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Eating smart when dining out

Tips and Tricks for a Trim and Tasty Summer

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EATING SMART WHEN DINING OUT

Tips and Tricks for a Trim and Tasty Summer

Suddenly it seems that chain restaurants like Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Olive Garden, and Bennigan’s are almost as ubiquitous as the Golden Arches. No surprise. There are nearly 200,000 “table side” restaurants in the United States today, a number that continues to grow.

For many, they offer a reliable, pleasant alternative to cooking -- plentiful servings, service with a smile, relatively good value for the dollar. But like fast-food outlets, these dining establishments can be ticking time bombs when it comes to nutritional health. Government surveys find that the food you typically eat when you’re not home is nutritionally worse in every way than the food you eat at home.

The good news is that’s changing. For instance, 7 out of 10 adults surveyed by the National Restaurant Association in 2003 said there are more nutritious foods available to them in such restaurants than there were five years ago. Nearly all the chains have added healthier options to their menus -- if you know how to look for them. But whether you’re dining out at a major national chain or a locally owned family restaurant, following a few of these tips can guarantee you a pleasant dinner (or lunch) out without busting your health goals.

1. Above all else, be assertive. Dining out is no time to be a meek consumer. You need to be an assertive consumer by asking for changes on the menu. For instance, if an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If it comes with french fries, ask for a side of veggies instead. Ask for a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of the salad; for salad instead of coleslaw; baked potato instead of fried. Just assume you can have the food prepared the way you want it. Very often, the restaurant will cooperate. Below, you’ll find more specific requests.

2. Ask your waiter to “triple the vegetables, please.” Often a side of vegetables in a restaurant is really like garnish -- a carrot and a forkful of squash. When ordering, ask for three or four times the normal serving of veggies, and offer to pay extra. You most likely will not be charged, and you will get full, not fat.

3. Ask how the food was prepared; don’t go by the menu. For instance, cholesterol-free does not mean fatfree; the dish could still be filled with calorie-dense oil. Neither does “lite” necessarily mean light in calories or fat.

4. Order from the “healthy, light, low fat” entrées on the menu. Most chains will even list the calories and nutritional content of such foods.

5. Beware of the low-carb options. Restaurant chains have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon, offering numerous low-carb options on their menu. But low-carb doesn’t mean low-cal.

6. Ask the waiter to box half your entrée before it ever gets to the table. Or split an entrée with your dining partner.

7. Try double appetizers. If there is a nice selection of seafood- and vegetable-based appetizers, consider skipping the entrée and having two appetizers for your meal. Often, that is more than enough food to fi ll you up.

8. Order a salad before ordering anything else on the menu. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University found that volunteers who ate a big veggie salad before the main course ate fewer calories overall than those who didn’t have a fi rst-course salad.

9. But remember: Salads shouldn’t be fatty. This is a vegetable course -- keep it tasty but healthy. That means avoiding anything in a creamy sauce (coleslaw, pasta salads, and potato salads), and skipping the bacon bits and fried noodles. Instead, load up on the raw vegetables, treat yourself to a few well-drained marinated vegetables (artichoke hearts, red peppers, or mushrooms), and for a change, add in some fruit or nuts. Indeed, fruits such as mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, and pear are often the secret ingredient in four-star salads.

10. Watch the add-ons to vegetable salads. Even salads that are mostly raw vegetables are a problem if they’re loaded with cheese and meats. Take the typical Caesar salad in most restaurants (the one topped with chicken or shrimp as well as plenty of cheese and mayo in the dressing). Add in the fried croutons and the calories add up to a whopping 560, with 36 grams of fat, 6 of them saturated. Italian antipasto salads also are a health challenge, with all their salami, spicy ham, and cheese. Get the salad, but ask for vegetables only.

11. Do the fork dip. The best way to combine salad dressing with salad? Get your dressing on the side, in a small bowl. Dip your empty fork into the dressing, then skewer a forkful of salad. You’ll be surprised at how this tastes just right, and how little dressing you’ll use. Plus, your lettuce won’t wilt and drown in a sea of oil.

12. Check the menu before you leave home. Most chains post their menus on their Web sites. You can decide before you ever hit the hostess stand what you’re going to order. Conversely, if you don’t see anything that’s healthy, pick another restaurant.

13. Read between the lines. Any menu description that uses the words creamy, breaded, crisp, sauced, or stuffed is likely loaded with hidden fats -- much of it saturated or even trans fats. Other “beware of” words include: buttery, sautéed, pan-fried, au gratin, Thermidor, Newburg, Parmesan, cheese sauce, scalloped, and au lait, à la mode, or au fromage (with milk, ice cream, or cheese).

14. Ask the waiter to skip the bread basket. If you must have something to munch on while you wait for your order, ask for a plate of raw vegetables or some breadsticks.

15. Skip the fancy drinks. If you must order an alcoholic drink, forget the margaritas, piña coladas, and other exotic mixed drinks. They include sugary additions that only add calories. Opt instead for a glass of wine, a light beer, a vodka and tonic or a simple martini (without the chocolate liquor, sour green apple schnapps, or triple sec).

16. Top a baked potato with veggies from the salad bar. Or ask if they have salsa -- the ultimate potato topper, both in terms of fl avor and health. Just avoid the butter and sour cream.

17. Order fi sh. Just make sure it’s not fried. You can order seafood so many different ways -- steamed, baked, broiled, sautéed, blackened, or grilled. Nix any sauces, or ask for them on the side.

18. Drink water throughout the meal. It will slow you down, help you enjoy the food more, and let the message get to your brain that you’re full -- before your plate is empty.

19. Always dress up to go out. Even if it’s just a regular family restaurant. If you view eating out as an event or a treat, rather than a way to get an everyday dinner, you won’t eat out as often. And that’s good from both a health and a cost standpoint.

20. Skip the dessert. You can always have some sorbet or even a small piece of chocolate at home. That is much better healthwise than the Triple Chocolate Meltdown or a mountain of ice cream topped by a second mountain of whipped cream.

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