Is dining out your great escape? Do you seize those precious hours, throw your fat counter to the wind, and indulge in a thoroughly delicious, luxuriously incorrect meal?
If your restaurant excursions are limited to an occasional night on the town, there’s absolutely no reason for you to do otherwise. Any reasonable nutrition program allows for a little variety. And at restaurant prices, you really should get something you enjoy.
But today, eating out is a way of life for many people. Forty-six percent of American adults go out for a meal on a typical day. In fact, 45 percent of American food dollars are now spent on eating out, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group estimates that within the next 10 years, that figure will surpass 53 percent.
For working people, eating out is more than just convenient to their on-the-go lifestyle. It has become an integral part of the work routine: Power breakfasts, business luncheons, and dinners with clients have become keys to networking and success in professional circles.
Busy parents and single people are also buying an increasing amount of take-out foods and eating restaurant-prepared dishes at home. As a result, restaurant meals now comprise a significant portion of many Americans’ total nutritional intake. If you’re part of this group, treating every restaurant meal as a special occasion, with all nutritional rules suspended, can seriously affect your health.
Most people find it much more difficult to manage their diets when eating out, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. At home it’s possible to select healthy ingredients and cooking methods and control portion sizes. In restaurants, however, the abundance of tantalizing choices on the menu may make equally delicious lower-fat foods seem mundane. And the social and festive setting tends to put us in a mood for indulgence.
Recognizing this problem is the first step in overcoming it. The principles of good nutrition that guide your food choices at home are still applicable to the meals you eat out. The good news is that restaurant menu planners are beginning to recognize the growing demand for healthier cuisine. An overwhelming majority of Americans now understand that good diet plays a role in the prevention of such serious illness as heart disease and cancer, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association. So, more and more restaurants, including fast food outlets, are responding with an expanded selection of healthier foods. Many now offer special dishes that are lower in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories, often marked with a heart symbol or similar graphic. And inventing healthy dishes that also thrill the taste buds has become a hallmark of many young talented chefs. (Ever try whole wheat, spinach, or artichoke pasta?) Dining out sensibly is becoming easier than ever before.
Strategies for Healthy Restaurant Dining
With the right coping strategies, you can eat out as often as you wish—and still maintain a healthy diet. Start by developing a personal list of convenient restaurants that offer a selection of appetizing, healthy dishes that you enjoy. Restaurants that serve a wide variety of fish, poultry, and lean meat, excellent salads, or interesting pasta give you the best chance to make nutritionally sound choices. If you’re on a stringent diet for medical or weight-loss purposes, you may want to call a restaurant beforehand to see if they will accommodate your requests for low-fat food preparation.
On the way to a new (or old favorite) dining spot, it’s helpful to mentally review the healthy dishes you like and seldom prepare at home. For example, if you rarely cook fish or shellfish at home you may want to concentrate on this category when eating out. Or if you don’t usually eat fruit desserts at home, you could decide to order sorbet whenever it’s on the restaurant menu. A general idea of what you’re going to order is the first line of defense against an intriguing but too rich menu.
When you know you’ll be eating dinner in an enticing restaurant, you can limit yourself to lean, low-calorie foods for breakfast and lunch. But don’t skip morning or afternoon meals in order to “save up” calories for a large restaurant dinner. This can leave you ravenous and lead to over-ordering and overeating.
A few minutes before entering the restaurant, try visualizing the scenario and menu. Focus on how you can achieve a balanced, enjoyable meal. If you’ve already eaten liberally during the day, you may decide to focus on low-fat and low-calorie dishes. If you’ve been more careful, it’s possible to order a more indulgent entree (while limiting the amount of fat in the appetizer, salad, and dessert).
Be prepared, too, for another distraction: the suggestions of the waiter and the food choices of your dining companions. You may be exhorted to go along with the crowd, or be bombarded with exclamations like, “No cheese, what’s a baked potato without cheese?” Don’t feel you have to offer a full explanation. A simple “I prefer it that way,” or “I enjoy healthy eating” will do. If asked if you’re on a diet, you might reply, “No, this is just the way I like to eat.” If you dine out often with co-workers or family, ask for support. You can explain the motivation for your choice: “I’ve resolved to eat low-fat meals in restaurants.”
