Making healthy choices when eating out

July 11, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

Americans are eating out more than ever. Food is available almost any time and anywhere today, encouraging all of us to eat more food and to eat more frequently.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Americans spend about 46 percent of their food budget on food prepared away from home and eat 32 percent of their calories from restaurant or takeout foods.

Along with the amount of money being spent on food away from home are the issues of obesity and overweight. More than 65 percent of Americans are obese or overweight today. Weight and obesity problems are due, in part, to the increasing frequency of eating out. Americans generally eat more when eating out, and children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant than at home.

Dashboard dining, eating in the car, has become common. One in every four restaurant meals is ordered from a vehicle. Foods ordered most often are hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza and Mexican food.


Research has shown that the more often a person eats out, the more body fat he or she has. Super-sized portions, added salt and sugar, thick sauces, deep-fried preparation methods and rich desserts tempt the diner to add calories.

The following strategies are aimed at making healthy choices when eating away from home:

· Strategy No. 1: Plan before you eat. Call ahead and decide what to eat when you are not as hungry. Order before others in the group so you are not tempted to change your mind. Watch out for extras, beverages, appetizers or bread and butter. Ask if a smaller portion, a child's or senior's meal, is available. When you are served, eat slowly, savor the food and pay attention to what you are eating. Stop when you begin to feel full.

· Strategy No. 2: Have it "your way." Look for menu descriptions that indicate the preparation method. Poached, grilled, broiled, stir-fried or blackened foods are generally prepared with less fat. Ask for one of those preparation methods and find out what type of fat is used. Try to replace saturated fats and trans fats with unsaturated oils.

Foods made with light wine or a tomato-based sauce generally have less fat than those with cheese or white-sauces. Choose low-fat or fat-free dressings. Watch out for high sodium foods - those that are pickled, smoked, in broth or au jus; or in cocktail, soy or teriyaki sauces.

Substitute vegetables for french fries, salad and low-fat dressing for coleslaw, or whole grain for white bread. Have extras on the side or not at all. Butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, cheese, bacon or toppings enhance flavor but add fat and calories.

· Strategy No. 3: Curb a ravenous appetite. Saving up for a special meal can result in overeating, so avoid feeling starved when you go out. Eat a light snack at home or munch on plain veggies to curb your appetite. Drink water with lemon while you wait.

· Strategy No. 4: Share your food. Share an entree. Most servings are large enough for two to enjoy. If not, add soup or salad. Choose an appetizer as an alternative to a large entree. Ask for extra plates and share a dessert around the table.

· Strategy No. 5: Do a "to-go" before the "to eat." Ask for a to-go box when you order. When your meal comes, put half of it in the box before you start to eat. It is easier to divide then and removes the temptation to eat just a bit more.

· Strategy No. 6: Pack it. If you often eat away from home, take home-cooking with you. For quick lunches, divide leftovers into servings in packable containers. A low-calorie frozen meal, fruits and vegetables or a simple sandwich can make a light lunch.

· Strategy No. 7: Add healthy foods to a meal. Order fresh fruit, juice, raw vegetables, salad with low-calorie dressing or low-fat milk with your meal. Request soft, trans fat-free margarine instead of butter.

· Strategy No. 8: Know serving sizes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid food guidance system ( recommends amounts of food to eat each day, including recommended serving sizes.

Part of the fun of eating out is having an opportunity to taste new foods or savor old favorites. If you would like some suggested strategies to avoid extra fat and calories and to keep from overeating at specialty restaurants, send an e-mail to with food strategies as the subject, or send a self-addressed, stamped (41 cents) business-size envelope to Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County Office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713. Mark the envelope, "food strategies."

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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