10 tips for restaurant dining as a family

by Hope Warshaw, M.M.Sc., R.D., C.D.E.

Tips for dining outFrom cheese sauce to super-sized portions, restaurant meals can sabotage healthy eating. But don't let that keep you at home.

You can arm yourself with the tools you need to keep your resolutions and live a healthy lifestyle. In fact, you can learn the following phrases to help you and your family:

• "Is it possible to hold the...?"
• "Dressing on the side, please."
• "Can that be grilled in olive oil?"
• "Do you have whole-grain bread?"
• "Bring my appetizer as a main course, please."
• "Could you split the entree in the kitchen?"
• "When you bring dessert, bring enough spoons - and put it in the middle of the table."

10 tips for eating out as a family

1. Eat as you would at home.

Don't think that every time you eat out you have a special license to eat as much as you want. After all, how many times in the past week did you eat a meal that was prepared by someone else outside your home? When you're out, think about what you choose from the menu; is it both healthful and enjoyable? If not, consider changing the restaurants you frequent, the foods you choose and how much you eat. Build your positive experiences and confidence will follow.

2. Pick your spots more carefully.

Do you have a handful of favorite restaurants in your neighborhood? How many of them have healthy choices that you like? If the answer is not many, consider looking for some new haunts. When you approach a restaurant that's new to you, feel free to ask for a menu. Review it for healthy options before you sit down or place a take-out order.

3. Visualize your healthy meal.

Olympic sprinters visualize crossing the finish line in front of their competitors. You can use the same technique at a favorite restaurant. On your way, think about what healthy food you might order. Imagine waving away the menu -- you've seen it a hundred times, after all -- and asking for something healthy. Then visualize walking out of the restaurant feeling happy and satisfied. Enter the restaurant with that scene in your mind.

4. Be on guard for fat.

Fat, and all the calories it brings, lurks in, on and around the menu, and on the table. At many restaurants, before you make your order you may find high fat, high-calories items such as bread with butter or olive oil, deep-fried tortilla chips or Chinese noodles at your table. If you think you'll be tempted, keep them out of arm's reach. This is why it's a good idea not to show up at a restaurant too hungry!Fat, and all the calories it brings, lurks in, on and around the menu, and on the table.

During your meal, watch out for large amounts of salad dressing, sour cream, mayonnaise or Parmesan cheese as these all add fat to the meal. Ask for spreads and sauces to be served on the side and use sparingly. Inspect menus for food that contain cheese sauce, cream sauce, butter, oil, avocado, high-fat cuts of meat or sausage. Be wary of phrases like "deep-fried," "golden brown" and "crispy." Remember this high-fat hit list:

• Chimichangas
• Fettuccine Alfredo
• Chicken pot pie
• Tuna and chicken salad (can be okay depending on preparation; ask if there's a lot of mayo)

5. Build a better plate.

Is your plate SAD? The Standard American Diet includes lots of high-fat animal protein foods, but not many whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Most restaurant meals mimic that unhealthful pattern. Turn it around! When you order, visualize a plate where meat, chicken or fish takes up only one quarter of the space. Half the plate should be vegetables and/or fruits, about one quarter protein (no more than 3 or 4 oz cooked), and one quarter starchy foods. Ask for a green salad or steamed veggies so you can reach that goal.

6. Know when to say when.

The best way to eat less is to order less. Look for words like "regular," "small," "single," "appetizer" or "kiddie." Order with your stomach in mind, not your eyes.

7. Outsmart the menu.

There's no sign at a restaurant entrance that says, "Ye who enter must order an entree." Get the food you want in the amounts you need. If restaurants insist on serving gigantic portions, then take advantage of appetizers, soups, salads, a la carte items and side dishes. Split menu items with a dining partner. For example, in an Italian restaurant, one person might order pasta with a tomato sauce while the other orders a chicken or seafood dish with a vegetable. When dining with a group, order one or two fewer dishes than the number of people at the table - and eat family style.

8. Speak your mind (but be polite).

Don't hesitate to ask for the food you want. An essential skill for dining out is getting your food prepared the way you like it. Tell your server your needs when you're handed the menu. Ask for an opinion of what you should order - and keep your requests practical. For example, substitute salad or broth-based soup for chips or fries, or ask for mustard instead of mayonnaise. And it never hurts to add a "please" and "thank you," and leave a nice tip.

9. Resign from the "clean-plate club."

We're sorry: Membership in the clean-plate club is at capacity. Apply to the far more exclusive "leave-a-few-bites-on-your-plate-club" instead. Eat slowly, enjoy your meal and push the plate away when you've had enough. Lay utensils diagonally across your plate and cover with your napkin to keep you from diving back in when you're no longer hungry.

10. You can take it with you.

If a portion is too big, don't feel like you're wasting your money if you can't eat it all - ask for a doggy bag and take it home. If there's a lot left, ask your server to put the food into two take-home containers for a couple of meals. And if you're truly daring, ask the server to pack half your portion into a doggy bag before it even reaches your table. That way, you won't be tempted to eat a super-sized portion at the restaurant.

Hope Warshaw, M.M.Sc., R.D., C.D.E., is a nationally recognized dietitian and diabetes educator with more than 25 years experience in the field. Her books include: Eat Out, Eat Right (Surrey, 1995) and What to Eat When You're Eating Out (American Diabetes Association, 2004).

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