Certainly, it’s not necessary to order a “nutritionally correct” meal every time you step into a restaurant. Dining out is meant to be a joy. If once in awhile you crave a steak or piece of pie, enjoy. It’s possible to include some high-fat and high-calorie dishes a couple of times a week and still be eating a healthful, low-fat diet overall. A little forethought about your restaurant eating patterns can go a long way in establishing better nutrition, however.
Questions To Ask The Waiter
|What type of fat do you use during preparation? Foods prepared with unsaturated oils, such as corn, safflower, and sesame, are preferred over those made with saturated fats like butter, cream, and beef suet. Saturated fats can increase your blood cholesterol levels.|
|What cooking methods do you use? Broiled, steamed, poached, boiled, baked, or stir-fried dishes are preferable to oilier pan-fried and deep-fried dishes. A fried chicken or fish fillet can soak up as much as three to four times the fat found in prime steak.|
|Which cuts of meat do you use? Some fatty red meat will have from 20 to 30 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce cooked serving. However, lean roasts and steaks, with visible fat trimmed, will run between 6 and 9 grams of fat for a 3.5-ounce cooked serving. Lean steaks include choice or select grades of flank, club, tenderloin, sirloin, and London broil; lean roasts include eye of round, top and bottom round, and sirloin tip. Fatty steaks include ribeye, T-bone, New York strip, skirt steak, and porterhouse; fatty roasts include blade, chuck, rib, and brisket.|
|Is the dish served with sauce or added butter? If so, ask that butter be left off and that sauce be served on the side so you can use just a little to moisten the dish.|
The standard dinner menu is set up to encourage ordering an appetizer, soup or salad, main course, and dessert. Often the “prix fixe” or “early bird special” menus are a good buy and therefore a temptation. But if they encourage you to eat much more food than you feel comfortable with, they’re no bargain. Such a lineup is great for a special occasion, but an extravagance for everyday dining.
Many diners would prefer that restaurants offer special pricing on smaller portions. Serving different amounts for different appetites is one step that restaurants are taking to address nutrition concerns. However, while some restaurants do offer “appetizer” and “entree” sizes of pasta dishes, the idea of different sizes across the board has yet to catch on.
Meanwhile, feel free to break the habit of ordering something from each menu category. Try sharing a main course with your dining companions to keep portions small. And remember that you don’t have to order an entree when dining out. Some people prefer to start with a light soup or salad, then have an appetizer served when the other diners receive their entree. Add a side dish of a baked potato or vegetable to make a more filling meal (but watch the toppings!).
Doubling up on appetizers and skipping a main dish is a particularly good strategy with some ethnic cuisines, such as Indian, Thai, Middle-Eastern, or Chinese. That gives you the opportunity to sample many exotic tastes at one sitting. Spanish restaurants often offer tapas: snack-sized portions of main course selections. But be aware that nibbling, too, needs to be limited. Many small portions of different foods can easily add up to much more fat and calories than one hefty entree!
If you see nothing on the menu that pleases both your palate and your health consciousness, ask the waiter if you can design your own dish. Pasta and tomato sauce, broiled chicken or fish without sauce, or plain rice and vegetables are examples of dishes that most any restaurant can provide. Too often, dishes that sound healthy are served with sauces or added butter that can bring the calorie count for a piece of fish, for example, up to that of a broiled steak. Don’t hesitate to ask the waiter about how the dish is prepared and presented.
If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions you can mold menu selections to fit your special needs. There’s no reason why the restaurant staff can’t cater to your need for healthy food. Don’t hesitate to ask for substitutions or special preparation. Three out of five restaurant managers surveyed by the Restaurant Association were willing to make substitutions in ingredients and preparation when asked. The restaurant business is highly competitive; managers have learned that flexibility is key to keeping a steady clientele. Any good restaurant will allow you to order what you want. After all, you’re the paying customer.
