Make Wise Food Choices When Eating Out

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Janis Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

As you place your order in a restaurant, think about the foods you have already eaten and will be eating later in the day. Meals and snacks eaten away from home should fit into a well-balanced diet and within your calorie range.

Base your menu choices on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines recommend a healthy eating plan emphasizing a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, lean meats, and beans.

Restaurants may post their menu on their web site, allowing you to make your choices before you arrive. They also may prepare food for special diets if the requests are faxed or phoned in ahead of time.

Many restaurants offer varied menus and lower-fat options. When the menu description is unclear, ask your server how a food is prepared.

Here are some ways to lower your intake of fat, sugar, salt and calories at restaurants.

  • Choose simply prepared foods, such as steamed vegetables, and lean meats, fish and poultry that are baked, roasted, broiled, poached, steamed, grilled, microwaved or lightly stir-fried.
  • Watch portion sizes since today’s restaurants serve larger portions. On average, a typical plate of spaghetti is twice as large as it was 20 years ago. Three ounces of meat is considered a serving, but many restaurants serve king-sized cuts of 6 ounces or more. If you choose a 6-ounce steak, balance it with non-meat entrées the rest of the day.
  • Save calories and dollars by choosing a green vegetable salad or a fruit salad as an entrée.
  • Control calories at the salad bar by using a small salad plate. Make the base of your salad with dark-green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach and romaine lettuce, which contain more nutrients and phytonutrients than iceberg lettuce. Top your salad with brightly colored vegetables (e.g. red and green peppers, broccoli, and carrots), fruits and legumes (e.g. kidney and garbanzo beans). Add protein-rich ingredients (e.g. lean meat, turkey, tuna and eggs) and low-fat cottage cheese for extra calcium. Use a light or fat-free salad dressing, lemon juice or flavored vinegar as a flavor enhancer.
  • Eat clear, broth-based soups containing lots of vegetables. Limit cream-based soups, even if they have a healthy-sounding name like cream of broccoli.
  • Avoid cream sauces and foods that contain a lot of cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise. This includes potato salad, macaroni salad and other salads made with a sauce or mayonnaise-based dressing.
  • If you must have some sour cream, butter, gravy, cream sauce or salad dressing, have it served on the side so you can control the amount you eat.
  • Order your potato baked, and add a low-fat topping such as salsa. Skip the French fries, onion rings, au gratin and scalloped potatoes.
  • Have your sandwich made with whole grain bread, and omit the chips served with it.
  • Enjoy water with your meals. It quenches your thirst and doesn’t contain large amounts of calories from sugar. To make water extra refreshing and satisfying, add lemon or lime slices, or choose flavored water with 10 calories or less.
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat milk, and use it in your coffee. Skip the milkshakes!
  • Instead of indulging in a high-calorie dessert, drink a cup of coffee or hot tea. When you want an occasional dessert, choose fresh fruits, sherbet, fruit ice or gelatin, angel food cake with fruit, low-fat frozen yogurt, or cappuccino with the whipped topping served on the side.
  • Don’t try to be a member of the “clean plate club.” Stop eating before you feel full, because it takes 20 to 30 minutes after you eat for your brain to realize that you’re full.
  • If you find it hard to leave food on your plate, consider these options. Order a smaller portion or substitute an appetizer portion for an entrée. Split an entrée with a family member or friend. Ask for a “to go” box, and immediately pack half of your meal to take home and enjoy later.
See HGIC 4204, Planning to Eat Out for more information on making healthier menu choices. This fact sheet also contains words and phrases that are clues to reading menus and choosing healthy ethnic foods, tips to avoid overeating, and ways to spend less when eating out. HGIC 4000, 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides the federal government’s best science-based advice on what you should eat to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic, diet-related disease.

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