Making Healthy Choices when Dining Out
According to the National Restaurant Association, American adults buy a meal or snack from a restaurant 5.8 times a week, on average. That’s a lot of dining out each week. And, if you are watching your weight, and are eating out, it’s hard to always know what calories, fats, and nutrients are in the dishes you order.
Here are some commonsense tips to help you choose healthier options while eating on the go and dining out. Dining out is typically when someone else cooks for you and you do not control the ingredients. It can be anything from a deli sandwich, takeout Chick-fil-A, a buffet, a meal in a restaurant or at a friend’s home.
Why Is a Healthy Weight Important?
Reaching and maintaining your healthy weight is good for your overall health. It also may help reduce your risk for developing several diseases and conditions. Maintaining a healthy weight has many other benefits, including feeling good about yourself, having more confidence and having more energy to enjoy life.
A person’s weight is the result of many things: height, genes, metabolism, behavior, and environment. Maintaining a healthy weight requires keeping a balance. You must balance the calories you get from food and beverages (energy IN) with the calories you use to keep your body going and being physically active (energy OUT). Yes, beverages count so try to stay away from sugary soda and diet soda. Those empty calories are not your friend!
The same amount of energy IN
and energy OUT
over time = weight stays the same
More IN than OUT over time = weight gain
More OUT than IN over time = weight loss
Sounds simple – right? Keep in mind that your energy IN and energy OUT doesn’t have to balance exactly every day. That would be almost impossible. But it’s the balance over time that will help you maintain your ideal weight in the long run.
How do you balance calories for an ideal weight?
For many people, this balance means eating fewer calories and increasing physical activity. Cutting back on calories is a matter of choice. Making healthy food choices that are lower in fats, especially saturated and trans fats, as well as cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar, can help you cut back on calories, as can paying attention to portion size.
This guide will give you information to make informed food choices, particularly when eating out, to help you support a healthy weight.
How to Lose Weight and Maintain It?
We have all heard the facts … to lose weight, you must eat less and move more. But this is often easier said than done. Many people make repeated attempts, often using different fad diets and weight loss gimmicks, and are unsuccessful.
To be successful at weight loss, you need to adopt a new lifestyle. This means making changes such as adopting healthy eating habits, being more physically active, and learning how to change behaviors.
Healthy Eating Plan
A healthy eating plan includes foods from all the basic food groups. It is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar. It contains enough calories for good health, but not so many that you gain weight.
A Healthy Eating Plan for when you are Dining Out:
- Controls portion size
- Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar
Choosing Healthier Foods
Foods That Make a Healthy Meals when Dining Out
Giving your body the nutrients it needs daily while staying within your daily calorie limits should be your goal. This eating plan also may lower your risk for heart disease and conditions such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol.
Most foods that can be eaten more often include those that are lower in calories, total fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium (salt).
Examples of these foods include fat-free and low-fat milk products (read the fat-free and low-fat labels – they often have hidden fructose):
- lean meats, fish, and poultry
- high-fiber foods such as whole grains, breads, and cereals
What about Fats?
Canola or olive oils and soft margarine made from these oils are heart healthy and can be used in moderate amounts. Unsalted nuts also can be included in a healthy diet, as long as you watch the amount.
Foods higher in fat are typically higher in calories. Foods that should be limited include those with higher amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. These particular fats may raise blood cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease.
- Saturated fat is found mainly in fresh and processed meats, high-fat milk products (such as cheese, whole milk, cream, butter, and ice cream), lard, and the coconut and palm oils that can be found in many processed foods.
- Trans fat is found in foods with partially hydrogenated oils, such as many hard margarines and shortening, commercially fried foods, and some bakery goods.
- Cholesterol is found in foods of animal origin. Major dietary sources include egg yolks, organ meats, cheese, beef, pork, and shrimp. It also may be present in foods that contain an animal-based ingredient, such as eggs, whole milk, or lard.
Fat Matters when Dining Out
But Calories Count
It’s also important to limit foods and beverages with added fat and sugar, such as many desserts, canned fruit packed in syrup, fruit drinks, and sugar-sweetened beverages. These foods and beverages will add calories to your diet while providing limited nutritional benefit. Avoid diet drinks and sodas as much as possible. A refreshing glass of water (try adding a little lemon) is the perfect and drink for many meals.
A calorie is a calorie, whether it comes from fat or carbohydrate. Any calories eaten in excess can lead to weight gain. You can lose weight by eating fewer calories and by increasing your physical activity.
Reducing the amount of total fat and saturated fat that you eat is one way to limit your overall calorie intake. In fact, 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories, whereas 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate equals less than half the number of calories (4 calories each). By reducing total fat intake, you help reduce your calorie intake.
