Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hidden Restaurant Calories

I am a seasoned veteran when it comes to healthy eating, and I am very aware of the unhealthy, calorie-rich dishes that come out of restaurant kitchens.  Restaurants use butter, cream, oil, cheese, salt and bacon grease to add flavor to their dishes, and they use FAR greater quantities than we would ever use at home. Does this mean I avoid restaurant eating all together? No, because I am also a wife who needs date nights, a friend who lunches and a lover of the culinary scene.  What I do instead is to meet myself halfway.  I make sure I don’t order the most unhealthy thing on the menu and I limit myself to 1-2 meals out per week (this includes things like eating lunch in the cafeteria, going to a dinner party and picking up breakfast at a coffee shop).  

When I first started trying to lose weight, restaurant eating was somewhat of a mental game for me.  I knew it was bad, but I knew I wanted it, and I had no idea how to approach it.  I alternated among some of the classic bad approaches:  I dieted all day and then started binging as soon as the waiter set down the bread basket, I made up excuses to miss social outings because I did not want to face a restaurant menu and I tried ordering salads that left me unsatisfied.  Eventually, I realized that this was an unpleasant and unhealthy way to live.  That is when I developed my current approach to restaurant dining.

I consider eating outside of my home to be a treat, something special that I do not get to do every day.  I keep health in mind, but I do not obsess over it.  When choosing a restaurant I generally avoid things like Mexican and French establishments because I know they lend themselves to higher calorie fare. Chain restaurants also tend to be more unhealthy than local establishments, especially when it comes to things like quantities of sodium and extreme portion sizes.  Once I have picked a restaurant, and have the menu in hand, I do not sit and fester over how many calories each dish potentially contains. That is a good way to ruin a nice dining experience.  Instead, I keep a mental list of words that can indicate high calorie dishes, and I avoid dishes containing those words:

Beurre blanc/butter/buttered/Hollandaise
Au gratin
Cream/creamed/creamy/white sauce
Pink sauce (tomato sauce with whole cream)

Curry (usually contains cream, butter or coconut milk)

This may sound hard at first, but what you will discover is that there are so many foods out there that are delicious, and don’t leave you feeling bloated and guilty.  Look for words like:

Rubbed (chicken breast rubbed in Jamaican jerk spices)
Red/tomato sauce (mushroom ravioli in red sauce)
Roasted (roasted asparagus)
Poached (poached salmon with fresh dill)
Broiled (broiled grass-fed sirloin steak)
Seared (seared ahi tuna)
Raw (hummus with raw vegetables for dipping)
Fresh (fresh spring rolls vs fried)
Steamed (steamed manila clams)

Even using this “healthy” list does not guarantee low-calorie restaurant dining, as some restaurants even put large amounts of butter on their steamed vegetables.  Buttered veggies, however, are still better for you than pasta with alfredo sauce.  The goal is simply not to go too overboard with your entree, understand that it is a treat and appreciate it.

Picking out a healthy entree is important when eating out, but it may not be the most important thing as far as hidden calories are concerned. I have heard arguments stating that most restaurant calories are actually consumed in things like appetizers, sides, drinks and dessert.  In order to avoid extra calories, I have added the following guidelines to my approach to eating out:

  • The appetizer menu is usually full of unhealthy, usually fried, choices.  I try to skip appetizers altogether.  The best way to do this is to make sure that you are not starving when you get to the restaurant (have an apple before you go).  On the rare occasion when I need something right away, I use the list of healthy words above to help me choose.  Some of my usual selections include: hummus with raw veggies, steamed edamame, fresh spring rolls, steamed clams/mussels and California rolls.

  • I avoid the complimentary chips/bread, as it is really easy to eat 500 calories in “freebies” before I have even ordered my meal.  If you can’t help yourself, just make sure to keep your portion small and do NOT ask for seconds.  If you put a portion of chips on a plate instead of eating right out of the basket, you can better evaluate how much you are consuming.
  • I never use the side of butter that is given with a meal or placed on the table.  I figure that my pancakes were probably already cooked over a buttered grill, why would I need that extra pat of butter that they have inconveniently placed on top of my pancakes?  I really do not miss the extra butter, but if you need some extra incentive, remember that 1 tablespoon of butter has about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat.
  • I skip the add-on specials.  Most restaurant entrees are large enough that you don’t need a side salad, soup and/or fries.
  • I avoid extra calories from beverages.  I have heard that between the margaritas and the chips and salsa, you can consume 1,000 calories at a Mexican restaurant before your entree even arrives.  Now that is scary!  I avoid calorie bombs like margaritas, and stick with water, unsweetened iced tea and sparkling water.  If I am going to have an alcoholic beverage, I opt for wine, champagne or a lighter beer.
  • I use the tips from this blog post to control my portion size.
  • I try to make smarter choices when it comes to dessert.  Obviously eating dessert is not a diet-friendly idea, but sometimes an occasion calls for it.  I have found that a lot of restaurant desserts are huge and full of calories (over 1,000 in the chocolate molten cake at Chili’s).  If you do opt for dessert at the restaurant, I recommend splitting it with your companion.  I like to skip dessert at the restaurant altogether, and stop at a local bakery or chocolate shop for an after dinner treat.  A dark chocolate truffle is sure to have less calories than that molten cake, and by the time you get out of the restaurant you may realize you don’t even want dessert.  

It won’t take long for eating healthy at restaurants to become a natural and rewarding habit.  I know how awful I feel after I eat a large fried meal, so I naturally don’t even look at that section of the menu anymore.  It feels great to be able to go out to dinner and leave the guilt behind.

Bon App├ętit!

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