Over the years, I’ve discovered strategies for eating out while avoiding weight gain. A fundamental mistake is to assume that restaurant food is nutritionally and calorically similar to home-cooked. It’s not. There’s a reason why it’s often tastier, and it’s not merely due to professional chefs’ sophisticated understanding of ingredients, seasoning, and spices—though, of course, their expertise helps. It’s that the vast majority of cooks and chefs aim for flavor, not nutrition. I don’t fault them, but if padding the restaurant’s bottom line pads your butt, too bad.
The flavors and convenience are what makes it fun to eat out, but also risky. Several years ago, when I was nursing four babies in rather quick succession, I spent a lot of time watching the Food Network to pass the time. Back then, the programming was about technique and recipes, not glam cook-offs and reality TV. I watched and learned a lot. One thing that I always noticed was that what the chefs were telling you and what they were doing, were often two separate
things. They’d say, “And now, lightly coat the pan with a little olive oil,” and I’d watch them dump the bottle upside down and a 1/4 cup pour out. Or they’d tell you to “drizzle” oil or dressing on a salad or greens, and, again, the bottle would just dump over and the formerly “light” salad would now be in a fat bath. Or, they’d say, “add in a little shredded cheese,” and giant fistfuls would be tossed into a dish.
Now, I recognize that TV chefs are cooking for the camera and possibly using exaggerated movements, but these things were so ubiquitous that it couldn’t help dawn on me that, hey, if I eat foods as prepared by the average chef, I’m going to double my calories at least. Maybe the food tastes better—although certainly not always—but is it worth it?
Sure enough, as we slog through another decade of the obesity epidemic, eating out has been identified as one of the central culprits, and I’m convinced that chefs’ heedlessness of fat content is a big part of the problem. Several other common elements of the restaurant experience have been implicated in our national fattening, too, of course, including:
1. Bloated portions.
2. Bread and chip baskets.
3. Rich desserts.
4. Sodas, juice, or that “extra drink.”
5. Breading and other such preparations.
6. Deep-frying, sautéing, and other oil-saturated cooking methods.
7. Salads buried under mounds of calorie-dense items like croutons, nuts, and cheese, then topped with hefty ladles of dressing.
8. Soups, sauces, and vegetable purees enriched with too much butter or heavy cream.
Let me start by saying that fat is an essential nutrient. But, as we have discussed before, it has to be good fat and in the right quantity. The heavily processed vegetable oil in which most restaurants fry that breaded cutlet is inflammatory and unhealthy. If it’s a finer restaurant using higher-grade oils, that’s better depending on what they’re using, but quantity remains an issue. Not to snark, but look at the belly on a talented chef like Mario Batali, and watch how he portions fats in his cooking demos. By “drizzle” he usually means “dump.” Compare that to the fanny of a chef like Rocco Dispirito who was tired of feeling exhausted and gaining weight and turned around his cooking methods, slimmed down, and now writes great books like Cook Your Butt Off!, teaching gourmet technique minus the calorie explosion.
As for enjoying the delicious food at restaurants while not pigging out, here are ten things to do when you’re eating out to avoid taking part of the meal home on your rear end and thighs. Follow these consistently, and you will notice a difference. You will see that you can still have a wonderful meal, but you won’t go home feeling bloated and regretful. Break some of the rules on special occasions—of course!— but even if it’s your birthday, grossly overeating is no way to celebrate and treat yourself.
1. Do not order foods that are prepared deep-fried or “crispy” or breaded unless it is an appetizer for the table to share and you will only be having a couple of bites. Savor them, but don’t make such food your main dish.
2. If your food is to be sautéed, request “light” or “extra light” oil. (Even requesting “light oil” doesn’t work with some chefs, I’ve found, as they are accustomed to using so much.) This goes for the main protein, but also for side vegetables. You’re better off having them steamed and putting a small pat of butter or drizzle of olive oil on top yourself than trusting that the harried chef will take care not to overdo it. By the way, beware, too, of roasted foods. I’ve ordered roasted vegetables on many occasions which come to the table oil-saturated. Grilling is usually safer, but no matter what you’re ordering, requesting “light oil” is crucial!
