Healthy Eating Out

By Marlene Lesson, Nutrition Director, Structure House

An average of one out of five meals Americans eat is consumed outside the home* and as restaurant portions become even larger, diners need to be cautious about what they order in restaurants. Following are some ideas to help you navigate your next trip out to eat. These tips are based on what I have learned from guiding Structure House participants on weekly restaurant outings.


Pick up a copy of the restaurant’s menu ahead of time, either in person or by fax, so that you can review your options and make an educated decision in a calm environment. If necessary, call the restaurant during off peak hours. Ask to speak to the manager or the chef to answer some preparation questions.

* What ingredients are used in the dish?

* Can olive or canola oil be substituted for the fat in the dish?

* Can portions be altered or measured in the kitchen?

* Can sauces be served on the side?

* Are low fat dressings available?

* Can substitutions be made?

* Are meats marinated before cooking? With what?

* Can meats be baked or broiled without added fat and salt?

* Can vegetables be steamed without added fat and salt?

Here’s a crazy idea – don’t look at the menu. Descriptive words can be tempting when you are at a restaurant feeling hungry, smelling the aromas, and seeing other diners’ meals. Decide on a meal ahead of time, and stick with it. You’ll be glad.

Here’s a useful tip: High fat and salt preparation methods are often hidden. For example, baked potatoes may be rolled in oil and salt before baking. To avoid this, simply call the restaurant a few hours before your arrival, and request a plain dry baked potato. In my experience, restaurant managers and chefs are more than happy to oblige this request as long as the diner gives enough notice.

Practice portion control.

Typically restaurant meals are large enough for two to enjoy. Plan on sharing a meal with a friend or ask the server to bring a “doggy bag” with your entree and pack up half before you dig in.

Here’s a fact: A typical restaurant pasta dish will have anywhere from two to four cups of cooked pasta, equaling 4 – 8 servings of carbohydrate. And don’t forget this doesn’t count the bread that may have been enjoyed before the meal. Eat simple out, fancy at home.

By ordering a simple meal such as a grilled fish or steak, steamed vegetable, and baked potato, you know just exactly what you are going to get. You won’t be surprised by any hidden high calorie ingredients that you will find in combination dishes. Save eating complicated dishes for home where types and amounts of ingredients can be controlled.

By pre-planning, being aware of portion sizes, and enjoying a simple meal, you can easily enjoy one out of five meals out side the home without adding one to five inches to your waist line.

*Meal Consumption Behavior – 2000, National Restaurant Association report