Eating out can be a special treat or convenient occasion when you don’t have the time or means to cook at home. While eating out sounds like an easy option, it comes with a price…. literally. When you cook at home you have the power to choose and control how your food is prepared, how to manage portions, and what goes into your food. You don’t always have the same luxury when going out to eat, so here are a few things to consider when eating outside of your home, along with tips on choosing from the menu responsibly. 

With a little preparation and planning, you can make the most out of your dinning experience. The easiest way to make healthy choices when going out to eat is by looking ahead at the menu. If you know what food items are on the menu you can avoid the element of surprise and the panic of trying to frantically choose when the server gets to you. If you’re anything like me, you like to review the menu because you struggle with being decisive especially when it comes to good food. Getting informed when eating out is as simple as asking for nutritional information or visiting the restaurants website ahead of time to look for healthier options. Healthier options are usually higher in protein, fiber, and vitamins and lower in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. Not every menu has food description or calorie content but there are ways to navigate a menu without this information. If you can’t find a menu online just ask for more information when you get to the restaurant. Order foods that have been steamed, baked, broiled, grilled, or roasted and stay away from the fried or breaded options to avoid unnecessary, unhealthy fats and calories. If you have a high risk of inflammation or moderate-high carb sensitivity, fried or breaded foods are not going to do you any favors. Fried foods contain high levels of Omega-6 fatty acids and produce compounds in the body called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These compounds directly stimulate inflammation in the body, leaving you feeling bloated and/ or agitated. 

For those of you with the MTHFR mutation, it’s important to keep high doses of folic acid out of your body because your body can’t convert this folic acid and it builds up in your system. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which can be found in fortified foods such as pasta, breads, flour, and other common foods found in restaurants. To keep your body free from unnecessary synthetic toxins, ask for gluten free options when going out to eat. Unlike processed foods, gluten free and organic should not be enriched with folic acid and other harmful ingredients.  

Processed foods should be avoided as much as possible as they are often fortified with folic acid as well as refined sugars, artificial additives, and many other inflammatory ingredients. If your diet is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with moderate amounts of lean proteins, occasional intake of your favorite sweet treat or salty snack or even a fatty meal is not going to be a deal breaker, however, beware of the affects and how your body responds to these types of foods.

What to consider before you order: 

  • Ask for more vegetables: vegetables are packed with fiber, nutrients, and help satisfy your hunger for longer. Soluble fiber promotes fullness by increasing viscosity and slowing down digestion. Ask for a side of veggies or even dress up your burger, wraps, or sandwiches with veggie toppings such as spinach, peppers, etc…
  • Get sauce on the side or avoid all together: Added sauces, dressings, or spreads can add flavor but they can also increase inflammation and fill your body with damaging oils that should be avoided. Ask for sauces or spreads on the side to use sparingly (if at all) instead of drowning your food in unhealthy fats and oils. 
  • Skip the sugary beverages: It can be a treat to have a soda or sweet drink especially when you’re eating out so if you feel the need to order a drink limit it to one. If you’re willing to compromise, drink sparkling water with lemon or stick to a good ole clean glass of water. If you drink alcohol, try to avoid  simple syrups, sugar, added or artificial sweeteners. 
  • Watch out for sodium: Avoid food options that have been smoked or made with sauce. You can always ask the waitress for a low-sodium menu or use the chart below for reference on healthy food swaps.
  • Go for whole grains / good carbs: Look for options made with whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, etc… Most restaurants will offer these options but you can also request whole wheat or whole grain swaps for your meal. 

Foods to avoid

Instead, choose or ask for …

Smoked, cured, and salted meat, fish, and poultry

Fresh, grilled, baked, poached, or broiled meat, fish, or poultry

Ham, bacon, hot dogs, luncheon meats, and cheese

Fresh roasted pork, turkey, or chicken

Canned vegetables

Fresh steamed vegetables with no added salt. (Assume that cooked vegetables have added salt unless you ask for them to be prepared without it.)

Condiments, such as pickles, olives, tartar sauce, and ketchup

Sliced cucumbers, malt vinegar, or low-sodium ketchup and mustard

Sauces, including soy sauce, tomato sauce, au jus, and gravy

Low-sodium tomato sauce, olive oil. Or ask for your food to be prepared without sauces, or have the sauces served on the side.

Salad dressings

Oil and vinegar, lemon juice, or low-sodium dressing

Soups and broths

Salads without croutons, bacon, cheese, or olives

Tomato juice or any drink that contains tomato juice, such as V-8 or Clamato. This includes alcoholic drinks like Bloody Marys.

Orange juice, other citrus juices, or soft drinks

Fried or seasoned rice

Steamed plain rice. (Asian restaurants often add salt to steamed rice. Be sure to ask for steamed rice without added salt.)

Pasta with tomato sauce

Pasta tossed in olive oil or with fresh tomatoes

Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself and enjoy a feast when going out but for the most part you want to be mindful of portion sizes. Portions are typically larger when you go out to eat vs making a home cooked meal. To avoid overeating ask for less portions or smaller options if you don’t want to have “too much.” Asking for a to-go box is always a safe option if you feel like you can’t finish your food but don’t want a single bite to go to waste. A helpful tip for handling larger portions is to take your time and drink water as you eat. If you have a higher risk of overeating, wait 20 minutes or so before going in for seconds so your brain has enough time to signal the response to your stomach that you are full. Those with a higher risk of overeating may not sense fullness until they’ve have already eaten more than enough so it is important to make a conscious effort to eat more slowly, use smaller utensils and try not to be the first one to finish everything on your plate.

The bottom line when eating out is to be mindful of what you’re putting into your body- you can still enjoy a nice meal out without compromising your health. Plan ahead, read the menu, take into consideration what works well for your body and what doesn’t, and always always ask questions. If you want to know how something is prepared, cooked, or have questions about nutritional information, there is no shame is asking if that is going to help you make a healthier decision. Hopefully these tips will help you and your body stay feeling good even on the go! 

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