Restaurant survival strategies

Published: December, 2019

Your best bet for meeting your health goals is to cook your own meals at home, where you can control the ingredients and portion sizes. However, we all enjoy eating out from time to time. Just keep in mind that restaurant meals—in particular, fast-food meals—are linked with higher intakes of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, and lower intakes of healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. One of the biggest problems you'll face when you dine out is sheer portion size, which has increased dramatically over the years. Those bigger portions translate into more calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.

Fortunately, the dining scene has improved. The FDA now requires chain restaurants to provide consumers with clear and consistent nutrition information on menus, menu boards, and in writing, which can help you make healthier choices. And more and more restaurants are meeting consumers' desires for healthier fare by providing smaller portions, more fruits and vegetables on the menu, more vegetarian options, and lighter preparation styles.

Follow these tips for dining out healthfully:

  • Patronize restaurants where good choices—seafood, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables—abound.
  • Check out the restaurant website in advance in order to decide what you'll order, instead of making impulse decisions. Many restaurants post their menus online, enabling you to find the healthiest entrees. Some even list nutritional information on menu items. Beware of those with high calorie, fat, sugar, and sodium levels.
  • Skip pan-fried or deep-fried foods. Instead, look for foods prepared with healthful techniques, such as baking, grilling, poaching, or roasting.
  • Avoid dishes prepared with gravy and heavy sauces. Or ask the waiter to use half the sauce or to serve the sauce on the side so you can decide how much of it to use. Because gravy is often made with fatty pan drippings from meat, it's relatively high in saturated fat. Many sauces are made with butter and cream, which are also high in saturated fat.
  • Resize your portions: split a meal with a friend, order small plates or side dishes, or take half of it home for lunch the next day. Take advantage of the "small plates" trend, in which you and your dining companions share small servings and avoid large portions of single dishes.
  • Get extra vegetables. Many restaurant entrees don't come with a generous serving of vegetables. But you can easily remedy that by asking for more vegetables, ordering vegetables from the side dish selection, or substituting vegetables or a salad for a less,healthful side dish, such as fries.
  • Lighten up dessert. Skip the indulgent, rich desserts, such as ice cream, cakes, and pastries (some can contain more than 1,000 calories) and go for simple treats, such as berries and peaches. If you want a sweet dessert, share it with others at your table. You'll get the full taste, but just a fraction of the calories, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
  • Watch those beverages. Sweetened drinks (often refilled during the meal) and alcoholic beverages can add hundreds of calories to your meal. Opt for sparkling water, plain tea, or coffee.

For more tips on making nutritious choices while eating out, read A Guide to Healthy Eating, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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