3. Unless you are the kind of person who can nibble a bit and not overdo it, just say no to the bread basket. That’s hundreds of calories you don’t need—usually of empty, refined white flour—that will fill your stomach so you enjoy your real food less. Same goes for the giant basket of chips with salsa. Just make it go away—it’s greasy and simply not worth the few moments of enjoyment. (When was the last time you started a home-cooked meal by first setting out a huge bowl of chips for your family to fill up on?)
4. Seek out stock-based soups that are non-dairy. These are low-calorie and very filling, not to mention nutrient-dense. A spoon of milk or cream can make soups delicious, but based on the way I’ve seen dairy soups prepared by the pros, they use far more cream than you want or need. Save those kinds of soups to make with light dairy or coconut milk at home and stick with the stock-based ones when you’re out.
5. Beware of the bar. If you order a standard cocktail that has alcohol and fruit juice, you can easily be consuming 300+ calories. Order a second and you’ve just drank the caloric equivalent of what your entire lunch might be. But you’re also eating a complete meal on top of that! Stick with mixers like club soda or a little bit of fresh citrus. My current favorite—thanks Jim Bellinson—is tequila on the rocks with a salted rim and a few segments of lime and orange on the side to squeeze in. Perfecto. Or try vodka on the rocks with club soda, muddled with lime, cucumber and mint. Drink wine in moderation, of course. A glass at dinner some nights is fine. Once you start ordering a second and third on a regular basis, the calories mount fast. If I do want a little more after one glass, I will share a second glass with someone, restaurants have no problem with pouring two half-glasses.
Finally, please don’t order soda. Let’s be honest: It’s sugar water. Each can of coke has 140 calories, and other drinks like Dr. Pepper, Sunkist, lemonade, sweetened tea, etc. have even more. The waiter does you no favor with his free refills. Diet sodas play games with your pancreas and dump chemicals into your bloodstream. How about a club soda on ice with lemon or lime or even with a small splash of juice? I’m also told water is an excellent thirst-quencher.
6. When ordering salad, always ask for the dressing on the side, and either have them go “light” on heavier toppings (like cheese, croutons, dried fruits, nuts), or ask that they be served on the side. Also, request romaine lettuce or other dark greens in lieu of iceberg, much healthier.
7. Whenever possible, opt for a double side of vegetables in lieu of a starchy side—and inquire as to how the vegetables are cooked. I have nothing against having brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat cous cous or pasta, or even some potatoes with dinner. The problem at a restaurant is the preparation. Except for baked, potatoes will almost always be fried. Even the baked potatoes are ginormous and usually come with butter, sour cream, or cheese. Mashed potatoes have these all blended in already. Ask how the simple sides like quinoa or brown rice are prepared. Even if they are simply cooked in water, they are often then heavily sautéed or dressed. If you’re ordering a dish like Asian vegetables with rice noodles, request that they double the vegetables and halve the noodles; you won’t notice the difference, and you’ll save a ton of calories while amping up the nutrients. You can also ask for “light sauce” and have them put extra sauce on the side, in case you want to add a little more.
8. Speaking of sauce, in most cases, just request sauces on the side. They are delicious but are based on butter or oil, so a little goes a long way. I always request extra lemon wedges no matter what I’m eating. They add a ton of flavor to salads, veggies, and everything else and let you go lighter on heavier sauces and dressings.
9. If a plate of food large enough to feed an NFL defenseman is set before you, plan on taking half home.
10. Finally, the quantities of sugar and butter in professional baked goods and sweets are astounding, and though it’s fine to take a taste or two of something being passed around the table—the very best way to enjoy dessert out—you certainly do not need to finish your meal with an extra 500+ calorie bomb. Savor the flavor, and pass that plate along.
Okay, if you’re still reading, my final words of advice are, first, to ignore the snickers from your co-diners. They, too, should be interested in what they are eating and asking more questions. Maybe you’ll teach them something. My husband sometimes makes fun and says Woody Allen has nothing on me. I don’t care. My pants fit great. By the way, he’s started asking a lot more questions himself when we dine out…
Finally, remember to eat slowly, chew well, and pay attention to the pleasures of the delicious food you’re enjoying. It’s no fun to be so wrapped up in conversation or so distracted that you look down at an empty plate and don’t remember having eaten it. What a shame! Try some or all of these techniques most times you eat out, and the only thing you’ll be missing as you leave to go home is an even puffier muffin top. Bon Appetit!