Dining Out

How to Eat Healthy With New Restaurant Menu Labeling Laws

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By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

Dining out can be a dietary disaster. Restaurant meals tend to be loaded with calories, fat and sodium. Even seemingly healthy dishes like salads and vegetarian meals can be suspect. That’s a problem since surveys consistently show that Americans typically dine out several times a week.

The good news: On May 7, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring restaurants, grocery stores and quick-serve dining establishments with more than 20 locations to list calorie counts on their menus and have additional nutrition information available on their food items.

Is the posted nutrition information correct? Maybe. Keep these things in mind. Nutrition analyses for fast food items, which are typically premade, tend to be more accurate than items at sit-down restaurants where chefs may be creative with the recipe. And the calories listed may not include items the servers bring, such as butter, salt or sour cream.

Healthy Dining Out Tips

Studies show that consumer awareness can drive behavior, so posting calorie information may encourage diners to choose healthier dishes. The other piece: There may be competition among restaurants to offer more health-conscious menu items.

In addition to selecting the best options based on nutrition information, you can use these six tips to sidestep high-calorie traps no matter where you’re dining:

  1. Skip the complimentary starters. Chips and salsa, fresh bread with butter or olive tapenade and breadsticks are all loaded with extra calories. In most cases, these freebies don’t fill you up, but they do cause you to eat more than you intended. Your best bet: Ask your server to remove them.
  1. Customize dishes. Swap out French fries for veggies (and ask for them to be steamed bare, not in butter). Substitute baked potatoes for mashed (but go easy on the butter and sour cream toppings). And ask for sauces, dressings and toppings (like butter, sour cream or croutons) on the side. Then, limit how much you use. You can also request that the chef prepare your dish with minimal salt and fat.
  1. Identify the cooking methods. Pay attention to how food is prepared. Instead of choosing foods that are sautéed or fried, opt for items that are steamed, baked, poached or boiled. Anything made in a cream sauce or roasted in its own gravy is likely high in fat and calories.
  1. Watch portion sizes. Restaurant meals tend to be served on large plates and with big utensils. Instead of eating everything on your plate, ask for a box as soon as your food arrives then eat the remaining portion the next day. Dining out with friends? Split an entrée and order an extra side of vegetables or a starter salad.
  1. Choose beverages wisely. Drinks can contain a lot of sneaky calories. You can cut your caloric intake — and your bill — in half by drinking water instead of soft drinks or alcoholic beverages.
  1. Bypass dessert. Restaurant desserts and sweets prepared at grocery store chains are heavy on fat and calories. If you’re craving something sweet, ask for a bowl of mixed berries or a cup of fruit. Restaurants may be able to offer low-fat frozen yogurt, too.

Related Topic: 10 Foods That Seem Healthy But Aren’t

Still need help identifying healthy choices? Visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) to schedule an appointment with one of our registered dietitians or nutritionists.

You can also read more nutrition and fitness advice in our EatWell and MoveWell sections, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.