5 Easy and Healthy Dining Out Tips

Since making our empty-nest switch from a rural home to an urban apartment, I've been excited about the change and the easy access to so many things.


When the sun sets, I no longer feel entombed in darkness; one look outside at the headlights, office lights and apartment lights tells me that life is still moving and the day is stretching seamlessly into evening. When I run out of office supplies or tissues, I no longer have to get into my car and drive 15 minutes; I can hop on my bike or don my sneakers and take a ride or walk to the nearest store. I'm up on (almost) all the latest movies, since movie theaters are minutes away by foot.

If you're a (jaded) city dweller, you might find my words a bit overzealous and silly, but after living in the suburbs for so many years, I'm enthusiastically embracing the change.

One thing that's creating a bit of a problem, though, is the very same thing I celebrate—that easy access to so many things. Innumerable restaurants—and good ones at that—surround us. The combination of living with a much smaller kitchen and dinner-prep-fatigue, caused by so many years of having dinner on the table for my family, makes eating out that much more tempting.

But that problem does not belong solely to the empty-nest, urban-dwelling set. According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture report titled “Let's Eat Out,” Americans are getting 32 percent of their daily calories from restaurant food. That's up from just 18 percent in the 1970s. We eat out for convenience, for entertainment, for socializing and for lack of time. It's that time of day when we finally can sit back and relax.

So, how can you stay healthy and avoid extra pounds while dining out?

  1. If you order a salad, ask for dressing on the side. Avoid cream-based dressings and opt for a vinaigrette or simply oil and vinegar. A tip from registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Rather than pour the dressing onto your salad, leave it on the side and dip your fork into it before you spear some lettuce.
  2. Watch your portions. So many restaurants want their customers to feel that they're getting value for their money, so they'll dole out huge portions. This is especially common with pasta, which is relatively inexpensive. Fact: A main dish of pasta can be equivalent to as many as five slices of bread. Many restaurants will serve half-orders of pasta (even if it doesn't advertise this on the menu, ask for it). If they refuse, ask your server to bring a to-go container with your order and immediately put aside half before you eat. You'll be surprised at how filling—and sufficient—a half order can be. An added bonus: you won't have to cook the next night!
  3. Don't “starve” yourself all day to save up for going out to dinner. Arriving at dinner completely famished will almost always backfire. You'll reach for the first thing you see—which is usually bread—and eat more than you want, sometimes before you've even ordered your dinner. (It's like going to the supermarket hungry and filling your cart with all the “wrong” foods.) About an hour before you leave home, eat a small snack containing protein and fiber, like hummus and carrot sticks, a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter spread over a banana, or some plain yogurt with fresh fruit.
  4. Stay hydrated throughout the day. Because thirst can mistakenly be confused with hunger, make sure you stay hydrated. When you first sit down for your meal, take time to drink a full glass of water before you reach for the breadbasket or are tempted to order the spaghetti carbonara.
  5. If you love dessert, go ahead and order it. You're entitled. But, don't devour the whole thing. Get one dessert with extra forks for your guests, or tell yourself in advance you're only allowed three bites. Enjoy the first one, savor the second and make the third one the last, advises registered dietitian Rachel Begun. (I like her advice! Bring on the flourless chocolate cake and count to three.)

For more on dining out, you might want to also read:
Eating Out Can Hurt Heart Health, Expert Warns
5 Reasons Why It's So Easy to Eat Too Much
People May Eat More When Headlines Bear Bad News

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