Nutritionist Know-How: Dining Out Healthfully

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As I wrote about in our kick-off post to this series, I cherish the experience of eating at restaurants with girlfriends, as well as G on our date nights. In the past, I've ordered with reckless abandon; but I'm perpetually interested in improving my menu game so I make smarter choices and don't end up unable to button my pants. For this month's column, I asked Shira to help breakdown restaurant menus - from specific foods to avoid at ethnic spots; to general strategies and philosophies to employ. Here's Shira! 

Navigating restaurant menus is an excellent topic to educate yourself on, and Emily and Alina sent me some great questions on the matter. The general goal? To dine out healthfully, without sacrificing flavor and an enjoyable time. 

Back in the day, going out to restaurants was something of real novelty - to commemorate big occasions like anniversaries and graduations. That’s no longer the norm, however; and even though we do it far more frequently, many of us still treat dining out like an opportunity to splurge Thanksgiving-style. I’m a big believer that if you really want something, you should order the highest quality version, enjoy the #$%& out of it, and then move on. With that said, enjoying flavorful food outside your own kitchen doesn’t have to mean abandoning your long-term goals. And eating healthfully certainly doesn’t mean flaccid steamed veggies and rubbery chicken breast (sorry for the visual).

Below are some of my tips, tricks, and strategies for making more healthful and deliberate menu choices.

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Whether it’s a big green salad to start, or a side of sautéed broccolini, aim to have at least half your meal made up of non-starchy veggies. You can also ask to swap out grains or starchy sides for greens. Aside from being loaded with vitamins and minerals, greens are packed with fiber and help keep us full. 

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Often there are amazing, simple, high-protein options like grilled octopus and roasted veggies that can be mixed and matched for entrees.

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 Once we’re absolutely famished, all bets are off and it’s virtually impossible to decipher what’s actually worth indulging in. That’s when we wind up overdoing it on the bread basket and abandoning our internal hunger/satiety cues. This is where high-protein snacks earlier in the day come in handy. 

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Check out the menu beforehand to get a sense of what you want. This really helps prevent us from getting sidetracked by our dining companions.

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I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to do all that much to high-quality food. For instance, olive oil, lemon, sea salt, garlic, vinegar, spices and herbs go a long way. Lots of times restaurants add sugar to salad dressings, sauces and marinades, and it’s completely unnecessary because the food doesn’t need it. Ask if you can substitute olive oil for butter. As long as you’re polite, the worst that can happen is that your server says the substitution isn’t possible. 

Word wise, here are some phrases to look out for and limit in general, aside from the more obvious ones like deep-fried and creamy:

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Emily read once that Jennifer Garner gives herself one of the following three choices when she goes out: bread, dessert, or alcohol, and asked me what I thought about that. I think choices like these really depend on the individual’s personal goals, and what’s worth it to them. There aren’t so many hard and fast rules, and a lot of the decision-making comes down to you, your goals, and what brings you legitimate joy. For instance, I don’t typically recommend hitting the bread basket, because it’s not usually worth it for most of my clients. However, if it’s freshly baked sourdough and that’s your all-time favorite, and you want to savor a slice in place of a carb serving with your meal, then that’s your call. The bread likely has less fiber than say lentils or sweet potatoes, meaning you won’t feel as full, but if you decide you want the bread anyway, then by all means have it and enjoy it thoroughly. But I do like the idea of choosing between a glass of alcohol and a small serving of dessert. That feels sensible to me.

Since a drink is typically what people order first, either before or along with an appetizer, here's a rundown of the best options versus ones to avoid.

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Below I break down the best things to order at various types of popular food joints: Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, American, and French. 

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As far as desserts go, I understand that a fruit bowl isn't a viable swap for most people. So if you're really craving dessert, a coconut-based ice cream is a great choice, as well as grilled peaches or pears, or a flourless chocolate torte. I also like the idea of a banana split sans ice cream and sauces - almost like a cooked banana with chocolate and nuts. But, just to be clear, the goal isn’t to get full from dessert, so splitting is always a great idea. There’s nothing completely off-limits in the dessert category because I think that mentality contributes to binges. But some things are less ideal than others, like jelly-filled donuts. I’m particularly offended by jelly in general because fruit is pure sugar naturally, so adding additional sugar to fruit just feels inherently wrong to me *end rant*.

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In terms of a general gameplan for the day you'll be dining out, I’m not into the idea of restricting earlier in the day in order to “cash out” at dinner and dessert. It’s the same reason people who essentially fast before Thanksgiving wind up feeling uncomfortably full after the main event. Nobody wants to leave a special meal feeling like they need to unbutton their pants. I do, however think that if you’re planning to go out for Italian and would like a sensible portion of pasta, it can be worth having your lunch and one of your snacks made up of primarily greens, healthy fat and protein vs. a higher carb option. Eat it, enjoy it, and start your next day like you would normally.

-Shira

P.S. You can keep up with Shira here: 

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Website: http://shirard.com