Better Breakfasts and Brunches
Though breakfast tends to be the smallest meal of the day, a lot of calories and fat can sneak into it if you eat in a restaurant. The traditional breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and sausage is fine on occasion; but don’t make it the way you greet every new morning. Loading up on heavy food early in the day can slow you down at work or school. If you are accustomed to big breakfasts, you may find that you feel surprisingly better when you switch to meals that depend more on fiber to fill you up.
If you can’t make time for a leisurely, sit-down breakfast at home, you’ll probably pick something up on the way to work. This makes convenience the number one characteristic you’re looking for. Even so, convenient foods don’t have to be unhealthy ones. Most delis, breakfast stands, coffee shops, and convenience stores stock good food: fresh fruit, juices, low-fat muffins, single-serving packages of cereal, and low-fat milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. These choices are just as handy as a sticky doughnut or a gooey Danish, and healthier too—especially if grabbing breakfast on the run is part of your daily routine.
Consumer demand has led many fast food restaurants to add health-oriented items to the menu. Opt for the bran or low-fat muffins over biscuits, croissants, and breakfast-meat sandwiches, which are typically loaded with fat. Most chain restaurants also have a selection of cereals; get a high-fiber, unsweetened variety and be sure to ask if low-fat milk is available.
Here are some ways to improve your breakfast order:
Fresh fruit —a grapefruit half, melon, or fruit salad—is a better choice than juice. Whole fruit is more filling and gives you extra fiber.
Pancakes and waffles, while tough to prepare at home, are fun to order in restaurants. Whole-wheat selections are best. Skip or minimize the butter and syrup, and instead top them with jam, unsweetened fruit, or low-fat yogurt.
Cereal is an excellent choice when eaten with skim milk and fruit. Choose whole-grain cereals, such as shredded wheat, oatmeal, or bran; stay away from the sugar-coated variety. Ask that hot cereals like oatmeal or grits be prepared without butter. Order butter on the side if you really must have some. Limit the amount of granola you eat. Despite its healthy reputation, it is often prepared with coconut or other artery-clogging saturated oils and lots of sugar.
Poached or soft-boiled eggs are a better selection than oily scrambled or fried eggs. Poached eggs over whole wheat toast can be a tasty substitution for buttered toast. But remember: If your cholesterol level is high, you’re better off skipping eggs entirely for most of the time.
Meat at breakfast is best reserved for a treat at Sunday brunch. If you do order meat, choose Canadian bacon or lean ham instead of bacon or sausage.
Hash browns and french fried potatoes should also be viewed as a treat, not a breakfast staple. Ask if they come with your dish. If so, either request that they be left off the plate or ask if you can substitute a vegetable or a fruit salad.
Muffins, like salad bars, have mistakenly become synonymous with healthy eating. However, many muffins (even the celebrated oat bran variety) can be high in fat, calories, and sugar if baked with oil, nuts, and raisins. Many places now offer fat- or sugar-free muffins. If not, a plain bran or corn muffin is your best bet. If your muffin leaves grease stains on the take-out bag, you need to try a different variety.
Toast, an English muffin, or a bagel are good choices. But they may arrive at your table smothered in butter or cream cheese. Ask for spreads to be served on the side. Better yet, use jam or preserves instead.
All pastries such as doughnuts, croissants, coffee cake, biscuits, sweet rolls, and Danishes are best avoided. If you do order a pastry, make it a plain doughnut instead of one that is glazed, iced, or filled with cream, cheese, or chocolate.
Low-fat cottage cheese or low-fat ricotta make for healthier spreads than cream cheese or butter.
Skim milk is better in your coffee or tea than whole milk or dairy creamers. Avoid powdered milk substitutes; they are often high in saturated fat. Real powdered nonfat milk, however, is a good alternative.
Breakfast bars demand special care, for they may offer the temptation of high-fat food at a bargain price. Stick with muffins, bread, or fruit rather than pastries, eggs, hash browns, or meats.
