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How to make healthful choices when eating out

July 10, 2012|Lynn Little

Food is available almost any time and anywhere today, encouraging all of us to eat more food and to eat more frequently. 

Dashboard dining, eating in the car, has become common. One in every four restaurant meals is ordered from a vehicle most often — 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 helping you make healthful choices when eating away from home. 

  •  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.
  •  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 sauce. 
  •  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.  
  •  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. 
  •  Share your food. Most servings are large enough for two to enjoy. If not, add soup or salad. Choose an appetizer as an alternative to a large entrée. Ask for extra plates and share a dessert around the table. 
  •  Do a "to-go" before the "eat now." 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. 
  •  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 simple sandwich can make a light lunch. 
  •  Add healthful foods to a meal. Order fresh fruit, juice, raw vegetables, salad with low-calorie dressing or low-fat milk with your meal. Request soft, transfat-free margarine instead of butter. Ask if a smaller portion, a child or senior 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. 

Don't abandon healthful eating when you eat away from home.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers "Healthy Eating on the Run: A Month of Tips" for healthful eating on the run at

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

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