Is Fat-free food the answer when Dining Out?
However, eating fat-free or reduced fat foods isn’t always the answer to reducing your calories. This is especially true when you eat more of the reduced-fat food than you would of the regular item. Many food companies produce fat-free versions of foods that have more calories than the regular version.
As an example, if you eat twice as many fat-free cookies, you have increased your overall calorie intake. The following list of foods and their reduced-fat varieties will show you that just because a product is free of fat doesn’t mean it is “calorie free”. And remember, all calories count!
Regular vs. Reduced Fat or Fat-Free Try These Substitutes when Dining Out
Fat-Free or Reduced Fat
|Reduced fat peanut butter, 2 Tbsp||187||Regular peanut butter, 2 Tbsp||191|
|Reduced fat chocolate chip cookies, 3 cookies (30 g)||118||Regular chocolate chip cookies, 3 cookies (30 g)||142|
|Fat-Free Fig cookies, 2 cookies (30 g)||102||Regular fig cookies, 2 cookies (30 g)||111|
|Ice cream:||Ice cream:|
|Fat-Free Vanilla frozen yogurt
(<1% fat), ½ cup
|100||Regular whole milk vanilla frozen yogurt (3-4% fat), ½ cup||104|
|Light vanilla ice cream (7% fat), ½ cup||111||Vanilla ice cream (11% fat), ½ cup||133|
|Fat-free caramel topping, 2 Tbsp||103||Caramel topping, homemade with butter, 2 Tbsp||103|
|Low-fat granola cereal, approx. ½ cup (55 g)||213||Granola cereal, approx. ½ cup (55 g)||257|
|Low-fat blueberry muffin, 1 small (2½ inch)||131||Blueberry muffin, 1 small (2½ inch)||138|
|Baked tortilla chips, 1 oz||113||Tortilla chips, 1 oz||143|
|Low-fat cereal bar, 1 bar (1.3 oz)||130||Cereal bar, 1 bar (1.3 oz)||140|
Lower Calorie, Lower Fat
The table that follows provides some examples of healthier alternatives for old favorites. When making a food choice, remember to consider vitamins and minerals. For instance, some foods provide most of their calories from sugar and fat, but give you few, if any, vitamins and minerals. When foods have little to no vitamins or minerals your body can’t do much with the energy they provide.
Also note that the alternatives we list below are not meant to be an exhaustive list, add your own substitutions. Also, before you purchase, read the product’s nutrition label, and find out just how many calories, vitamins, and minerals are in the specific products you are buying.
A few healthy substitutions you can live with when dining out
But don’t stop with these suggestions, create your own healthy substitutions.
|Instead of…||Replace with…|
|Evaporated whole milk||Evaporated fat-free (skim) or reduced fat (2%) milk|
|Whole milk||Low-fat (1%), reduced fat (2%), or fat-free (skim) milk|
|Ice cream||Sorbet, sherbet, low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt, or ice milk (choose lowest calorie variety)|
|Whipping cream||Imitation whipped cream (made with fat-free (skim) milk) or low-fat vanilla yogurt|
|Sour cream||Plain low-fat yogurt|
|Cream cheese||Neufchatel or “light” cream cheese or fat-free cream cheese|
|Cheese (cheddar, American, Swiss, jack)||Reduced calorie cheese, low-calorie processed cheeses, etc.; fat-free cheese|
|Regular (4%) cottage cheese||Low-fat (1%) or reduced fat (2%) cottage cheese|
|Whole milk mozzarella cheese||Part skim milk, low moisture mozzarella cheese|
|Whole milk ricotta cheese||Part skim milk ricotta cheese|
|Coffee cream (half and half) or nondairy creamer (liquid, powder)||Low-fat (1%) or reduced fat (2%) milk or fat-free dry milk powder|
Cereals, Grains, and Pasta
|Ramen noodles||Rice or noodles (spaghetti, macaroni, etc.)|
|Alfredo – Pasta with white sauce||Marinara – Pasta with red sauce|
|Pasta with cheese sauce||Pasta Primavera – Pasta with vegetables|
|Granola||Bran flakes, crispy rice, etc.|
|Cooked grits or oatmeal|
|Whole grains (couscous, barley, bulgur, etc.)|
|Reduced fat granola (choose lowest calorie variety)|
Meat, Fish, and Poultry
|Cold cuts or lunch meats (bologna, salami, liverwurst, etc.)||Low-fat cold cuts (95% to 97% fat-free lunch meats, low-fat pressed meats)|
|Hot dogs (regular)||Lower fat hot dogs|
|Bacon or sausage||Canadian bacon or lean ham|
|Regular ground beef||Extra lean ground beef such as ground round or ground turkey (read labels)|
|Chicken or turkey with skin, duck, or goose||Chicken or turkey without skin (white meat)|
|Oil-packed tuna||Water-packed tuna (rinse to reduce sodium content)|
|Beef (chuck, rib, brisket)||Beef (round, loin) trimmed of external fat (choose select grades)|
|Pork (spareribs, untrimmed loin)||Pork tenderloin or trimmed, lean smoked ham|
