Practical Pointers For Healthy Restaurant Meals

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Practical Pointers For Healthy Restaurant Meals

Hope WarshawContributor: Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM

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I've written for years about how to choose and eat healthy restaurant meals and estimate (to be fair, the word I use is "guestimate") the carbohydrate count of restaurant foods. I can say for sure none of this is easy, but it is doable with skills and strategies in hand.

Skills and Strategies to Order (and Enjoy!) Healthy Restaurant Meals
While there are a number of pitfalls to restaurant meals (whether you eat them in a restaurant or take them out to eat elsewhere), the two pitfalls that standout and apply across a wide range of restaurants are:

  • Portions are HUGE
  • Fats and oils (some healthy, but many not so) are in, on, around and through many foods

It’s critical to recognize the pitfalls as a first step to identifying and perfecting skills and strategies to achieve successful restaurant eating. Here are a handful of my favorites:

  • To deal with HUGE portions
    • Control portions from the moment that you place your order to have less food in front of you (tempting you to overeat)
    • Request a take-home container to be brought when your meal arrives
    • Choose from healthy a la carte items: appetizers, sides, salads, soups. Create your meal from these. Tell the waitperson when you want these to arrive.
    • Consider splitting and sharing items with your dining partners (in my family we call it negotiating)
    • Select restaurants that make eating “tapas style” easy.
  • To minimize fats and oils (and thus the calorie tally)
    • Review the menu descriptions for high-fat ingredients and preparations. Consider special requests but don’t try to remake a dish. Move on to another item.
    • Always order fat-dense add-ons on the side so you can control how much you use. (Examples: salad dressing, butter, mayonnaise, sour cream, and cream cheese)
    • Limit fried foods. Words like golden-brown, crispy, and battered usually mean fried. 

Practical Pointers to Maximize Carbohydrate Counting Accuracy
Improving the accuracy of carbohydrate counts of restaurant foods/meals can be maximized with these practical pointers.

  • Access restaurant nutrition information: Most of us are creatures of habit when it comes to restaurant choices. Use that to your advantage. Invest the time to gather the carbohydrate counts (and possibly protein and fat for accurate insulin doses) of the restaurant meals you eat often. You’ve got access to more restaurant nutrition information than ever before, and it’s at your fingertips via restaurant websites or nutrition apps. Finally, effective May 2018 restaurants with 20 or more locations serving “substantially the same menu items” must provide nutrition information. “Calories must be prominent on menus and menu boards” with the statement: “additional nutrition information available upon request.” **
  • Gather nutrition info for restaurant foods from other sources: You won’t find nutrition information for small chains and independent restaurants. Here are some practical tips to guestimate:
    • Gather information from restaurants serving a similar menu that do provide nutrition information. Then interpolate as best you can. It’s at least some info to go on. Pizza is a good example. There’s plenty of nutrition information on pizza from large national chains and the Nutrition Facts labels of supermarket foods.  
    • If you regularly eat particular ethnic foods and you can’t find any reliable carbohydrate counts, look for the nutrition information in recipes for similar dishes online or in a cookbook. Compare a couple of recipes and take an average.
  • Use measuring equipment at home on occasion:  I’m realistic. I know people don’t regularly use measuring equipment even at home. But I encourage you to consider dusting off those measuring tools on occasion to keep your restaurant portion control tools - your eyes and hands - honest. Then use your honest eyes and hands as you estimate servings and nutrient counts for restaurant foods.
    • Remember you always have your “handy” hand guides with you:
      • Tip of the thumb (to the first knuckle)—1 teaspoon
      • Whole thumb—1 tablespoon
      • Palm of your hand—3 ounces (a portion of cooked meat/protein)
      • Loose fist or open handful—1 cup
      • Tight fist—1/2 cup

(Note: These guidelines hold true for most women’s hands, but some men’s hands are much larger.)

  • Factor in extra grams of carbohydrates and insulin for Asian foods: Asian cuisines, from Chinese to Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese, typically offer dishes that contain hidden sources of carbohydrate. This may be sugar or other sweeteners in a marinade or dipping sauce and/or corn starch or flour used to thicken dishes.  Consider upping the carb count of these meals by five to 10 grams. It’s optimal to track your own personal experiences, if possible, so you’ll create your history and know what to do the next time you eat that cuisine or in that restaurant.
  • Practice defensive counting. Realize that even the most accurate nutrition information from very large chains is obtained from several samples of the foods prepared according to corporate specifications or based on the various ingredients. On any given day, the portions of foods and ingredients served may be slightly more or less than what’s noted in their nutrition information. That’s true even for fast food hamburgers. One day there’s more or less ketchup, pickles, and/or special sauce. Always use your eyes to guestimate the carbohydrate count of the particular foods you are eating.    

I’m hopeful these few tips can help you enjoy restaurant meals that are just a bit healthier, and enable you to more accurately zero in on the carbohydrate counts (and other nutrients) of the foods you chose. Good luck!

 ** U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers on the menu and vending machines nutrition labeling requirements. (Accessed June 28, 2019)

Hope Warshaw, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with nearly 40 years of expertise in diabetes care and management. She owns a consultancy in Asheville, NC, Hope Warshaw Associates, LLC. She has written and spoken about the topic of healthy restaurant eating for more than 25 years and gets plenty of practice. She’s the author of several books published by the American Diabetes Association including Eat Out, Eat Well: A Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant. Hope has been a tireless and passionate volunteer and leader in several professional organizations, including AADE, ADA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She served as president of AADE in 2016. She is an advocate for the value of peer support and peer support communities such as DiabetesSisters and is thrilled to see these communities flourish.