Learn Joy Bauer’s tips for navigating restaurant menus—plus get her go-to picks for eating out
By Joy Bauer, RD from Woman's Day
Photo: © Thinkstock.com
Dining out is one of the biggest challenges for dieters. Menus are designed to lure you in, and studies have shown that simply seeing or smelling food can erode the steeliest resolve (it’s hard to resist ordering that brownie after seeing it pass by on the dessert cart!). That’s why it’s important to have a game plan before you set foot in a restaurant.
Check Out the Menu in Advance. Access it online if possible, or call therestaurant and ask if they can fax a copy. When you get there, don’t even open the menu—simply tell the waiter what you decided on earlier in the day.
Start with greens. Salad helps fill you up without adding many calories… as long as you don’t drown it in dressing or smother it with fatty toppings like cheese and nuts. Vinegar contains negligible calories (plain vinegar, not vinaigrette), so feel free to douse your salad with as much as you want. Or ask for a dressing on the side and use no more than one to two tablespoons.
Watch portions. They are notoriously huge in restaurants. Even if you choose everything right, you can go wrong by cleaning your plate. You want to leave the table satisfied, not stuffed. One way to achieve this is to eat slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the company, not just the food. Try putting down your fork and taking a break every three bites or so. This gives your brain time to get the “I’m full” message from your stomach. On a similar note, don’t get so wrapped up in conversation that you forget what and how much you’re eating. To make sure you don’t overstuff yourself, when you’re about halfway through what’s on your plate, stop and assess your hunger on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being ravenous and 5 being stuffed. If you’re at a 3 or 4, stop eating.
Skip the bread basket. Most of the time, it’s a calorie bomb. If you must have something, a small slice of French bread or a small plain roll (no butter) is the way to go.
Don’t drink your calories. Stick with water, seltzer or a diet soda. If you enjoy alcohol, limit yourself to one drink—preferably a glass of wine, a wine spritzer, a light beer, or a shot of hard liquor mixed with club soda or another noncaloric beverage—all of which are around 100 calories. Avoid frou-frou drinks like frozen margaritas, which contain hundreds of calories.
Go lowfat. As a general rule of thumb, order foods that are broiled, grilled, roasted or steamed, and steer clear of those that are fried or sautéed. When entrées are pansautéed, the food soaks up more oil than during grilling or broiling.
Don’t be afraid to make special requests. You can save lots of calories by asking for sauce on the side, steamed vs. fried or sautéed vegetables, double orders of veggies instead of a starch, and half-portion entrées. Plate-sharing and doggie bags are also a great way to cut calories and cost. (A charge for a plateshare is less than another entrée.)
Order two appetizers instead of an entrée. Seafood appetizers like shrimp cocktail, oysters or grilled calamari are low enough in calories that you can order two (stick to the same guidelines about avoiding fried, sautéed, etc.) plus a salad as your entire meal.
Ditch dessert. If you need something sweet to end your meal, go for fruit or a few small bites of a shared dessert. Sometimes a cup of tea or a skim cappuccino is all it takes to make you feel like you’ve had a full dining experience.
When You’re Eating Ethnic Foods…
It can be hard to choose when you don’t completely understand the menu! You can always ask the waiter what’s in a dish and how it’s prepared, but here’s some help.
Best Italian picks:
• Mixed green salad with vinaigrette dressing on the side (no cheese)
• Mussels marinara
• Grilled calamari (squid)
• Grilled, broiled or roasted chicken or seafood (plain or served with a tomato-based sauce)
• Cioppino (tomato-based fish stew)
• 1/2 portion of pasta with frutti di mare (tomato and seafood) sauce
Avoid dishes with these words: Alfredo, parmigiana, scampi, carbonara
Best Mexican picks:
• Ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in lime or lemon juice)
• Chicken or shrimp fajitas (have only one soft tortilla, and limit the cheese, sour cream and guacamole)
• Camarones de hacha (shrimp in a tomato-coriander sauce)
• Snapper Vera Cruz
Avoid dishes with these words: Frito (fried), con crema (cream), con queso (cheese)
Best Chinese picks:
• Tofu and vegetable soup
• 1/2 order steamed vegetable dumplings
• Steamed chicken or seafood and vegetables (order garlic, ginger or black bean sauce on the side, and have 2 tablespoons)
• Moo Shu chicken (limit yourself to two pancakes and skip side rice)
Avoid dishes with these words: Crispy, chow (stir-fried in oil), sweet and sour
Best Japanese picks:
• Miso soup
• Edamame (soybeans)
• Oshitashi (spinach)
• Sashimi (fish without rice)
• Chicken or seafood yakitori (skewers)
• Chicken or salmon teriyaki
Avoid dishes with these words: Tempura, katsu (fried)
Joy's Bottom Line
1. Know before you go. Coming to the table armed with info is key to eating out without blowing your diet.
2. Order strategically. Don't be afraid to ask servers questions or ask them to make substitutions
3. Savor your dining experience. Eat slowly and pay attention to when you feel full so you don't walk away stuffed.