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Restaurant food: How to decode the menu

Focused on Health - August 2013

By Mary Jane Schier

About 130 million Americans will eat out on any given day this year. While dining out shouldn’t mean “pigging out,” picking a salad over cheese fries can sometimes be difficult.

menu silverwareThe American Cancer Society says that making good dietary choices is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risks for cancer. But nutritional experts say many of us don’t make good dining choices aimed at preventing cancer and other costly, life-shortening diseases.

Low-cost food can create high-cost problems

Even people who prepare healthy food at home often seem bashful – or bewildered – about ordering low-fat meals in a restaurant or the drive-through.

With more restaurants and fast-food chains offering super-sized meals, many people are overeating. This is especially true of foods high in fat, sugar and salt. These habits can prove more expensive in the long run because they can actually cause costly health problems, including cancer.

Sally Scroggs, a nutrition expert in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, suggests several basic strategies for eating out that will help you steer clear of diet-sabotaging menu items.

READ ALSO: Your restaurant guide and journal

1.  Balance your daily calorie budget

restaurant womanThink about what, and how much, food you eat during an entire day. If you’re heading to a fabulous, flatbread pizza place in the evening, eat a low-calorie breakfast and lunch packed with fruits and vegetables. This way, you won’t blow your calorie budget if you eat a heavier meal in the evening. 

You also don’t want to get to the restaurant starving. Eat a piece of fruit before you go out. It will help you control your portion size. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your order, especially if you need to lose weight. Just remember, a veggie side dish does not make a fatty entrée healthier.

2.  Ask for nutritional details

Don’t be afraid to seek out nutrition information about menu items. Restaurants know they need satisfied customers. Just remember not all restaurants share accurate information on each dish. Be smart and if you’re unsure about the numbers, stick to baked, grilled or broiled dishes loaded with vegetables.

3.  Don’t be fooled by attractive menus

Don’t decide what to eat based on the mouthwatering photo highlighted on the menu. Entrees never look as good on the table as they do in the picture. Be strong and stick to the menu item you know is best for you.

Watch out for tempting menu items with names such as “Triple Chocolate Volcano.” Triple the size or taste of a dish, and you’ll eat three times the average number of calories.

4.  Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets

Indulging in unlimited amounts of food at all-you-can-eat buffets is no bargain! But if you do find yourself staring at an unlimited buffet feast, select modest portions of healthy foods to fill one plate. Resist the temptation to return for seconds.  

Use this plan-of-attack when filling your plate:

  • Load your plate with extra veggies and fruit first
  • Choose chicken or fish entrees instead of beef or pork
  • Stay away from anything fried or battered

5.  Customize your meal

menu coupleRequest that foods be prepared and served to your personal specifications.

  • Ask for entrees to be broiled, baked or grilled without added fats, such as oil and butter.
  • Request that low-calorie salad dressings, like those made with oil and vinegar instead of cream, be served on the side.
  • Say no to sour cream and bacon.
  • Signal the waiter to remove baskets of chips or bread to avoid nibbling.
  • Drink water or unsweetened beverages instead of soda or alcoholic beverages.
  • Order fruit or yogurt for dessert.

6.  Share entrees or get to-go boxes

Most restaurants today serve menu items two to three times as big as they should be. If you’re confronted with huge portions at any restaurant, share an entrée with your fellow diner or request a to-go box and pack up half of your meal before you even start eating.  

“Being prepared is a must when eating out,” Scroggs says. “You can eat a healthy meal at almost any restaurant if you do it right!”

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center