Let’s face it, we all enjoy eating out every now and then, some of us more than others. But for those who must eat out frequently due to work or travel, the lack of control over what’s on the menu can make good food choices a challenge – but it doesn’t have to be. Forewarned is forearmed. With a little planning and a bit of forethought, you can win at dining out and still enjoy your meal. Here are a few ways to play the game like a pro:
1) Get a sneak preview.
If your friends and/or business associates are all about pasta and martinis, chances are, they may not jump at your suggestion of dinner at a healthy restaurant. So, if you’re in charge of reservations, browse menus online first to find eateries that will suit your tastes as well as theirs. If reservations are in their hands, preview the menu online first so you have a good sense of how to play it when ordering time comes.
2) Keep ingredients couture.
Avoid fast food at all costs, and if you must do ‘fast casual,’ opt for more ingredient-conscious, made-to-order high-end salad chains or grass-fed-burger joints. No matter the source though, it’s best to say no to fried foods across the board as they almost always deliver doses of health-sapping heated seed oils that are cheap, low quality and downright unhealthy. If you’re avoiding gluten, know that it often hides in sauces, so take your meal sauce-free. Whenever possible, default to dining at restaurants where the ingredients, and how they are prepared, really matter. Think farm-to-table, fresh, local, and preferably, made from scratch.
3) Don’t arrive ravenous.
If you roll into a restaurant ready to feast because you’ve been waiting all day to eat, you’re asking for trouble. Instead, curb your hunger before you go with a small, healthy snack so you don’t overdo it at dinner. A scoop of nut butter, or a handful of nuts plus a tall glass of water, will take the edge off – and keep you honest.
4) Design your dinner.
These days, most restaurants are pretty used to special or custom orders, so if you’re eyeballing a dish that comes with foods incompatible with a clean, healthy diet, swap ‘em out. Replace the baddies with goodies like veggies — think sauteed broccoli or spinach, or any type of greens to add fiber, nutrients and bulk to your meal. The goal is to create a ‘perfect plate,’ crowd out starches, go moderate on the protein and double up on veggies, just like you’d do at home. And, if you like your veggies dressed, make sure you’re doing the dressing and take your salad with oil, vinegar and/or lemon on the side.
5) Divide and conquer.
Growing up, many of us were trained to ‘clean our plates,’ to leave no waste behind. But these days, portions at most restaurants are absurdly large and, assuming you are not a linebacker for the Giants, they’re simply too much for the average person to ingest at one sitting. Rather than cleaning your plate, how about splitting it in half as soon as it hits the table? That way you can monitor your intake and take the rest home to enjoy for lunch tomorrow.
6) Bypass the muddled, coddled, flambéed artisanal cocktails.
Those expensive hand-crafted cocktails, tempting as they be, are often sugary recipes for disaster. Instead of a fancy concoction, order plain seltzer with lemon, lime or bitters and alternate with a glass of wine, not two or three. Your waistline and head will thank you, as will your wallet.
7) Know what to order where – “around the world.”
So what to eat when the gang decides they simply must have Italian and you’re avoiding gluten? How to do Mexican when carbs don’t play well with your system? Try these simple menu hacks to keep your eating on track when someone else is doing the cooking:
Compared to the sweet and starchy sauces you’ll find at most Chinese restaurants, Vietnamese food is the lighter way to go. What to order? Try a broth-based pho with veggies, or fresh (not fried) rice-paper-wrapped vegetable rolls, plus your meat of choice. As rice noodles are used instead of wheat, Vietnamese can also work well for the gluten-averse.
When Japanese food is on your menu, sidestep heavily sauced and fried tempura dishes and go with simple sashimi with gluten-free tamari sauce. If you’re avoiding grains, try naruto rolls which are wrapped in cucumber instead of rice.
Go for the fajitas with shrimp, chicken, beef, or just vegetables. Add salsa or pico de gallo and (definitely!) guacamole, and leave items made with wheat and GMO-laden corn tortillas alone. Double up on salad, and add a small portion of beans if you’re not strictly counting carbs and/or are vegetarian.
Bread baskets, bowls of pasta and slabs of pizza are massive carb bombs, so have a bite of your friend’s and place your order for grilled or roasted fish or meat, a salad, and a side of sautéed vegetables like spinach or broccoli rabe. You can also order up an appetizer-sized plate of mussels marinara with a side of veggies and a salad for a complete meal that’s kind to your body (and easier to digest).
8) And what about dessert?!
If dessert is your downfall, and the meal’s not complete without it, the easiest way to have your cake and eat it too is to split one dessert between several sweets-loving tablemates. You’ll get a touch of the sweet treat you’re looking for without sending your blood sugar soaring. Another option is to skip the sweet treats and have a decaf tea or, for a more decadent feel, order a cappuccino topped with a little cocoa powder or cinnamon to close out the meal in style.