Harvard Health Letter

Restaurant meals: How to make them healthier

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Enjoying healthier restaurant food may be a simple matter of planning ahead and splitting appetizers and main courses.

Dine without worry by watching portion sizes, ingredients, side dishes, and sauces.

You've probably heard that eating out, even in the best restaurants, can ruin the healthiest diets. Fine cuisine is known for overdoing it in the butter, sugar, and salt departments. But you can enjoy a meal on the town if you follow a few handy tips. "Eating out can be a true pleasure and a time to enjoy family and friends. If you plan ahead and make a few adjustments, it can be a wonderful and healthful experience," says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Watch the portions

Unless you're going for nouvelle cuisine and its stylish yet sparse servings, your next restaurant entrée will likely be enough for several people. "Large portions are a challenge in many restaurants," says McManus, "and once the food is on the plate, it can be difficult to resist." She offers three strategies to avoid eating more than your fill: divide your entrée in half the moment it arrives, and ask the wait staff to wrap one half up for you; split the entrée with a dinner partner; or skip an entrée and order an appetizer or two instead. "Appetizers often come in smaller portions," points out McManus.

Hold the butter and salt

Many menu items contain hidden butter and salt. It's best to ask your server how a meal is prepared before you order. "If something is typically prepared in butter, you might ask for it to be steamed or broiled without added butter, or ask for it to be sautéed in olive oil instead," says McManus. Likewise, ask that the chef go easy on added salt. Learn about hidden salt sources as well, such as soy sauce and cheese, and ask that the chef withhold these ingredients or add them to your order sparingly.

Ask for substitutions

Don't be shy about asking for substitutions. "Many folks need to make substitutions for food allergies, so there is no reason why a customer cannot request a substitution for health," says McManus. The restaurant staff will likely be used to switching out white rice for brown and regular semolina for whole-wheat pasta. Many items take well to substitution: try requesting a small salad or green vegetable instead of onion rings, or black beans instead of French fries. Note the other side dishes available on the menu, so that a request to switch won't be out of the ordinary.

Sauce on the side

In some restaurants the challenge may be that all of the menu items are loaded with sauces. When the dish arrives, it may be drenched. Avoid this by asking the wait staff if the sauce could be served on the side. Instead of drizzling the sauce on your meal, dip your fork into the sauce first, and then place your fork and its few drops of sauce onto a bite of food. That way you'll get to experience the taste without overdoing it.

Plan ahead

One of the best strategies for sticking to a particular eating style is to plan ahead. Look at the restaurant's menu online, call ahead and ask questions, or visit the restaurant in advance to check out the offerings. In general, you'll want to avoid all fried foods, which are high in fat; pickled foods, which are high in salt; and cured meats, such as bacon and ham, which are high in fat and salt. Planning ahead can also help you determine if you'll want to skip one aspect of a meal in favor of another, such as skipping the bread basket so you can enjoy a bite or two of dessert. 

Holding the salt is not enough

Asking the chef to hold the salt in one meal may not be the most effective way to reduce sodium in your diet. Watching your daily consumption of salt is a better idea.

How much salt is too much? The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day for most of the population. In contrast, most Americans consume 3,400 mg per day. That's a big gap. Too much sodium can raise your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart attacks, and heart failure.

Work on reducing your salt intake by limiting the top sources of sodium in today's diet, known as the Salty Six: breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup, and sandwiches.