month.
2. Request Nutritional Information Ahead of Time
If the nutritional information is not readily available on the restaurant’s website and you have a day or two before your visit, locate the Contact section on the restaurant’s website and send an e-mail requesting the nutritional information.
Buffalo Wild Wings has this process automated, so within a few minutes of making my request I had a complete list of their nutritional information.
In the FAQ for BJ’s Brewhouse they indicate the nutritional information is available for California and Oregon. I live in Arizona, but I requested the California nutritional data. The menu items are the same. While the preparation could be slightly different, I know using this information as a guideline will help me make a better choice. It’s still a better option than just guessing at menu descriptions. BJ’s does not include all of the nutritional components (fat, fiber, protien) so if you are on Weight Watchers, like me, you will still have to do a little bit of detective work to compute your PointsPlus values.
3. Check Other Related Web Sites
My two go to sites for restaurant nutritional data are Weight Watchers and My Fitness Pal.
Weight Watchers – If you are following the Weight Watchers program and are a subscriber of e-tools there is a list of many common chain restaurants with the PointsPlus value of menu items. Weight Watchers has a mobile app as well to access e-tools from your smart phone – taking away another excuse if you end up at a restaurant without time to plan ahead.
MyFitnessPal.com – Use the food search to find the restaurant and then nutritional information for many menu items. I find this website to be more comprehensive than most other sites. Many times I start with a Google search for “restaurant name nutritional information”. The My Fitness Pal website is generally one of the first that shows up in a search and for me has been one of the most direct and complete websites when looking for nutritional data.
4. Review the Menu
If all else fails on your hunt for nutritional facts for the restaurant that you are going to, study the menu and decipher what appears to be the best choices. Then you will be better prepared once you arrive at the restaurant.
Once You Are There
5. A Kitchen, is a Kitchen, is a Kitchen
If a restaurant has the ingredients, they can probably make your food any way you want it. I do this all the time with my picky son. If he wants a quesadilla and they don’t have one on either the kids or adult menu, I look to see if they have anything made with a tortilla; I know they will have cheese – so, I know they can make a quesadilla. I worked at Marie Callendar’s when I was in college and we had an off menu price list to cover the most common of these requests, and the manager could give me a price on anything else.
If your request isn’t elaborate most restaurants will be happy to try to accommodate you. I wouldn’t ask a restaurant to make me lasagna from scratch (if you are watching your points/calories you are probably avoiding lasagna when dining out anyway). If you want whole wheat pasta with spicy marinara sauce, shrimp and veggies, but it’s not on the menu and all of these items are in other similar dishes, just ask. The worst that will happen is they will tell you they can’t do it.
6. Learn to Say It “On the Side”
Salad dressing, cheese, nuts, and other high calorie items do not have to be eliminated completely. Just use these three little words and you can be in control of how much of them goes on your food and in your mouth.
7. Ask, Ask, Ask
Don’t be timid. Ask how it’s made. Ask if they have nutritional information available. Ask if you can substitute fruit, a salad or veggies for high calorie/high point value side dishes. I’ve seen people ask a million questions about a $5 disposable item and then be too shy to ask about what they are about to put in their mouth. It’s your body and waistline – so care about it and ASK.
8. Learn to Estimate Portion Sizes
There are several tips and tricks to this – but none of them matter if you don’t measure and weigh your food at home on a regular basis. The saying “eyes bigger than your stomach” is no lie.
- Buy a digital food scale to quickly and accurately weigh your food.
- Dry measuring cups and measuring spoons in standard and odd sizes
- Standard liquid measuring cups
- Mini measuring cup – perfect for measuring oils and dressings
If you follow this practice regularly at home, you will better estimate your portions when you are dining out.
This article lists several foods with a visual cue. Here is a round up of most common visual cues you will come across:
- 1 cup = a fist or the size of a baseball
- 1 tablespoon = the tip of your thumb
- 1 teaspoon = the tip of your finger
- 1 ounce = the size of your index finger
- 3-4 oz serving of meats = a deck of cards
- 2 tablespoons = a shot glass
- 1/2 cup = ice cream scoop
Memorize these and you will be better prepared when dining out.
9. Order First
I have had many of my best laid intentions completely derailed by hearing what someone else is going to order. Plan ahead and decide what you are going to order and make the effort to order first.
10. Just Say Hold
To the bread basket, the chip basket, and the fried appetizer. If you didn’t plan for it in your meal, don’t let it hit the table. If you are dining with others, push the basket or plate away from arms reach. If you have to ask for it, you will be more likely to consider whether or not your really want to eat it.
To wrap it up, the biggest key to successful dining out is having a plan. When you are prepared you have more confidence in yourself and your choices. And what you put in your mouth, really is your choice.