Make lunch the flex point in your meal plan for the day, adjusting it to compensate for what you’ll eat that evening.
If you foresee a big dinner, then a light, balanced lunch is the way to go. Even if you are having a business meal, keeping it light makes sense; the company and conversation, not the food, are likely to be the focus. Why “waste” calories on dishes you’ll barely notice you’re eating? If business companions ask why you chose soup and a large salad over prime rib, explain that you need to feel energetic when you get back to work; heavier foods and a full stomach can leave you feeling sluggish. Fortunately, now that the three-martini lunch is a thing of the past, many business lunch spots are catering to the demand for lighter fare.
“Light” doesn’t mean “nothing,” however. Under-eating at lunch can be a problem too. People who find themselves too busy to remember to eat during the workday wind up feeling dizzy and tired late in the afternoon—a situation that makes them prone to grab the nearest apple turnover or chocolate bar.
If you have little time to cook in the evening, eating a bigger meal at lunch can be a health booster. In fact, many nutritionists wish they could revise the American style of eating to make the mid-day meal the largest of the day. “Because we usually burn more calories during the day, it may make more sense to eat our largest meal at lunchtime,” says Kathryn A. Parker, a registered dietitian in Gainseville, Florida. “Otherwise we end up filling up the tank at night, just when the engine is turned off.”
Whether you decide to make lunch a big meal or small one, be sure to balance your food choices with those you make at morning and night. In addition to the guidelines in the dinner section of this discussion, follow these sandwich tips:
|•||Choose sandwiches on whole-grain breads, bagels, English muffins, or rolls, which generally have only 1 to 2 grams of fat. A croissant can contain 12 to 20 grams of fat.|
|•||Be aware that seafood salads, like tuna or shrimp, often come loaded with cholesterol-rich mayonnaise; order them without the dressing.|
|•||Order sandwiches made without butter, mayonnaise, or other fatty spreads; or ask that the spread be served on the side. Mustard or salsa makes a great sandwich spread.|
|•||Choose turkey or lean ham as sandwich meats; they contain only 1 to 2 grams of fat per ounce. Bologna or salami are high-fat cold cuts with 6 to 8 grams of fat
|•||Have the urge for something crunchy? To accompany your sandwich, choose pretzels or breadsticks (1 gram of fat per ounce) rather than potato or nacho chips (10 grams of fat per ounce.)|
|•||Skip the cheese on sandwiches or use the low-fat variety.|
Salad Bar Sampler
Reconnoitering the Salad Bar
Health concerns gave birth to the salad bar, but this simple spread of cut, raw vegetables was soon invaded by lots of little temptations. Today it takes a bit of care to create a healthy plate from a salad bar that may offer a variety of cheeses, meats, breads, soups, pasta and potato salads, and even desserts. In fact, you can easily leave the salad bar without any of the vegetables you so health-consciously sought! Here are some things to keep in mind:
Dressings provide from 50 to 80 percent of the calories in tossed, Greek, Caesar, and spinach salad. For example, a Greek salad (3 cups lettuce, 1/2 ounce anchovies, 1/8 cucumber, 1/4 tomato, 1 ounce feta cheese, and 1 olive) with 2 tablespoons of dressing has 300 calories; without dressing it has only 135. A tossed salad with 2 tablespoons of dressing has about 174 calories; without dressing it only has 36. Use low-fat dressing or try a no-fat solution—opt for a vinegar, lemon, mustard, and herb combination.
French, Russian, blue cheese, creamy Italian, mayonnaise, or oil dressings should be limited to 1 tablespoon. Experiment with substituting grated cheese for creamy dressings on salads.
Cottage or feta cheese is a healthier choice than fattier Swiss, cheddar, or American. Stay away from salad ingredients like avocados, anchovies, eggs and bacon.
Tuna, lean beef, or chicken make better additions to your salad rather than bologna, ham, and salami.
Croutons and bacon bits are best skipped or limited. You can add a crunchy texture by crowning your salad with bean sprouts.