|Frozen breaded fish or fried fish (homemade or commercial)||Fish or shellfish, un-breaded (fresh, frozen, canned in water)|
|Whole eggs||Egg whites or egg substitutes|
|Frozen dinners (less than 13 grams of fat per serving and lowest in sodium)||Frozen dinners (more than 13 grams of fat per serving)|
|Chorizo sausage Turkey sausage, drained well (read label)||Vegetarian sausage (made with tofu)|
|Croissants, brioches, etc.||Hard French rolls or soft “brown ’n serve” rolls|
|Donuts, sweet rolls, muffins, scones, or pastries||English muffins, bagels, reduced fat or fat-free muffins or scones|
|Party crackers||Low-fat crackers (choose lower in sodium)|
|Saltine or soda crackers (choose lowest in sodium)|
|Cake (pound, chocolate, yellow)||Cake (angel food, white, gingerbread)|
|Cookies||Reduced fat or fat-free cookies (graham crackers, ginger snaps, fig bars) (choose lowest calorie variety)|
Snacks and Sweets
|Nuts||Popcorn (air-popped or light microwave), fruits, vegetables|
|Ice cream, e.g., cones or bars||Frozen yogurt, frozen fruit, or chocolate pudding bars|
|Custards or puddings (made with whole milk)||Puddings (made with skim milk)|
Fats, Oils, and Salad Dressings
|Regular margarine or butter||Light-spread margarines, diet margarine, or whipped
butter, tub or squeeze bottle
|Mayonnaise (regular)||Light or diet mayonnaise or mustard|
|Regular salad dressings||Reduced calorie or fat-free salad dressings, lemon juice, or plain, herb-flavored, or wine vinegar|
|Butter or margarine on toast or bread||Jelly, jam, or honey on bread or toast|
|Oils, shortening, or lard||Nonstick cooking spray for stir-frying or sautéing
As a substitute for oil or butter, use applesauce or prune puree in baked goods
|Cream soups (canned)||Broth-based canned soups|
|Canned beans and franks||Baked beans (canned) in tomato sauce|
|Gravy (homemade with fat and/or milk)||Gravy mixes made with water or homemade with the fat skimmed off and fat-free milk included|
|Fudge sauce||Chocolate syrup|
|Avocado on sandwiches||Cucumber slices or lettuce leaves|
|Guacamole dip or refried beans with lard||Salsa|
Keeping an Eye on Portion Size when Dining Out
And, as you can see, eating fewer calories is not just about choosing healthier foods. It is also about paying attention to your portion size as well as the number of helpings you eat in one meal. Being mindful of how much you are eating will help you eat less.
So, what’s the difference between a regular portion and a serving size?
Portion: A “portion” is the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or snack. It can be big or small – you decide.
Serving: A “serving” is a measured amount of food or drink, such as one slice of bread or 1 cup of milk. Read labels – some foods are packaged with more than a single serving. For example, a 20-ounce soda or a 3-ounce bag of chips is actually multiple servings.
So, eating a meal that contains the right portion size and the right amount of nutrients can increase your weight loss success. After you learn a few of the basics – portion size, how much and what you should consume to eat a healthy meal, it won’t take long before you’ll be able to make eating healthy a healthy habit, without being on a restrictive diet. And don’t forget a bit of exercise can go a long way too!
Typical portion sizes for various foods:
½ cup (½ cup equivalent of fruit)
1 cup (1-ounce equivalent of whole grains)
8 fluid ounces (counts as 1 cup milk)
Grilled or Baked Sweet Potato
1 large (1 cup equivalent of orange vegetables)
Be sure to check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate to find out how these food portions fit into a daily eating plan for your recommended calorie level.
Additional articles you may like:
Do you find yourself Dining Out Often?
Share Your Thoughts with Us – we’d love to hear how you manage this challenge.
What healthy choices do you make when you are dining out? Or do you, like me, find the temptations too difficult to avoid?
We hope you found a few ways to help cut calories while dining out and still eat some of the foods you enjoy. Most importantly, remember that eating the foods you love, in moderation is key.
Thank you for taking time out of your day to visit with us. Wishing you the best of health!
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Aim for a Healthy Weight
Adapted from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Adapted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid, MyPyramid.gov (see https://www.choosemyplate.gov for more information).