While most places we dine out at today offer a variety of healthy choices, many restaurant and fast-food meals can still be larger – and much higher in calories, fat and salt – than those we cook in our own kitchens. Here are 11 pointers to help you pick delicious and nutritious meals when you're eating away from home.
1. A little homework helps. Nutrition info for many chains is available on the Internet. (If not, ask for it once you're at the restaurant.) Compare items online for calories, fat and sodium. Did you know that a six-inch Cold Cut Combo from Subway has 480 calories, 23 grams of fat and 1,220 milligrams of sodium? This means the healthier option is a six-inch Oven Roasted Chicken sandwich with only 310 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 700 milligrams of sodium. When possible, decide ahead of time what you'll order. You'll be less tempted to overindulge if you've already made up your mind.
2. A great way to start. An appetizer can be a low-cal way to start your meal and take the edge off your appetite – or it can be a minefield of fat and calories. For example, one cup of broth-based vegetable soup has 80 calories, compared with 160 for a cup of creamy clam chowder; four large shrimp with cocktail sauce have 50 calories, compared with 450 for about eight pieces of fried calamari; and an appetizer of plain grilled vegetables has about 125 calories, while a Caesar salad has more than 400. Chicken wings and nachos can each ring in at about 1,000 calories per serving.
3. It's all in the wording. Foods that are broiled, grilled, poached, steamed or baked typically have little or no added fat. (They even sound healthy!) Foods that are fried, basted, braised, au gratin, crispy, breaded, escalloped, pan-fried, pan-seared, sautéed or stuffed have lots of added fat and calories.
Tip: Grilled chicken, fish or a small steak are generally safe bets when you're looking for lower-calorie entrées.
4. Success with sauces. When ordering pasta, go for tomato-based sauces over creamy Alfredo or rosé ones. A half-cup of tomato sauce has 48 calories and less than one gram of fat, whereas a half-cup of Alfredo sauce has 220 calories and 20 grams of fat – and that's before you add the pasta.
Tip: In restaurants or fast-food outlets, pasta portions tend to be large, so ask for an appetizer size or share it with your kid or a friend.
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5. Ask for it on the side. One tablespoon of ranch dressing adds 75 calories and eight grams of fat to your otherwise very low-cal green salad. Try putting a small amount on your salad and tossing well to lightly coat it.
6. Say "no thanks" to salt. It's hard to keep your sodium intake low when you eat out, but you can reduce it by avoiding items described as pickled, marinated, smoked, cured or teriyaki, as well as those with added soy sauce, miso, gravy or bacon. Sauces, ketchup, mustard and pickles also boost the salt content of a meal. Ask for entrées cooked without salt and for any sauces or condiments on the side.
7. Calorie culprits. They lurk in both main courses and side salads. Did you know the Mandarin Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken Fillet from Wendy's has 540 calories and 25 grams of fat? But if you go for the Light Classic Ranch Dressing (90 calories, eight grams of fat), and skip the almonds (130 calories, 11 grams of fat) and the crispy noodles (70 calories, 2.5 grams of fat), the salad now has half the calories (270) and less than half the fat (10 grams). Other extras to limit or skip include: croutons (70 calories per two tablespoons), bacon bits (70 calories per two tablespoons) and grated cheese (60 calories per two tablespoons). If you still want to dress up your salad, use only half the package of the regular dressing, or pick just one of the add-ons.
8. Advantages of à la carte. Fixed-price menus are appealing but may add extra calories, often from starters or desserts that you would not normally order, but will be tempted to try anyway.
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9. Liquid calories. A 12-ounce serving of regular pop, iced tea or fruit juice will add roughly 150 calories to your meal. Instead, drink water (plain or fizzy) or fruit juice cut with water to reduce the calories. Since alcohol causes many people to overeat, limit yourself to one alcoholic beverage. And don’t forget about its calories: a four-ounce glass of wine has 90, a bottle of beer has 140 and a martini has 200.
10. Tips for sharing. If you go to a restaurant where dishes are typically shared (Chinese, Thai or Indian), order some low-fat items. Steamed dim sum is lower in fat and calories than anything crispy-fried, and stir-fries beat a sweet-and-sour fish or chicken dish that is batter-fried. Steamed rice is better than fried rice; cold fresh salad rolls top fried spring rolls; and sushi, sashimi and yakitori are leaner than deep-fried tempura dishes.
Tandoori chicken is much less fatty than a curry made with coconut milk or cream. If you order a plate of fajitas, load up on the vegetables and salsa and go skimpy on the cheese, guacamole and sour cream.
If you're dining with people who order platters of wings and fries, ask for some cut-up vegetables and dip, or a soup and/or salad instead.
11. Ask away. Restaurant staff should be able to tell you how their food is prepared and be willing to make simple adjustments, such as leaving off sauces and dressings. Ask if they add fat to their grilled or roasted dishes (it can happen) or whether their stir-fry is especially oily. If you know the portion sizes are usually large, ask for smaller portions or order two low-calorie and low-fat appetizers instead. You can always take home a doggy bag or share a large main course with your dining partner.
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