Kidney beans or chick peas demand moderation. Steer clear of the three-bean salad, which often has a dressing high in fat and sodium.
A roll with your salad will fill you up. Whole-wheat rolls are a good choice, with only 72 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. If the bread is good, fresh and warm, you won’t miss the butter.
If you want “just a taste” of the higher fat items, save it for your second trip to the salad bar. This way your stomach will be full of healthy greens, minimizing your risk of turning a dollop of potato salad into a plateful.
Alcohol Calorie Sampler
|Beer||12 ounces||146 calories|
|Gin (90 proof)||1.5 ounces||110|
|Whiskey (86 proof)||1.5 ounces||105|
|Rum (80 proof)||1.5 ounces||97|
|Vodka (80 proof)||1.5 ounces||97|
|Wine, red||4 ounces||85|
|Wine, white||4 ounces||80|
|A look at mixed drinks|
|Cocktails and mixed drinks can be even higher in calories when they include creamy, sweet ingredients. If you prefer mixed drinks, choose lower-calorie, lower-fat mixers such as orange, lime, lemon, cranberry, vegetable, or tomato juice. Club soda and sparkling water are great no-calorie mixers.|
|•||Eggnog (4 ounces with rum): 309 calories, 14.5 grams fat|
|•||Brandy Alexander (3.5 ounces brandy, creme de cacao, and heavy cream): 305 calories, 11 grams fat|
|•||White Russian (2.75 ounces vodka, coffee liqueurs, and heavy cream): 236 calories, 5.5 grams fat|
|•||Pina colada (4.5 ounces rum, coconut cream, sugar, and pineapple juice): 262 calories, 2.5 grams fat|
Restaurant profits depend heavily on the sale of alcohol, so it’s no accident that dinner ordering rituals encourage drinking. After a cocktail, many people who seldom drink at home drift into ordering a second or third in the restaurant. Unless health problems forbid, there’s little harm in having a drink or two. But there’s also little sense in allowing eager waiters to pressure you into ordering more than you really want.
The bar or cocktail lounge is often where we end up meeting dinner companions or waiting for our table. But you don’t have to drink alcohol just because it’s handy. Most bars will serve coffee and soft drinks. Often that’s a good way to start the evening, even if you plan on alcoholic beverages later on.
Drinks in the cocktail lounge can make you prone to carelessness when you finally order the meal. Cocktail bars tend to offer peanuts, mini hot dogs, fried chicken wings, and chips—salty foods that increase your thirst and make it more likely that you’ll order another drink. Eating such bar fare not only adds calories, but, with healthy eating already thrown out the window, can give you an excuse to go all out at dinner.
The calories of the drinks themselves are not to be overlooked either. They can add up, especially since many restaurants serve oversized drinks. Remember that each beer can “cost” you the equivalent of three bread sticks or eight large clams on the half shell. Here are a few guidelines to help you navigate the cocktail lounge:
|•||Try to go straight to the dining room, not first to the bar. Make sure to have a reservation so you don’t have to wait for a table; or dine earlier, during the less crowded times.|
|•||Cut down on the number and size of your drinks as well as their alcohol content. Drinking just one beer a day can add 54,000 calories (or 16 pounds) to your diet over a year.|
|•||Order non-alcoholic beer, wine, and mixed drinks. This will cut calories by more than half.|
|•||Buy wine by the glass, rather than by the bottle, to help limit consumption.|
|•||Have your drink with your meal, not before.|
|•||Always ask for water along with your drink so that you’re not sipping alcohol simply to quench your thirst.|
|•||Extend the drink itself with water, club soda, juice, or other mixers.|
Dinner is generally the largest meal of the day, particularly if you’re eating out. Even so, a key strategy is to keep portions modest. Unfortunately, restaurant owners know that many diners feel cheated by small portions. Oversized dinner plates, filled to the rim, are therefore all too often the norm.
