Calgary's Restaurants Scene: Healthy Strategies When Eating Out
Just over one-third of Canadians eat out at least once a week, 61 percent dine at a restaurant at least two or three times a month, and 2 percent say they eat out every day. Not surprisingly, 57 percent of Canadians say dinner is the most popular out-of-home meal, but 13 percent said that breakfast was the meal they ate out most.
When you eat at home (or "brown bag" it) you are in control of what you eat. When you dine out, watching your waistline and your general health becomes more challenging. Typically, you have less control over portions sizes, and you have no control over preparation and cooking methods, and less control over food quality. But you can improve your odds, with a few simple tips.
Select the right restaurant
If you select a restaurant without preparation & research, you leave yourself more open to creamy, fatty and suggary meals, without offering yourself some healthy options.
- The temptations of "all-you-can-eat" places can easily kill any diet
- Select a restaurant with a varied menu. It'll make it easier to find something healthy and to your taste.
- Don't decide to eat out at the last minute, but make it part of your day's menu planning.
- Fish restaurants and restaurants with extensive salad bars usually have healthy options available.
- Restaurants that promote "entertainment" eating (anything from videogames, to pool, to comics, to musical theatre, or singing chefs & waiters) often load their menu with fried, fatty and huge dishes.
- Restaurant with a mascot, typically have high fat, high salt, and high sugar dishes favoured by highly active children
Things you can do at home
Here are some things you can do at home (or at the office) before heading off to the restaurant. A little preparation saves a frustrating decision at dinner (or a workout afterwards, to offset it).
- Set your limits for how many calories you reasonably want to consume
- Check the restaurant's website for their menu, and review your options and the substitution choices available.
- Check the nutrition information on their website (or check FoundLocally for the links!) Some healthy sounding options (like salads) can be surprisingly bad. Other dishes are served with high-fat high-salt sides to be off the chart for healthy eaters
- Decide what you want to eat before you leave the house, and narrow it down to a specific menu item to reduce temptation at the restaurant.
- Make reservations, to reduce waiting time which either increases your hunger or the number of drinks you'll consume at the bar.
- While making reservations, ask about their preparation methods (ie deep frying…) and if they can accommodate your requests, especially if someone in your group has a food allergy.
- Try to reserve a table away from the kitchen, so the tasty looking dishes aren't paraded while you are deciding what to eat.
- If you have a small, healthy snack like an apple or a small salad about 1-2 hours before eating, you won't leave the house hungry and e tempted by pre-meal munchies
- Bring along some low-salt, whole wheat crackers and packets of your favorite low-calories salad dressings. The restaurant may not have the ones you like.
At the dinner table
This is a critical point that sets the tone for the rest of the evening. It's when much of our mindless munching happens, we can see and smell the food all around us, and we're usually at our hungriest. If there were ever a perfect time to take charge of your experience, this is it. Get off on the right foot.
- Skip the free munchies at the start, including the bread baskets, rolls, or tortilla chips that add on the calories. And the butter that are served with them.
- Ask the server if they might substitute healthier options like rye or whole wheat bread or rolls, or whole wheat crackers.
- Ask if there is a lower-fat alternative spread instead of the butter, or just skip the butter
- Salsa is healthier then cheesy dips
- Order water right away and start sipping to ward off that empty feeling
- Dessert menus often depict huge, tasty close-ups of high calorie options… hide or remove them form your table
These decisions are easier if you plan ahead. Most menus don't include nutrition information (not in Canada, yet). In a cruch, here are some guidelines:
- If you order first, you won't be tempted by whatever the others are ordering
- Don't be shy asking questions about the food or making special requests or substitutions
- Platters, combos or meals often come with extras you might not want, so it may be better to order the items separately
- Ask about the portion sizes. A lunch size or half-order may be big enough, and have a fraction of the calories
- Substitute vegetables for fries or potatoes, increase vitamins and reduce starches and fats.
- Food with vibrant colors is healthier. Items that are brown, beige, white or pale yellow tend to be high-calorie, high-fat items
- Exercise caution with cheese, sour cream, gravies and special sauces. Salad dressings can often make what looks like a healthy salad into a worse option than a burger and fries. Ask for the dressing to be on the side, so you can control the amount.
- Ask for your food not to be prepared with butter, cream sauces or oil
- Take your time to make a healthy decision, and once you've made it, stop looking at the menu to avoid any temptation
- If you order one course at a time, you may find you're already full be fore the last course you may have planned to order.
Sometimes is not an optimal choice to skip past appetizers for the main course. Sometimes the appetizers present healthier options or better portion sizes. And they may fill you up so you can choose wiser for the Entrée. Watch ouot for hidden calories and fat.
- Sometimes good starters are found in other parts of the menu. Investigate the Salads, Soups, Side Orders, or Breakfast
- Consider healthy starter options like fruit, steamed seafood, smoked salmon.
- Broth-based soups or consommé can be a tasty first course.
