DEAR DOCTOR K:
I travel regularly for work, so I have to eat out a lot. Could you give me some strategies to make restaurant meals healthier?
Eating out can ruin even the healthiest diets. That’s because restaurants — and not just fast-food joints — tend to overdo the butter, sugar and salt. I spoke to registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She assured me that you can enjoy a meal (or several) on the road if you follow a few handy tips:
- Watch the portions. Restaurant entrees tend to be large enough to feed at least two people. When my wife and I go to a restaurant, we use one of two strategies:
Strategy No. 1: We jointly choose the entree and split it. Usually we split an appetizer, too.
Strategy No. 2: If strategy No. 1 threatens marital harmony, we each choose our own entree and ask the wait staff to wrap up half of it to take home. I also employ strategy No. 2 when I’m eating out alone.
- Hold the butter and salt. Many menu items contain hidden butter and salt. Ask your server how a meal is prepared before you order. If something is typically prepared in butter, ask for it to be steamed or broiled without added butter, or sauteed in olive oil instead. Likewise, ask that the chef go easy on added salt.
- Don’t be shy about asking for substitutions. The restaurant staff will likely be used to switching out white rice for brown and white pasta for whole-wheat pasta. Request a small salad or green vegetable instead of onion rings, or black beans instead of French fries.
- Ask your waiter for sauce to be served on the side. Instead of drizzling the sauce on your meal, dip your fork into the sauce first, and then place your fork and its few drops of sauce onto a bite of food. That way you’ll get to experience the taste without overdoing it. The same thing works for salad dressing.
- Plan ahead. Look at the restaurant’s menu online, or call ahead and ask questions. Decide what you’re going to order ahead of time. That way, you won’t look at the menu and be tempted to order a more indulgent entree when you arrive. Sound silly? It works.
- Eat slowly. Why? The daily recommended calorie intake for men and women is 2,700 and 2,100 calories, respectively. It’s not unusual for a restaurant entree to have more than 3,000 calories. A meal doesn’t start to reduce our appetite for 15 to 20 minutes. It is easy, particularly when you’re hungry, to down an entire meal in 15 to 20 minutes. It will be finished before you feel full. So eat slowly, stop eating when you start to feel full, and ask the wait staff to pack up what’s left. And now you have another dinner to enjoy at home.