Clever Tricks to Help You Eat Healthier When You Eat Out

Savvy menu reading can go a long way.
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Savvy menu reading can go a long way.

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If you're an average woman today, food is the main focus of many a social outing—we’re talking brunch, work dinners, girls’ nights out, date night. A woman’s gotta eat, after all! But eating out can be a challenge if you want to maintain healthy eating habits. If you want to make better moves while ordering, these seven tips will help you become a savvy menu reader.

CHOOSE YOUR BEVERAGE WELL.

Drinks might be the most basic part of a meal, but they’re also the first step to a healthy night out. Unsurprisingly, a simple glass of H2O is the perfect candidate. We all know that staying hydrated is good for us, but it also helps you separate true hunger from dehydration. “Drinking a glass of water while waiting for your food can take the edge off your hunger,” shares Sarah Matharoo, RD, LD, of Pikeville Medical Center.

Skipping sweetened drinks such as soda or iced tea will also save you the extra calories and sugar. Don’t hesitate to pass over the flavored fruit juices, either. While these beverages provide some nutrients, the vitamin-to-sugar ratio is often in favor of the latter. A 16-ounce Ocean Spray Cran-Apple might sound healthy, but it has 50 more calories than a soda of the same size. If you’re craving fruit juice, go for 100 percent fruit juice with no sugar added, or dilute the juice with water. Adding lemon, lime, or strawberries to water can also do the trick.

If you drink alcohol, it’s easy to find yourself at consecutive post-work happy hours. And when the drink is essentially the main course, it’s not hard to overlook nutritional integrity. To limit your calorie and sugar intake, try slowly sipping flavored liquor on the rocks. Lighten up mixed drinks with diet soda, diet tonic, or carbonated water. Or stick to one light beer or one glass of wine to keep your liquid count in check.

KNOW KEY WORDS.

Think of menus as ads in disguise. They showcase curated meal descriptions designed to grab your attention. Each description speaks volumes about a dish’s health potential. If you’re trying to cut back on greasy fried foods, skip meals labeled as “crispy,” “crunchy,” or “battered.” Words like “sticky,” “glazed,” and “Teriyaki” point to sugar. Terms like “white sauce” and “Alfredo” refer to cream-based ingredients. “Instead, look for words like steamed, grilled, baked or roasted,” recommends Matharoo. Chefs prepare these foods in a way that locks in natural flavor, skipping the need for extra fat, sugar, and salt. Not sure what something means? Matharoo offers a simple word of advice: “Ask!”

Sometimes, the food industry chooses words to trick consumers into believing that they are making a healthy choice. Knowing the meaning of these “health halo” terms will help you read a menu more mindfully. For example, “sugar-free” doesn’t equal healthy. In fact, because the sugar was removed, extra fat is added to make up for it. “As for fat-free, sugar is added to improve taste,” explains Matharoo.

ORDER DRESSING ON THE SIDE. 

While condiments are great for complementing a dish, they can negate a meal’s nutritional value. Most dressings and sauces are teeming with high-fructose corn syrup, sodium, and preservatives. Usually, they also have a flavor-enhancing chemical called monosodium glutamate (MSG). According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, some individuals have an MSG sensitivity that leads to migraines and nausea after consuming high amounts.

Given the jumble of health-busting traits, some dressings can sabotage even the healthiest salad. Ask for an order on the side. Then try the nutritionist-approved “fork dip” trick: Dip your fork in the dressing before you load up your fork with veggies. You’ll taste just enough in one bite without drenching your greens. If you’re ordering a sandwich or wrap, ask for the sauce, mayo, or mustard on the side. These kinds of requests will give you control over how much is added. Your meal, your rules!

ASK FOR SUBSTITUTIONS.

You can turn a not-so-healthy dish around with the right substitutions. “Swap-outs are a game changer,” says Natalie Robertello, MS, RD, CDN, who recommends replacing fries for steamed vegetables. If you’re out with a friend, one of you could order fries while the other gets the side of vegetables, and share with each other! Other ideas:

- When a dish calls for white rice, ask for brown for an awesome dose of fiber. Try the same method for sandwiches made with white versus whole-grain bread.

- Instead of slathering your baked potato with sour cream, ask for a light sprinkling of shredded low-fat cheese and steamed broccoli. Better yet, take it plain, or add some spices instead of salt to save yourself 160 milligrams of sodium.

- Bulk up your salad by exchanging iceberg lettuce for nutrient-rich romaine, arugula, or spinach. For crunch, exchange salty croutons for slivered almonds or roasted sunflower seeds.

- Instead of creamy, processed dressings, select olive oil with vinegar or a vinaigrette.

How’s that for staying on top of your eating-out food game?

CHANGE THE COOKING METHOD.

Just like food substitutions, changing the way a meal is prepared can do wonders. In the U.S., the most common cooking method is frying. Why? It’s fast and cheap. Unfortunately, the use of oil and butter tacks on extra sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat. According to researchers, frying also breaks down a food’s healthy nutrients, while potentially forming toxic compounds in the process. If you’re looking for a break from fried food, ask if it’s possible to have some or all your dish baked, roasted, steamed, or grilled. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the menu for alternatives. Even if it costs a bit more, treating your body well is worth the few extra bucks.

AVOID UNNATURAL COLORS. 

We’re always told to eat a rainbow. But this advice doesn’t hold true for anything that’s not a fruit or vegetable. Ever wonder why fruit and veggie “flavored” products are so bright? From vibrant tropical smoothies to red tomato wraps, dyes are used to hide the absence of the real thing. What’s even more unsettling is that food coloring, which is made from petroleum, may hold carcinogenic properties. And other than the enhanced color, artificial dyes don’t serve a purpose. “Food companies use these dyes to their advantage,” cautions Robertello. The industry knows that we eat with our eyes, making bright colors ideal for jump-starting our cravings.

While dyed foods won’t disappear overnight, adopting a conscious approach can limit the amount you consume. Instead of that pinkish raspberry iced tea, go for infused water. Dodge the flavored yogurt and opt for plain with a side of fresh fruit. Instead of a smoothie or slushie, make it at home sans the syrup. Spinach wraps might sound healthy, but they’re likely to have more salt and preservatives than actual spinach. Less obvious foods like frozen waffles, canned applesauce, and cold cuts are often artificially colored. Notice a trend? Processed foods need dyes to make up for their lack of nutritional value. As a general rule of thumb, remember that real food is healthy food.

PAY ATTENTION TO PORTIONS. 

Since the 1970s, America’s portion sizes have drastically increased. It can’t be a coincidence that obesityrates have skyrocketed since then. And with 47 percent of food consumed outside of the home, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at the plates on our table. Since we tend to eat more when served more, downsizing a restaurant portion is a super healthful move. Ask for half of your dish to-go before it even hits the table, or split it with someone. Take the time to look for half-portion options. This alternative is becoming more popular on restaurant menus. You can also order an appetizer as a meal, as most are enough to curb hunger on their own. Experts remind us to eat until satisfied—not full—and that you don’t have to clean off your plate. Look at it this way: If you take your leftovers to-go, you won’t have to make dinner tomorrow. Win!

It might seem like a lot, but start off slowly to naturally ease yourself into these lifelong healthy habits. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to relax, savor the company, and enjoy your meal!