“A serving of meat should be about the size of the palm of your hand,” says Kathryn A. Parker, R.D. “This amounts to about a 3- to 4-ounce serving. But restaurants almost always give you a bigger piece of meat—typically a 6-ounce serving.” If you go to a restaurant that prides itself on huge portions, plan to save part of the meal and have it for lunch the next day. If you are still a member of the “clean plate club” from childhood, you can ask the waiter to serve only half of the entree and bring you the rest in a doggie bag at the end of the meal. And if you feel a 3-ounce steak won’t fill you up, Ms. Parker suggests ordering a second baked potato or other vegetable to satisfy your appetite.
How long you take to eat can affect how much you eat. The key to monitoring your true appetite is to eat slowly, with awareness. Eat a moderate portion of your entree, then put down your fork and enjoy the conversation. Set a mental timer for 10 minutes, recommends registered dietitian Mary Lee Chin. If you are still hungry after that time, then eat more of your entree or order something else.
Here are some tips for dealing with the dinner menu:
|•||Choose a light, satisfying appetizer: Shrimp cocktail (5 jumbo shrimp with 2 tablespoons of cocktail sauce) has only 124 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. A half cup of fresh fruit with orange sherbet has 130 calories and less than 1 gram of fat.|
|•||Order clear rather than cream soups. The latter have lots of fat and calories. Consomme, wonton, and Manhattan clam chowder are better choices. If you do order a cream soup, make it a cup, not a bowl.|
|•||Ask for salad dressing on the side, and use it sparingly. Balsamic vinegar makes a great substitute for salad dressing (it doesn’t need to be cut with oil because of it’s sweet flavor). Salsa, soy sauce, or a spritz of lemon or lime can also dress your greens.|
|•||Remember that fried foods have astronomical amounts of calories and fat. For example:|
|•||Fried clams (18 small): 342 calories and 19 grams of fat|
|•||Ten potato skins sprinkled with cheddar cheese: 1,034 calories and 60.5 grams of fat|
|•||A 7-ounce platter of nachos (approximately 48 chips) with 12 ounces of cheddar cheese and one cup of salsa: 2,498 calories and 174.5 grams of fat!|
|•||Seafood is a healthy choice if prepared with a minimum of oil. Even the fattiest fish tends to have no more fat than the leanest of meat. Light and flaky fish—such as flounder, pike, haddock, red snapper, and grouper—have about 1 to 2 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce serving. Fattier varieties, such as salmon and tuna, may run about 7 grams per 3.5-ounce serving. Ask for fish to be broiled in lemon juice or white wine.|
|•||Order skinless white-meat poultry. More than half the fat in poultry is in and around the skin, and dark meat has about twice the fat of white. Avoid frying, which can double the overall fat content of the dish; and don’t even think about batter-dipping and frying. It can increase the fat content five or six fold! Stuffed poultry dishes also tend to be high in fat.|
|•||Pasta- and rice-based dishes are an excellent choice if you’re careful about the sauce. Fettuccine Alfredo can have more than 1,000 calories in a 3-cup serving, with 60 grams of fat. Pasta made with a tomato sauce provides 72 percent less fat and half the calories.|
|•||Don’t mistake quiches and omelets for lighter fare, even if the menu bills them that way. Food prepared with cheese or a pastry crust is probably going to be high in fat.|
|•||Eat red meat sparingly. Nutritionists recommend switching a good part of your red meat intake over to vegetables, grains, poultry, and fish. When eating beef, veal, or pork, choose lean cuts and keep the fat content down in other portions of your meal. Avoid organ meats such as liver, which are lower in fat, but high in cholesterol.|
|•||The sauce counts. Cream sauces such as hollandaise, bearnaise, and newburg are loaded with fat. The hollandaise sauce in eggs Benedict accounts for more than 50 percent of the calories and close to 70 percent of the fat in the dish.|
|•||Accompany your entree with vegetables that have been minimally cooked and prepared with little oil, butter, or cheese. Overcooking drains veggies of vitamins. Roasted vegetables are a delicious new alternative now gaining in popularity. Ask for baked, roasted, or mashed potatoes instead of fries or chips. Be sparing with butter and sour cream on baked potatoes. Try accenting your spuds with Worcestershire, Tabasco sauce, or mustard.|
|Peach sorbet||1/2 cup||110||0|
|Marble cheesecake||2-inch piece||442||30|
|Carrot cake||1/12 cake||676||
|Hot fudge sundae||1 cup vanilla ice cream
1/4 cup fudge
4 tablespoons whipped cream
A Just Dessert
If your whole reason for going out is the view of that dessert cart rolling slowly to your table, then plan an occasional indulgence! You can compensate with a lean appetizer and entree.
