Eating out can be challenging when you're trying to stick to your diet. Luckily, we have some expert tips to help you sniff out the healthiest items on the menu at your favourite restaurant. With the help of our Wellness Team, we present to you the smartest ways for you to choose food that is good for you.
Dieting can be tricky, especially when you aren’t equipped with the proper information and tips on how to stick to eating foods that are healthy for you. It’s easier when you’re cooking your own food, preparing your own meals and have control over what you’re making for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But, you’ll inevitably, at some point, eat out at a restaurant, and then it becomes painfully difficult to stick to your diet.
Both restaurants and stores add ingredients to food (and use preparation methods) that will certainly make it taste better. However, these are often counterproductive to your diet, thus affecting your weight loss journey or any other healthy eating goals you have.
That’s why we’ve put together some tips to help you stay on track.
How to choose a healthy meal at a restaurant
Whether you are looking to lose weight, build muscle or just be as healthy as possible, making healthy food choices when eating out can become a bit daunting. Also, restaurants also have a tendency to present you foods that look healthy on the face of it, but if you know what to look for you’ll find that your meal isn’t as healthy as you first thought. Sneaky!
Tips for eating out healthily
- When any item on the menu has been described as fried, crispy or roasted it will be higher fat. High heat cooking methods will also destroy a lot of the vitamins and minerals within the fresh product. It is best to avoid these items or ask for them fresh or steamed.
- Include some healthy fats. A meal that contains some avocado, unsalted unroasted nuts and seeds would be a better choice than having a meal that contains creams and butters.
- Burgers, wraps, pitas or pastas will often be described as something along the line of for example a “healthy chicken wrap”. Be sure to ask if the burger bun, wrap, pita or pastas are 100% whole-grain or 100% rye. You can also look out for veggie alternatives here. You could opt for lettuce wraps, bunless burgers using large black mushrooms as the “bun” or zucchini noodles.
- Be aware of any combo meals. These are meals in which you are not able to make out individual ingredients, such as curries, baked pastas and casseroles. These options tend to be high in saturated fat and salt.
- Take note of sauces, dressings, bastings and marinades added to meals and ask if you can remove these from your order. These are often high in sugar, fat and salt.
- Portion size! Most meals served in restaurants are two to ten times a regular portion size. When presented with the option of going for small, regular or large portion, always go for the small. Avoid up-sizing or adding additional side dishes to your meal. If you aren’t given the choice to choose your portion size, you also have the option to eat half of your meal and save the other half for later.
- Stick to leaner proteins such as lean beef cuts, chicken or fish and avoid high fat proteins such as lamb, prawns, fatty beef cuts, duck and processed meats.
- Avoid typically salty foods. These would include processed meats, marinated meals, pasta sauces, pizza and French fries. Steer clear of adding salt to your meal, as there is always enough salt adding during the cooking process.
- Choosing what your meal is paired with is just as important. Ask for a side salad or steamed vegetables instead of French fries, spiced rice, crispy onion rings or roast vegetables. Be careful of sweet potato or zucchini fries. While these are great vegetables to include in your diet, they will have been fried. This increases the fat content and destroys a lot of the good nutritional properties.
- Make your side salad or steamed vegetables half of your plate. This helps to lower the calorie content and increase the fiber content of your meal. It will also boost your antioxidant intake for the day.
- Avoid “all you can eat” buffets and “platter for one” options. Choose a healthy menu option instead.
- When ordering something to drink:
- Avoid sodas, energy drinks or fruit juices.
- Diet sodas are low in sugar and calories but are high in caffeine.
- When ordering hot drinks ask for semi-skimmed milk instead and without cream or syrup.
- Don’t add sugar to hot drinks, choose a non-nutritive sweetener instead.
- Regular coffees, teas or herbal teas are better choices compared to speciality flavoured coffees or teas, hot chocolate or chai lattes.
- Always keep your caffeine sensitivity in mind. If you are caffeine sensitive, choose a decaffeinated drink or herbal tea.
- All-in-all water is best! Ask for a lemon or lime wedge or some mint to add some flavour.
DNAfit’s Fit Food Friday
At DNAfit we have incorporated an initiative named Fit Food Friday that happens once a week. Our dietitians select a different menu every Friday and indicate the healthiest food choices. In addition to this, each menu item will receive a health score. This was created to assist employees in making the healthiest food choice. We encourage our employees to go for the lowest score possible.
To determine the health score, each menu item is picked apart and each component will receive either a positive or negative score.
The scoring system used looks as follows:
- Fried, crispy or roasted ingredients (roast chicken or fried aubergine) - Score = +3
- Refined carbohydrates present (white burger bun) - Score = +3
- Combo meals (curries, baked pastas) - Score = +2
- Contains a sauce - Score = +1.5
- Large portion sizes - Score = +1
- High fat proteins (e.g lamb) - Score = +1
- Contains salt - Score = +0.5
- Unrefined starch present (whole grain burger bun) - Score = -1
- Lean proteins (e.g. fish) - Score = -1
- Contains unsaturated fat (avocado or nuts) - Score = -1
- Salad or steamed vegetables - Score = -1.5
For the healthiest menu items, aim for a score of 3 or less.
So, say you were ordering a roast chicken salad with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, bell peppers, avocado, honey glazed pecan nuts and a honey lemon glazed dressing. You would break it up and score it as follows:
- Roast chicken (Roasted +3; chicken -1)
- Lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, bell pepper (-1.5)
- Avocado (-1)
- Honey glazed pecan nuts (Honey +3; Pecan nuts -1)
- Honey lemon dressing (+1.5)
- Total score = 3
Adopting this scoring system and applying it on a daily basis can assist you to make the healthiest food choices possible and will make you think twice when doing your monthly shopping.
List of go-to, low calorie healthy ingredients
Whether you’re selecting a meal in a restaurant or purchasing items at the store, it is always important to note which foods have the lowest calories while being the healthiest option. Below you will find a list of foods that fit into this category:
- Leafy greens
- Salad veg (tomato, onion, cucumber and bell peppers)
- White fish (but ideally you want to include more oily fish: tuna, salmon)
- Cottage cheese
- Seeds (not roasted)
- Skimmed dairy products
List of starchy vs. non-starchy vegetables
Vegetables are an essential part of every single person’s diet and are packed with nutrients that keep us healthy. However, if you want to aim at eating vegetables that are less starchy than others then you can refer to lists below to see which foods you should be adding to your plate, and which ones you should try to eat less of.
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- All leafy greens
- Bell peppers
And there you have it. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a chore and is actually fun when you know which foods to avoid and which ones to eat. Once you have the know-how as stated above you will then be able to experiment with different foods and create tasty meals you can eat every single day.
Knowing this will also help to inform your food choices the next time you’re eating out. Not only this, but you’ll look like a healthy food genius, dispelling your friends’ myths and assumptions about what foods and meals are healthy at will and helping everyone around you to live a healthier life.