In the fast-paced world we live in, we often don’t have the time to cook three meals from scratch at home each day, so we let others do the cooking for us, often by eating at restaurants. This makes life easier and more convenient, but it also can set us up for health problems, especially problems related to blood sugar and insulin resistance.
Knowing how to get healthy and balanced meals when eating out, therefore, is a survival skill that all of us need to learn if we want to prevent many health conditions.
Part of the fun of eating out is getting to experience something new or different from the usual routine at home. Sometimes, however, eating out is just convenience because we are busy. In either case, whether you grab a quick meal at a fast food restaurant or enjoy a meal at an upscale restaurant, you cannot just order food blindly.
There are hidden obstacles to healthy eating in every type of restaurant and you need to understand these obstacles and learn to navigate around them so that the fun and convenience of eating out doesn’t sabotage your health. The tips that follow offer you some suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner in basic North American-style and hotel restaurants.
You need to be especially careful when ordering breakfast because refined carbohydrates and foods loaded with sugar loaded abound in the typical breakfast menu. These include:
- Pastries, croissants, and muffins
- Bagels, toast, English muffins, and jam
- Pancakes, waffles, and syrup
- Fruit flavored yogurt
- Granola and other sweetened cereals
To navigate around these obstacles think protein. Here are some choices:
- Eggs are almost always the best choice in the menu; you can have them prepared any way. A good choice will be an omelet that contains vegetables such as spinach, onions, and mushrooms.
- “Huevos rancheros”, Mexican style eggs, made with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and a little cheese.
- If you want some cheese with your eggs try to choose low fat cheeses such as mozzarella, provolone, or Swiss, or just tell the server to go easy on the cheese to avoid getting more fat than protein. By the way, after decades of anti-egg hysteria, it has been found that moderate consumption of eggs doesn’t raise cholesterol and eggs are one of the best sources of low-fat protein around.
- Canadian bacon, lox or smoked salmon are other protein foods that work well when eating out. Remember, however, that some of these foods may contain nitrite and nitrate additives so order them sparingly.
- Fresh fruit is a good complement to your protein breakfast. The best fruits to order, those that are lowest in carbohydrates, are grapefruit, cantaloupe or melon and strawberries. Avoid fruit juices as orange juice. They provide all the sugars from the fruit without the fiber that regulates glucose.
- Slow-cooked oatmeal can be also a good choice for breakfast. Avoid brown sugar or maple syrup for the oatmeal and ask for fresh fruit instead and maybe a few raisins.
For lunch and dinner
If the menu at the restaurant offers mostly burgers and sandwiches, simply order the meat or chicken without a bun and with veggies or a veggie salad as replacement.
There are good varieties of salads you can choose from, ranging from chef salad to chicken Caesar salad. The bad news with restaurant salads is that the dressings offered are similar to those found in the average grocery store; they contain hidden sources of sugar, additives, hydrogenated oils and processed oils rich in omega-6 such as soybean oil.
There are also several ways around these obstacles:
- Ask for olive oil and vinegar or olive oil and lemon wedges. This is the healthiest salad dressing you can order.
- Another option is to ask for dressing “on the side”, use it sparingly, and perhaps thin out the dressing you use with lemon juice or lemon juice and olive oil.
- Do not order a fat-free dressing; the missing fat is usually replaced with extra sugars.
Restaurants typically serve processed carbohydrates in their salads, which you want to avoid. Here are a few tips to stay away from them:
- Order your salad without the croutons
- At salad bars avoid salads that are rich in carbohydrates such as pasta salad, macaroni salad, and potato salad.
- If something you order comes with one of these salads ask the server to replace it with veggies or a vegetable salad.
- When you order your lunch or dinner, ask your server not to bring bread to the table; this way you won’t be tempted to eat it.
- Is you are hungry while waiting for your meal or while watching others eating bread at your table, nibble a few nuts. Make a habit of carry a few nuts in your bag or briefcase when you go to a restaurant.
As for the main entrée, you can get some type of chicken, or meat with veggies and a veggie salad. Avoid entrees that come with glazes, barbecue sauces, fruit sauces, honey-based sauces, or the “special”, “sweet” or “secret” sauce. The main ingredient in these types of sauces is usually sugar.
A great entrée to order is fresh fish. If you don’t like to cook it at home or you don’t know how, treating yourself to fish when eating out it is a way to get something different, delicious, and healthy. Remember that fish is the best source of omega 3 fats and just once a week helps lower the risk of a heart attack.
When it comes to dessert, you need to get into the habit of saying “NO”. It may be difficult at first, but once you get into the habit, it becomes easier and easier.
Something to keep in mind is that all desserts are full of refined sugars and many other refined carbohydrates, and they are often high in fat, a very dangerous combination when it comes to health problems related to blood sugar and insulin resistance. You definitely need to get out of the habit of thinking you need to finish off your meal with a dessert.
One option for dessert could be to order a bowl of berries. Ordering a fruit salad could be also complicated because some fruits have too much sugar and when eaten with protein will sit in your stomach, along with the rest of the food, and ferment it.
Having said that, you don’t have to abide by the rules all the time. If you feel a strong craving for dessert, order one that is not overly sweet. It is human nature to yearn for things we can’t have, so don’t restrict yourself to the point where you end up bingeing on sugar at a later time.