Do save rich desserts for an occasional treat, however, especially if you eat out regularly. Most of the time you can enjoy fresh fruit after the meal. Restaurants often offer more exotic varieties of fruit than you would buy for yourself at home. If fruit isn’t offered in the dessert section of the menu, check the appetizers or ask the waiter. Fruit-based desserts like sorbet are also a good choice.
If you do order a rich dessert, keep the serving small by sharing with someone or requesting that the waiter only serve a half portion. Remember that desserts made with cream cheese—like cheese cake and carrot cake—are high in fat. If you must have ice cream and the only offering on the menu is a hot fudge sundae, you can still request a small bowl of your favorite flavor without the sauce or whipped cream.
Part of the adventure of dining out is sampling exotic tastes and enjoying unusual aromas that rarely fill our own kitchens. But, unfamiliarity with the language, ingredients, and preparation of dishes offered at an ethnic restaurant may leave you wondering what, exactly, you are ordering. Take heart. Healthy meals can be found in any type of cuisine if you know what to look for. Here are some points to keep in mind when visiting some of the more popular types of ethnic restaurants. For additional tips (and some other nationalities) see “Improving Your Diet with International Flair.”
Italian cuisine offers a rich variety of vegetable, bean, and pasta dishes. Try to steer clear of dishes labeled “Crema” or “fritto” style, indicating a heavy preparation; “pomodora” (tomato) suggests a lighter preparation. When ordering meat dishes, choose poultry or veal over sausage and beef specialties. Order seafood sauteed in wine rather than oil. Be aware that breading and cheese coatings ring up the calories in these dishes. Opt for meatless, tomato-based sauces, such as marinara or pizzaola, rather than cream sauces. Clam or calamari sauces are another tasty, lower-fat alternative to meat or cream sauces.
|•||Minestrone or consomme|
|•||Cioppino (seafood soup)|
|•||A salad of Italian greens, fava beans, drained Italian tuna, plum tomatoes, and slices of skim-milk mozzarella, with oil and vinegar on the side|
|•||Chicken piccata or cacciatore|
|•||Polenta and grilled mushrooms|
|•||Roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes over pasta|
|•||Shrimp sauteed in wine sauce|
|•||Antipasto salad (usually oil-soaked)|
|•||Dishes made with large amounts of cheese, meats, or oils: for example, rich meat lasagna, manicotti, cannelloni, pesto, and anything cooked “Parmigiana” style|
Salsa is the great gift of Mexican cuisine; it adds an abundance of flavor to everything, and has almost no calories. Use salsa or taco sauce as a topping or dip instead of sour cream, cheese, or guacamole (avocados are one of the few fruits very high in fat). Opt for plain black or pinto rather than refried beans. Avoid fried dishes and those prepared with lots of cheese. Seafood or chicken in tomato-based or vegetable sauces are good choices. Order a la carte; combination dinners are often served with refried beans, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and fried foods. It’s fine to have one or two of these selections, but not all of them.
|•||Black bean soup or gazpacho|
|•||Tortillas or soft tacos (unfried) filled with chicken, seafood, or vegetables|
|•||Seafood burritos or enchiladas (with a minimum of cheese)|
|•||Soft flour tortillas with chili con carne, black beans, or Mexican rice|
|•||Camarones de hacha (shrimp in tomato coriander sauce)|
|•||Arroz con pollo (boneless chicken with rice)|
|•||Baked bananas, fresh jicama, or pineapple|
|•||Fried foods such as chimichangas and taquitos|
The typical Chinese restaurant menu is filled with vegetables, rice, and noodles, making healthy eating an easy task. It also gives you the opportunity to eat a variety of vegetables you probably don’t get very often, such as snow peas, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, bok choy, lotus root, and mushrooms. Preparation is key: Stir-fried or steamed dishes are better than those that are deep fried.