- Avoid anything fried or breaded. You can peel off the coating to reduce the fat content
- Be wary of any item that comes with a dip. Avocados and therefore guacamole are high in fat
- Garnish with ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, salsa or taco sauce instead of mayonnaise, tartar sauce or any creamy sauces or dips
ordering Soups or Salads
High fiber soups and salads can curb hunger and add vegetables & nutrients to your meal. Leafy greens are more filling and healthier than gorging on French fries later in the meal.
- At salad bars, skip the less healthy grated cheeses, eggs, creamy dressings, bacon, croutons, pasta salad, potato salad and macaroni salad, and zoom in on healthy items sliced carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, snap peas, raisins, nuts, garbanzo beans, fruit and other fresh produce. They put the cheapest and unhealthiest items at the "start", so load up your plate in the reverse direction.
- Spinach salad or vegetables have more nutrients than the greens in house salad (and don't have the high calorie "house" dressing)
- Ask for salad dressings on the side. Instead of pouring it on top, dip your fork in the dressing before taking a bite.
- If no suitable low-fat dressing options are offered, go for a squeeze of lemon, or vinegar with just a touch of oil.
- "Meal" salads often include more high-calorie high-fat toppings such as breaded chicken, olives, cheese, bacon, eggs and croutons.
- Taco salads may sound healthy, but actually quite high in calories.
- Instead of creamy soups, chowders or bisque, which are usually high fat and high calorie order a broth-based soup, like chicken noodle or vegetable , minestrone, wonton, beef barley, gazpacho, or consommé.
- While bean or pea soups have more calories, this is offset by them being high in fiber and nutrients
The highlight of your meal can be tasty and meet your dietary needs if you exercise diligence in the preparation methods and in the sauces.
- Watch for these code words for bad nutrition: buttery, breaded, buttered, fried, pan-fried, creamed, scalloped, au gratin, a la mode.
- Look for these code words for good nutrition: grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, poached, stir-fried, roasted, blackened.
- Consider leaner meats like Fish (which are lean have healthy fats), Chicken which is lean when skin and fat is removed, (white is leaner that dark meat). Pork is fairly lean except for sausage, bacon, and ribs. Ground beef (unless specifically lean or extra lean), steaks and ribs have more fat.
- A typical recommended serving size of meat is 3-4 ounces, so anything larger adds calories and fat.
- Skip the skin of chicken, turkey or duck, for a dramatic calorie reduction.
- You can ask for your fish or meat to be broiled, with no extra butter.
- When ordering prime rib or roast, ask for a center or inner cut, which has less fat.
- Good restaurants use herbs and spices to flavor their food instead of the high-calorie sauces and gravies
- Avoid any sauces made with milk, cheese, oil or mayonnaise.
- More colour means healthier eating. Marinara and tomato-based sauces are usually more flavorful and healthier than creamy sauces and gravies.
- Get all sauces, gravies and creams on the side so you can add to taste.
- Vegetarian options can pile up calories when loaded with cheese, nuts, dressing, and other non-vegetable ingredients.
Ordering Side dishses
This course is so often an afterthought, but can really make or break your dining out diet. It's a great opportunity to load up on nutrients and build confidence with some smart choices.
- Order meals with as many vegetable options as possible (at least one!) with steamed, stewed or boiled veggies are best, with little or no added butter or oil. Avoid butter and cheese sauces or anything "creamed" or in a casserole
- When considering potato options, stick with baked, boiled or roasted potatoes instead of chips, French fries or hash browns.
- If loading a baked potato, skip the butter, sour cream, cheese, and bacon bits, and instead load it with salsa, chives, pepper, margarine, low-fat sour cream, or broccoli
- Coleslaw is most often high in calories.
- Plain rice or noodles (maybe pepped up with a tomato-based sauce , is preferable over anything fried or in creamy sauce or gravy.
Eating Your Meal
Dining out is a chance to enjoy yourself, your dining companion(s), and a good meal. Here are some strategies for eating in healthier manner:
- Start with the lowest calorie items first, like the vegetables
- Eat as much as you would eat at home, if the portions are larger, don't be "guilted" into cleaning the plate
- Eat slowly, enjoying and savouring each bite. Put your fork down between bites, or take a sip of water.
- Concentrate on the conversation, not your food. If you're talking, it takes longer to eat and upir stomach has more time to tell your brain that it is full
- Ask yourself partway through your meal if you are full. Once you've decided you are, you can stop eating and cover your plate with a napkin, or put your utensils on the plate.
- If your hands are busy, you won't feel the need to hold a utensil and eat. How about holding hands with your date!
- Give the restaurant manager feedback on how well their menu met your dieting needs. They need to realize not all their customers prefer fatty, breaded, gooey foods.
- Keep notes on which restaurants served the most healthy dishes and restaurants. Provide feedback to other diners on the FoundLocally site using the Ratings & Reviews feature!
You are in the home stretch… here's where you should seek to maximize the flavour without totally depriving your sweet tooth. Depriving yourself of dessert won't work in the long run, but try to find smart ways to enjoy a little bit.
- Fruit as a dessert is always a good choice, as long as it's not covered in syrup or whipped cream.
- Sorbet or frozen yogurt are generally better ice cream, but watch the sugar content.
- Meringue pies, lemon or otherwise are generally a good choices.