Dining out has become a primary source of entertainment, and it can be tricky to balance healthy eating with social engagements.
Are healthy eaters destined for a life of dining alone? Certainly not. But you may have to be a bit of a pioneer at times. As a result, I try to make sure that the restaurants I frequent and the social events I attend serve food in a style and fashion that complement my weight-conscious mindset.
So what are some of the techniques we can apply to maintain our friendships and social interactions — without feeling restricted and embarrassed by the new food choices we’re making?
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Get access to the menu in advance and look for any of the following: baked, grilled, broiled, poached or steamed.
And avoid foods with the following terms: a la mode (with ice cream on the side), au gratin (covered with cheese), battered, bisque, breaded, buttered, cheese sauce, creamy or rich, crispy, deep-fried, deluxe, fried and hollandaise (a sauce made with butter, egg yolks and wine).
Also, jumbo, nuts, scalloped, sauteed (unless you make a special request for it to be prepared in a small amount of oil) and tempura.
Know what you’re going to order ahead of time. You can also call the restaurant and make sure it will meet your healthy food preparation request.
Keep these “Dining-out dos” in mind when ordering.
▪ DO get all dressings, butter, sour cream and sauces on the side.
▪ DO eat slowly and take small bites. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register feelings of fullness.
▪ DO order a basic salad as an appetizer. Studies show you’ll eat less.
▪ DO say no to the bread basket. Just one large slice of bread with butter can add up to 275 calories.
▪ DO visualize smaller portions. When that pasta comes on a satellite-size platter, for example, picture how it would fill up two of your dinner plates at home.
▪ DO say no to more than two drinks of alcohol; they’re high in calories. Try for wine, beer or champagne rather than hard liquor.
▪ DO skip the monster cocktails. Some chains serve theirs in glasses that hold up to 18 ounces; a margarita that size may contain up to 800 calories — more than a meal’s worth.
▪ DO call the restaurant ahead of time to find out if healthier options are available, and/or check out its website. You can probably even place a special order in advance.
If no healthy options are available, almost every restaurant will let you order grilled chicken, fish or lean meat with some type of vegetable or salad.
▪ DO dine at an earlier or later time; restaurants will be more open to taking special orders if you eat during off-peak dining hours.
▪ DO avoid price-fixed menus; they encourage you to overeat high-calorie foods.
▪ DO drink water before and during your meal — it will fill up your stomach a little.
▪ DO say no to large portions: If you know that the restaurant serves huge portions, don’t try to be a “diet hero” by assuming you will not eat everything on your plate. Just ask the server to wrap up half your portion in a takeout box.
▪ DO say no to the fries and pasta. Replace them with a healthy portion of broccoli steamed with garlic or another type of vegetable or salad.
Pick the place.
If you’re usually not comfortable with the restaurant selected by others, then offer to pick the place yourself. Keep in mind that it helps to have already done some advance work to find a healthier restaurant choice.
Try to offer several options and a variety of cuisines to your potential dining companions.
If you’re invited to someone’s house or to a party, bring a low-calorie, low-fat dessert or food option (such as a vegetable plate or fruit salad).
Your host will see it as gracious, and you will have avoided a potential food disaster.
If you eat before going to a major event (such as a wedding or birthday party), you can avoid eating unhealthy foods.
Frequently at these events, the main course is not served until well after you’ve arrived — which means you can easily become ravenous by this time, and end up eating anything and everything.
I’ve even been known to eat before going out to lunch or dinner, just to take the edge off — this way, I don’t end up eating a big basket of bread.
Just tell them.
If you are going to someone’s house for dinner (or even a restaurant), you can tell your host that you have a restricted diet and that you can only eat certain foods. Or you should practice refusal skills.
Think about how you can say no in a nice way, but be prepared for food pushers.
Give them notice.
It can help to talk to your family and friends about the healthy food changes you are making and gain their support.
The idea is not to have them police your behavior, but to empower you by being enthusiastic and supportive of your new way of life.
Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.