Why You Need a Dining Out Strategy

Don’t automatically assume you know what you’re getting yourself into when you sit down for a nice lunch or dinner at a restaurant – any restaurant. You may have read great reviews in the papers or listened to the praises of your friends who have eaten at a particular place before. None of these recommendation, however, give you the slightest clue about the ingredients and cooking techniques the kitchen is using. In terms of healthy nutrition, you are simply in the dark.

You Don’t Have to Lose Control Over Your Diet
When Someone Else Prepares Your Meals

Dining out is supposed to be a pleasurable event. Whether you go out for a family dinner on Saturday night, have a romantic date or gather with loved ones for a celebration, it is supposed to be all fun with no regrets.

It is a different story, however, if you eat out a lot because you travel or you’re too busy or not skilled enough to cook your own meals from scratch. Then you don’t have much control over your diet at all.

Here are some of the downsides: Restaurants portion sizes are typically larger than the recommended serving sizes of home-cooked meals. Restaurant chefs are naturally more interested in enhancing the taste of the food they cook than in using leaner cooking methods. They also have a business to run and have to be as economical with their ingredient choices as possible. That means lots of sauces, toppings and side dishes that may look and taste yummy, but you’re also bound to get high amounts of extra calories and fat on your plate.

If you want to have some say in the ways your meals are prepared, you have to know how to navigate around some of the unnecessary pitfalls. Here are a few tips that can help you retain a little more control over your diet when the cooking is done by someone else.

Be aware that what you think you order from the menu is not necessarily what you’re going to get. Let’s say, you decide on a meat entrée. It may be called “lean” or “extra lean,” but your beef steak or burger can still contain a lot of fat.

Believe it or not, not all salads or vegetable dishes make for healthy choices. Fatty dressings can easily offset the benefits you would expect from a vegetarian dish.

Beverages can be fattening too. People often forget to include their drinks in their calorie count. In fact, wine and champagne have lots of calories. Hard liquor cocktails have even more. Many soft drinks and sodas contain excessively high levels of sugar.

Desserts are often the “Waterloo” of any battle against weight gain. In our culture, desserts are sometimes considered as the highlight of a meal, instead of a finishing touch. So how can you resist?

Important strategic moves
Your “dining out strategy” should be drawn up long before you eat. Consider your appetite before you get to the restaurant. Don’t arrive ravenous. If this is not your first visit, you are already better prepared. Stick to your preferences. Be careful with “Specials of the Day.” They often include items the kitchen needs to get rid of real soon. Don’t order a dish only because it is advertised as “the specialty of the house.” You don’t know why the chef loves making a particular dish over and over again. Read the menu carefully and examine the ingredients and cooking methods. Inquire about the possibilities of healthful modifications. Patronize restaurants that are willing to cooperate with you and request wait staff that is responsive.

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 be modified? How are they cooked and prepared? Can you ask the chef to eliminate or reduce fat or salt? May one share an entrée? Do they serve half-portions?

Most restaurants accept special requests
Well-trained wait staff and kitchen personnel communicate in a certain lingo. For instance, “hold” means, please omit the sauce, cream, dressing or side dish. I don’t want it. “On the side” says, I will add the salad dressing, sauce, toppings, etc. myself. Please serve it separately. “Remove the skin” from a chicken- or duck dish before it’s cooked, means you’re asking for a cooking technique that is leaner in fat. (Good idea!) “Substitute” lighter items for heavier ones in terms of calories means you are asking for alternative ingredients, like baked potatoes instead of fries, or fresh lettuce instead of coleslaw, etc. “Nonfat” or “low fat” applies to milk, mayonnaise, dressings and dips. This, of course, depends on availability. “Egg whites only” is a version of preparing egg dishes, like omelettes, frittatas, scrambles, etc., that eliminates cholesterol, which is only found in the yolk. (Also a good idea!) “Low-cal” (less calories) even applies to many condiments, toppings and sauces. You may never think about these, but they have calories too. “Split one” is a great idea when portion sizes are too big for one person. Splitting appetizers, salads or desserts has become quite common and is considered acceptable in most restaurants.

Beware of what you wish for…
Dining out can be quite expensive. Some high-end gourmet places may ask you to leave a good portion of your paycheck behind. However, that doesn’t mean you should always try to get the biggest bang for your buck. Filling up as much as you can is never a good strategy. Some eateries have “all you can eat” policies to lure in “value-conscious” customers. They make you think you’re getting a great deal. It’s not. You are the one who’s going to be uncomfortable or downright sick from overeating. In America you can always ask for a “doggy bag” and take leftovers home with you. (Don’t try that in other countries, though.)

Eat and drink slowly. It takes your brain approximately 20 minutes to receive a signal from your stomach that it is “full.” Know your limits when it comes to alcohol. Pass on creams and chocolates and choose fruit or fat-free yogurt instead. If your last bit of resistance breaks down in view of the dessert menu, all efforts you have made throughout the meal are for naught.

When you travel, learn as much as you can about the local culinary customs before you depart. Your stomach may not be as adventurous as your spirit. Certain TV shows, e.g. on the Travel Channel, may seduce you into thinking that it’s cool to put every critter on the planet in your mouth – it’s not. Don’t risk getting sick when you’re far away from home by reckless behavior, which includes your dining experiences.

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