© 2019 by Derrick W. Spell, MD, FACP

  • Derrick W. Spell, MD FACP

How to Dine Out Successfully

Updated: Feb 12

One of the most important skills to learn for effective weight management is proper dining at restaurants. Eating out is never the preferred dining method when you are trying to lose weight. The average meal at a restaurant today has over 1200 calories! Fast food chains are even worse! Eating meals at home allows you to use fresh products that are prepared exactly as you like without any unknown added calories. Since eating out is a necessary part of modern life, it is imperative that you learn how to stay on course. Fortunately, it is possible to eat at restaurants and watch your weight. These tips will help ensure that you make good, healthy choices.


The first thing to do before you go to any restaurant is to do your homework! Be prepared and review the menu and nutritional facts ahead of time. Most restaurants post their menus and nutrition facts online today. In fact, the federal government now requires restaurants with more than twenty locations to post all nutritional information. Apps like MyFitnessPal usually provide any unknown nutritional data. If you know what dish you want ahead of time, make sure you also have a back-up plan in case your selection is not available. When you review the menu, there are several key words that are clues for what to always avoid. Food descriptions to avoid include pan-fried, crispy, breaded, and dipped. You should also avoid any cream-based sauce or alfredo sauce. On the other hand, you should look for the following descriptions, as they tend to indicate healthier options: steamed, baked, grilled, roasted, seared and broiled. If you are not sure how something is prepared, don’t be afraid to ask questions!


My next tip is to always drink water or unsweetened iced tea. Ask for a slice of lemon if you want to add a little flavor. If you don’t like drinking water or tea with your meals, try ordering a different beverage after you have finished your first glass of water. Adequate water intake will improve your satiety and help you feel full faster. I recommend avoiding alcohol with meals as much as possible. (Never order sugary mixed drinks like margaritas and piña coladas!) Alcohol contains unwanted calories, reduces self-consciousness and often leads to overeating. If you are celebrating a special occasion, limit your alcoholic beverage to one serving and save it for later in the meal. (Remember, one serving of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor) If you enjoy coffee at restaurants, steer clear of the added calories in sugar and cream.


My next tip is to start with a low-calorie appetizer, if desired. Most appetizers at restaurants are loaded with calories and fat and should be avoided. However, there are some starter options that are quite sensible. Vegetables are always in order if they are prepared in a healthy fashion. (Steamed vegetables are best but avoid the added cream sauces and cheeses!) Ahi tuna and grilled shrimp are also sensible choices. Stay away from the complimentary starters like breads and chips, as they are just empty, unwanted calories.

Current research shows that if you enjoy a healthy salad or cup of soup before a meal, you tend to eat less during the rest of the meal. However, it should be a smart selection also. If you enjoy salads, make sure you ask for the salad dressing on the side. (This enables you to use a little at a time, since most restaurants put much more than is necessary!) Order your salad without cheese or croutons. Better salad dressing options include sesame ginger and balsamic and lemon vinaigrette. House dressings are occasionally low-calorie, so ask your waiter. Caesar salads are a reasonable choice if you cannot order ginger or vinaigrette dressing. If you enjoy soup, most vegetable-based soups are acceptable. Examples of these include minestrone, tom yum (sweet and sour), miso, black bean, lentil and classic vegetable soup. It is also appropriate for soup and/or salad to serve as your meal!


My next tip is to fill up on vegetables. In fact, you should strive for vegetables to be the majority of your entrée! Feel free to order extra vegetables, even if it costs more money. Remember to ask questions about how the vegetables are prepared. Unfortunately, many restaurants add butter during preparation to improve the flavor. It is acceptable to ask for your vegetables to not be cooked in butter. Once again, decline the added sauces and cheeses. Some restaurants now offer vegetable combination plates where you can pick and choose several different choices!


If you prefer to eat meat as an entrée, my next tip is to order fish. Most restaurants have plenty of fresh seafood options available. Always avoid fried fish and make sure that yours is steamed, baked, grilled, roasted, seared or broiled. I suggest staying away from the bottom feeder fish, like catfish. I recommend enjoying tuna, salmon as well as “middle-of-the-food-chain” fish like trout, snapper, grouper, and cod. Remember to ask questions about preparation and avoid the unhealthy add-on sauces. If fish is not your fancy, most restaurants have lighter fare on their menu labeled with phrases like “reduced calorie,” “reduced guilt,” or “under 600 calories.” Regardless of your entrée choice, remember to eat your vegetables!





My last tip is to share or split your entrée. Restaurants today have exceptionally large serving sizes. In fact, many entrées today contain two or more serving sizes! (A typical serving size of cooked fish is three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards.) It is very easy to solve this problem by sharing an entrée with your spouse or friend. My wife and I frequently share an appetizer, eat an individual salad and then split an entrée. This tip helps your waistline as well as your pocketbook, since entrées typically bear the most calories and expense. If sharing is not an option, split your entrée and bring half of it home. You can even ask for half of your entrée to be boxed before it arrives at the table. This way you can enjoy it twice, with leftovers for lunch the next day!


If you are trying to lose weight, I recommend avoiding dessert unless you are celebrating a special occasion. Some desserts actually have more calories than many of the entrées! If you would like something sweet, I suggest sharing or splitting it as well! Some restaurants do have healthy options like fresh fruit, sorbet and sherbet. Ask you server what is available, as many healthy options may not be listed on the menu.


Keep in mind that any distraction while eating can result in overeating. Anything that takes your attention off your meal makes you more likely to overeat without even realizing it. Restaurants are well aware of this phenomenon and use it to their advantage. TV and loud music are two main distractions that they employ. If you add an alcoholic beverage while eating your oversized entrée, you have a perfect storm for overeating!



If you want to learn more about avoiding distractions as well as other helpful eating suggestions, please check out my book The Bite-Sized Guide to Getting Right-Sized!

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