Healthy Restaurant Dining

Dining out is a necessity for many families. Finding time to cook between soccer practice and the junior high band concert is impossible. Parents working overtime at their jobs ease their time crunch by bringing take out home for dinner. It’s a way to cope with hectic schedules, yes, but families also dine out to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, good report cards and raises.

Another phenomenon has arisen alongside the increased number of meals eaten out: obesity of children, teens and adults is continuing to climb. There is no need for the two to go hand-in-hand, whether picking up fast food or sitting down to a four-course meal served by tuxedo-clad waitstaff, there are ways to keep to a healthy diet.

1. Limit or avoid visits to fast food restaurants.

The temptation to pick up burgers and fries once in a while isn’t inherently bad; it’s the size of what you order, and the frequency of visits, that make or break a healthy eating plan. If you cannot or do not wish to, avoid fast food, keep visits to once a week at most. Order the smallest size fries as a treat, ignore the ice cream or shakes, and order a simple one-patty burger, or grilled chicken sandwich. If you have very active teens who need more sustenance, encourage them to add a salad to their small sandwich and kid-sized fries. Choose milk, not soft drinks, for beverages. Ordering sandwiches or subs from a deli can be much healthier when you limit yourself to one cheese or meat and load up on the veggies. Choose mustard over mayo and skip the chips.

2. Read restaurants menus for hints on what to order, and make friends with the staff.

Chefs tempt us through the restaurant menus. Look for hidden fats and calories. Avoid buttery hollandaise and béarnaise sauces, garlic and oil on pasta, cream or cheese sauces on beef, vegetables or eggs. While they all add flavor, they all hike the calories of each entree. Choose entrees that rely on fruit coulis, wine reductions, and mushroom sauce made with beef juices. These sauces pack taste without breaking down your resolutions to eat well. Family restaurants may even have notations by the menu items identifying low-fat, or hearth healthy meals. More expensive restaurants have better educated staffs that can answer your questions about sauces, portion sizes and side dishes. Make friends with your waiter who will be your sole advocate in the kitchen when you wish to have substitutions or specially prepared food served to your table. Encourage your children to order their entrees from the appetizer menu: steamed clams, shrimp cocktail, vegetable and dip platters, cheese and fruit plates, big salads (dressing on the side, please) and bowls of bean soup or vegetable stew are filling and healthful.

3. Skip the fried foods. This sounds obvious but can be tricky.

Even when you order a seafood platter to be broiled, it will arrive with a broiled fish fillet but breaded and fried shrimps, scallops and clams. Stopping in for lunch? Ask if the chips that come with every sandwich, or the fries that come with each burger can be substituted with a small side salad, applesauce or raw vegetables. An alternative is to hold the chips on two out of three lunches and share the pile of chips between three people.

4. Cut the fat and satisfy craving for flavor.

Rotisserie chicken, prime rib served au jus, slow pit-cooked pork and roasted turkey are all moist, tender meats with the flavor of herbs infused throughout. Where’s the fat? Not here. Look for non-meat entrees: chile stuffed with cheese and baked in an egg batter, eggplant, grains cooked in vegetable broth and mixed with steamed vegetables, smoked tofu on whole grain bread, and fruit salads provide solid nutrition for growing children and are becoming mainstream at family restaurants.

5. Order from children’s menus.

Ask questions first, though, for many of the items on children’s menus are not made in the kitchen. Instead they come prepared from the restaurant supplier. A regular diet of individual cheese pizzas, chicken tenders, and fried mozzarella sticks are not the healthiest choice for children. The pluses of children’s menu are small servings, low prices and food children adore. Embrace the children’s menu if you can order dishes like spaghetti with marinara sauce, small hamburger patty, stir fry vegetables or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

6. Healthier portions for everybody:share with your child.

It’s worth an extra plate fee to be able to cut back on your own over-sized entree and give a portion to your child. It’s also a wonderful way for you to introduce your favorite foods to your children. If this doesn’t appeal to you, and your child still wants a full-sized entree (or if they are teens and can eat a full-sized entree) you can cut the entree in half, and as for a take-home box to keep the food for another meal.

7. Explore ethnic restaurants.

Continental cuisine, down home Southern cooking, roadside barbecue pits, and hot dogs at the ball games have their delicious place in our culture, but if you are looking for an experience in dining to share with your family that won’t harm their health, go ethnic. Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African restaurants provide highly seasoned dishes for those craving flavor. Curried lentils, roasted vegetables, cooling yogurt sauces, meats used sparingly to accent entrees, sharp cheese and lots of vegetables – all promise exciting flavor and a healthy alternative.

8. Celebrating? Break your healthy rules once in a while, and your children won’t feel deprived.

Go ahead and splurge, but try to limit each person to two courses, three if one is a salad.. Pay attention to what is in each course. A creamy seafood bisque for an appetizer plus a salad with dressing on the side and roasted chicken with steamed vegetables is a better choice than fried vegetables, Chicken Parmesan with butter garlic pasta and chocolate-fudge layer cake. If planning on a dessert, skip the appetizer (unless someone wants the appetizer as their main dish) and suggest splitting desserts.

9. Plan ahead before leaving home to go to any restaurant.

If your destination is the local diner and you know what is on the menu, discuss what the children might order and steer them toward a ham and cheese on rye with lettuce and tomato or a vegetable omelette. If it is a new restaurant and you are not sure what will be available, investigate the restaurant’s website, or call the restaurant and ask them to either fax a copy of the menu or to answer your questions about healthy options on their menu.

10. Go vegetarian! What a great idea.

Vegetarian children enjoy healthful meals easily when dining out. Most cuisines have vegetarian specialties; ovo-lacto vegetarians, vegetarians that eat dairy and eggs, have a wider variety to choose from. Warming pintos and rice topped with cheese and lettuce, spicy tofu and kidney bean chile with cornbread, vegetable burgers loaded with fresh lettuce and tomatoes, bean cassoulets seasoned with fresh herbs and colored with red peppers and orange carrots, eggplant parmesan, and pepper-squash ratatouille.

Entering the ‘drive-thru’ lane or being greeted by a formal maitre d’ need not create a feeling of defeat when it comes to your children’s healthy eating. Stay informed, know what to look for on menus and sharing portions will keep you and your family healthy despite time pressures and family celebration obligations. See our healthy recipes here.