Americans are eating out and getting food to go more than ever — sometimes up to five nights a week. With busy schedules and an abundance of convenient dining options, it’s often hard to avoid.
But takeout food can be unhealthy. With obesity and diet-related chronic conditions in America on the rise, it’s important to watch what we’re eating. According to the National Institutes for Health, more than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the United States are considered overweight or obese.
It’s healthiest to cook food at home, where we can control sugar, salt and fat, but if you find yourself at a restaurant for a special occasion or just an evening out, here are five tips on how to eat out healthfully:
1. Drink lots of water.
Many of us don’t drink enough water throughout the day — and we often mistake thirst for hunger. To avoid overeating, drink a glass of water before you go out to eat or order takeout. Also, avoid sugary drinks, such as juices or soda, which won’t fill you up; the sugar is absorbed into the body quickly, which isn’t great for blood sugar levels.
In addition, staying hydrated by drinking still or sparkling water may make you feel less tempted to order alcohol, which brings on the cravings and loss of inhibitions that lead to overeating.
2. Don’t restrict, modify.
Instead of not ordering a particularly tempting item, modify it to make it healthier. Ask for grilled salmon instead of fried chicken on top of a salad, or add a healthy fat like avocado to a sandwich and skip the processed meat, such as bacon. When possible, look for whole, natural foods as well as foods that are baked, broiled, poached, steamed, or grilled. Choose one indulgent topping rather than all of them — such as having only ranch dressing on a salad and holding the bacon bits and mounds of cheese.
3. Sharing is caring.
Sharing menu items with family and friends is a great way to monitor portion control and your budget. It’s a fun way to explore the restaurant’s offerings, too. Also, if children are with you, encourage them to share a meal with you instead of choosing from the kids menu, which often features fried or cream-based dishes. This helps to set up an early example of healthy eating.
4. Get creative with the menu.
These days, there are many sections of a menu that can provide healthier options. Look to order from a senior or an a la carte menu, or from small plate selections, which all tend to have more reasonable portions. Try building a meal with these smaller plate options, such as a side of grilled chicken or whole beans, grains, steamed vegetables or a small salad.
Chain restaurants in California are required by law to have nutritional information available to the public. When in doubt, look up this information online before going to the restaurant to see just how many calories are in each of the dishes. You may want to check out the fat and sodium content as well.
5. View it as an occasion.
If you view going out to eat or taking out food as a celebratory occasion or treat, you’re less likely to do it. When we go out, we often think it’s a free pass to be indulgent, and if we do this too frequently, it definitely catches up with us.
Take your time and develop mindful eating habits — slowing down and thinking about what is going into your body and how it relates to your health. Ask yourself: “Am I enjoying each bite? Focusing on the taste?”
It’s not about eating perfectly and always having to restrict. I encourage clients to slow down, enjoy what they’re eating, and form a healthy relationship with food.
Contributor: Stephanie Burke, RD