Chinese restaurants often make menu items to order: Ask that oils be used sparingly and that the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) be left out if it bothers you. You can also request that shrimp, scallops, or chicken be substituted for beef in menu entrées. The red meat preferred in Chinese cooking tends to be very lean, however. Use soy sauce sparingly—it contains 800 milligrams of sodium in each tablespoon.
|•||Fish steamed with ginger and scallions|
|•||Steamed vegetables, lean meats, chicken, tofu, and seafood dishes in a light wine sauce; when ordering stir-fried, ask for as little oil as possible|
|•||Moo shu vegetables|
|•||Moo goo gai pan chicken|
|•||Shrimp with snow peas|
|•||Dishes in heavy sauces, such as lobster sauce, garlic sauce, or sweet and sour sauce|
|•||“Crispy” or batter-dipped dishes|
|•||Egg foo yung|
|•||Chow mein noodles|
Japanese cuisine is an especially healthy dining option, stressing soybean-based foods, small quantities of fish and meat, and rice and noodles. If you don’t like to eat raw fish, order sushi made with just vegetables. Try the cooked crab or shrimp. Substitute shrimp, scallops, or chicken for beef in entrées. Augment your meal with steamed or stir-fried vegetables. Eat pickled, smoked, and salted dishes sparingly. Limit the amount of rice you eat—it’s served in an abundance.
|•||Gyoza (meat or seafood dumplings)|
|•||Hibachi chicken or lean beef|
|•||Teriyaki-style meats, chicken, or fish, preferably steamed, grilled, or broiled|
|•||Mandarin orange sections, sherbet, and fresh fruit|
|•||Fried bean curd|
|•||Tempura, or other foods battered and fried|
French food varies in style: Provencal and Riviera-style cooking favor olive oil rather than butter or lard, and feature fish and vegetable dishes. Haute cuisine and cuisine bourgeoise both include heavy use of butter, cream, pork lard, goose fat, and eggs. Those looking to eat extra light should look for cuisine minceur, which means the “cuisine of slenderness,” and dishes served “en papillote,” or steamed in a paper envelope. If you can’t resist a dish with a heavy French cream sauce, ask for a half- or appetizer-size portion.
|•||Consomme or seviche|
|•||Salad nicoise (ask for dressing on the side)|
|•||Coq au vin (chicken in wine)|
|•||Pot-au-feu (stewed chicken)|
|•||Bouillabaisse (fish stew)|
|•||Poached quenelles (steamed fish dumplings)|
|•||Ratatouille (eggplant, zucchini, and tomato casserole)|
|•||Fresh pears or other fruit in wine sauce|
|•||Terrines or patés|
|•||Hollandaise, bearnaise, bechamel, beurre blanc, veloute, and Mornay sauces|
|•||“Au gratin” or “en casserole” dishes|
|•||Pork or goose dishes|
The essence of Indian cuisine is its careful balance of unique spices and seasonings that create exciting flavors. Nonfried foods and vegetable and bean dishes come to life with spices (without much fat). Ask that dishes be prepared with a minimum of ghee (clarified butter). Look for Tandoori dishes, which are baked in a clay oven.
|•||Mulligatawny or lentil (Dahl rasam) soup|
|•||Chapati (unleavened bread) and nan (leavened bread )|
|•||Items prepared without frying or added ghee|
|•||Curry dishes made with chicken, lobster, shrimp, lentils, or vegetables|
|•||Chicken or fish tandoori|
|•||Mango or papaya slices|
|•||Fried entrées or rices|
|•||Dishes prepared with coconut cream|