The top 3 pitfalls of eating out and how to avoid them

Jul 15, 2008 at 12:15 p.m. ET

Does your busy lifestyle include eating out instead of eating homecooked meals? Are you unsure of how to eat healthy when faced with so many high-calorie, high-fat menu choices? Good news, ladies. Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, lead nutritionist at Novo Nordisk Presents: Divabetic - Makeover Your Diabetes and author of Eat Out, Eat Right, shares her strategies in eating healthier when eating out. Read on to learn the top three pitfalls of restaurant dining and how to avoid them.

Woman Eating Healthy Meal

Even busy women can eat healthy and lose weight

If your busy life has you running from errand to appointment or from school and work meetings to family functions, you are probably eating out as a way to save yourself time and sanity. However, if you are also trying to eat healthier and, perhaps, lose weight, you know that eating out can deter the best of your dieting efforts.

As the official nutritionist with Novo Nordisk Presents: Divabetic - Makeover Your Diabetes, registered dietician Hope Warshaw helps women identify how they can be better eaters without the extreme pressure of trying to be perfect eaters. Warshaw says trying too hard to eat healthy can put you at greater risk of over-indulging down the road.

"The directive at our nutrition educational station, 'Grab Green & Go,' for example, is when [you are] dining out, enjoy a smaller portion of your favorite entree by sharing your plate with your date and load up on antioxidant- and fiber-rich veggies by swapping a salad for the regular side dish," she adds.

In her book Eat Out, Eat Right, Warshaw discusses the 10 pitfalls you face when dining out and the simple strategies you can use to avoid them. Here are three of those pitfalls and the strategies you can put in practice starting today.

Top three pitfalls of eating out and how to avoid them

Pitfall #1: HUGE portions

Warshaw explains, "It seems that the 'value equals volume' concept is here to stay in America. Portions, and the plates to hold them, just keep getting bigger."

The "clean your plate" mentality was developed at a time when plates weren't piled high with food and eating three square meals a day was essential for people to get all the vitamins and minerals and other nutrients they needed.

However, that mentality today combined with the usual supersizing of meals has easily contributed to the high percentage of overweight and obese Americans. Face it, when you are served large portions, it's often difficult to stop eating when there's still food on your plate. After all, you paid for it, you should eat it, right? Wrong!

Strategy #1: Portion control

Warshaw suggests that you control portions from the start - when you order. She says, "Order less to eat less. Split, share, or choose from appetizers, soups, salad, and sides." Instead of ordering an entrée, order a salad and an appetizer. If the appetizer is a large serving, share it - or ask for a to-go bag and take half of it home.

Pitfall #2: Fats, fats, and more fats

Great volumes of fats and oils are used in restaurant foods. They make food taste good and help keep food moist. Warshaw says, "Fats and oils are in, on, around and through." But this doesn't mean you can't dine out and eat healthy.

Strategy #2: Be fat-conscious

You can control the fat in your meals by being aware of ingredients, menu items and toppers that are high in fat, and steering clear of them when you order.

"Avoid French fries, special sauces (which are typically cream or mayonnaise-based), and salads drowned in salad dressing. Be conscious of cheese on salads and sandwiches as well as meal starters, such as chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants and Chinese fried noodles in Chinese restaurants," says Warshaw.

However, remember that some fats are healthy. Opt for dishes high in omega-3's, like grilled salmon and salad dressings made with healthy cooking oils, as well as dishes high in other unsaturated fats, such as salads featuring olives, avocadoes, and nuts. And when you are at home, be sure to cook with the healthiest cooking oils.

Pitfall #3: Wholesome foods are often missing in restaurant meals

Warshaw warns, "Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy foods are often 'missing in action' in restaurant meals. The very foods we should eat more of are often hard to find." This is particularly true of fast food restaurants.

She adds, "The only fruit in some restaurants is camouflaged between two crusts. Most restaurants offer white bread as the default grain. You'll have to work to satisfy your requirement of two cups of vegetables per day with the [poor] quality of salads in most fast-food restaurants."

Strategy #3: Complement restaurant meals with healthy meals at home

Even if you are faced with a slim picking of healthy choices when eating out, choose the healthiest options available and then augment your diet with your own grocery shopping. Even though fresh fruit or vegetable salads and whole grains are becoming more readily offered on menus, you may still need to do some meal planning to get an optimal diet.

Warshaw recommends eating fruit with meals at home, and taking fruit with you to work, school, or errand-running to enjoy during the day. You can also supplement your restaurant dining with healthy snacks, like cut vegetables, peanut butter and baked crackers, hard-cooked eggs, dried fruit and nuts, and whole grain products (for more snack ideas, don't miss Healthy indulgences: Low-calorie satisfying snacks).

In addition, Warshaw suggests checking out these free meal planning tools, which include a free menu planner, exchange lists if you have diabetes, and a food look-up tool that offers nutritional values of most foods based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more healthy eating tips, check out these articles:

Healthy cooking tips for women

How to eat healthy at the salad bar

How to eat healthy at a buffet