Even the most health-conscious lifestyle must be able to incorporate special occasions every now and then. Having lunch or dinner in a nice restaurant should be a pleasurable experience, unspoiled by guilt or regrets.
True, you have less control over the chef’s cooking techniques and styles when you eat out. But with a little knowledge, you can identify the better choices almost anywhere you go. In most places, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for certain modifications when you place your order, such as lighter salad dressings or certain dishes to be omitted or served on the side.
Overall, however, you should feel confident that a little straying from your dietary routine will be graciously tolerated by your body. (We are talking about special occasions, right?)
The ABCs of “menu literacy”
Understanding restaurant menus is not always as simple as you might think. Restaurant owners constantly try new ways to enhance your dining experience with carefully crafted menu lingo. The primary purpose of handing out menus is not to provide you with detailed information about the food that is being offered, but rather to make (literally) your mouth water – in other words, to heighten your anticipation and increase your appetite.
Professionally trained wait staff can seduce you into spending so much more than you had planned beforehand. Let’s face it, you would not care to empty your wallet for mundane items, such as soups, dips, meats, potatoes or pudding. But you are perfectly willing to spend a bundle on “luscious hors d’oeuvres,” “sumptuous entrées” and “glorious endings.”
Don’t be fooled! The folks who type up the menu on expensive parchment paper are probably not the ones who cook your meal. So, arm yourself with a little insider knowledge. Here are a few tips for getting around the most common pitfalls:
Red flags should go up when you see words like these: Alfredo, au gratin, batter fried, battered, breaded, buttery, coconut milk, cream, creamed, creamy, crème, crispy, crusted, deep fried, escalloped, French fried, fried, fritter, ghee, in hollandaise sauce, in cheese sauce, in cream sauce, in gravy, with mayonnaise, refried, sautéed, scampi style, sizzling, stir-fried, super-sized, tempura and value-sized (or added value and extra value).
By contrast, you are probably safe when you read descriptions such as these: Baked, braised, broiled, fresh, grilled, poached, roasted, steamed and stewed.
Of course, this is by no means a complete list and you may add many more caveats based on your own culinary expertise.
Regardless of the precautionary measures you may take, you can’t always assume that you get what you think you ordered. Heavy-handed and careless cooking techniques can quickly offset the benefits of otherwise perfectly healthy choices.
Be mindful that beverages can be fattening and must be considered as well. Most people don’t think of their drinks in terms of calories. But even wine and champagne counts. So do cocktails. Many sodas have excessively high levels of sugar. It all adds up.
As your dinner progresses, you will probably feel exceedingly comfortable and relaxed. However, if you still have any will power left in you at all, I recommend you try to pass on desserts loaded with heavy creams or chocolate. Go for fresh fruits or fat-free yogurt instead. If your resistance breaks down in view of the dessert display, all the efforts you have made throughout the meal have been in vain.
Have a dining-out strategy
It is a great idea to lay out a personal “strategy” before you arrive at your restaurant. What you do depends on your personal habits and tendencies. For instance, you may not want to get too hungry right before you eat out. Have a small snack at home that doesn’t fill you up but also does not leave you ravenous.
If you have an aperitif or cocktail before dinner, don’t let it cloud your judgment. If possible, place your order before the effects from the alcohol kick in.
Don’t order a dish you don’t want just because it is advertised. Be extra careful with the “specials of the day.” They often include items the kitchen needs to use up in a hurry.
You don’t have to clean your plate to get your money’s worth. If it is appropriate, ask for a “doggie bag,” if not, leave the food behind and savor the memory instead.
When traveling, particularly to exotic places, learn about the local culinary customs. Your stomach may not be as adventurously inclined as your spirit. It may be tempting to try unusual or even weird foods, like they show on the Travel Channel and the likes. Be warned, some of this behavior can be downright dangerous for your health.
Patronize restaurants that are happy to accommodate your wishes. Find out what extra services are being offered. For example, can you call the restaurant ahead of time for special orders? Are other foods available that are not listed on the standard menu? Can ingredients and cooking techniques be modified upon request? Can the chef be asked to eliminate or reduce certain ingredients, like fat or salt? Can entrées be split up if they are too large? Are half-portions available? And so on…
Don’t be shy about getting your needs met! Restaurants value your business and will be anxious to please you as much as possible. They are keenly aware that you have other choices.
So many choices…
Especially in America, we enjoy an incredible variety of restaurants with a rich spectrum of distinguished styles and flavors. In my book, “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®,” I have used a rating system – not the usual kind with the stars and the dollar symbols – that is written from a dietitian’s perspective. The focus is on ingredients and cooking techniques, culinary cultures and ethnicities and, of course, the healthier choices and alternatives. Here are four representative examples:
Italian food is very popular in many parts of the country. Its major components are pasta, vegetables, low fat dairy products and olive oil. You find also a rich variety of seafood. However, before you go for the Calamari Fritti, ask to have it lightly sautéed and pass up on the aioli to avoid excessive fat content.
Having a salad to start with (Caesar or any other) is a good idea, but watch the dressings. Creamy dressings may be tasty, but they add fat. A little olive oil on the side and balsamic vinegar are preferable by far.
Garlic bread dipped in olive oil is so yummy… Well, better not.
Minestrone soup is excellent, especially when it is prepared from fresh ingredients.
If you love pizza (who doesn’t), try the vegetarian kind, topped with fresh tomato sauce – and skip the cheese. Yeah right! You tell the kids that!
Unfortunately, all pasta dishes are high in carbohydrates, and creamy Fettuccini Alfredo is the worst of the bunch. A Marinara or clam sauce has lower fat content. Try splitting a pasta dish – they’re often too large for one person anyway.
Great entrée choices are grilled fresh fish, chicken and meats. Less desirable are sausages and sautéed items, such as Saltimbocca and Scaloppine. Most entrées come with vegetables, pasta or polenta. Ask for pasta and vegetables to be served plain, or with just a little Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. If you have Risotto, skip the butter and the cheese.
Biscotti and Sorbetto, both low in fat, are the better dessert choices. Panna Cotta is tolerable, but Gelato and Tiramisu contain all of the “usual suspects.”
In summary, healthier choices are available in most Italian style restaurants and ingredients are typically fresh. Italian food made from scratch gets a definite nod!