5 healthy eating habits as we return to eating out at restaurants

There is no doubt that our eating habits changed during the pandemic. One significant difference was a reduction in eating out at restaurants. Restaurant shutdowns, decreased seating capacity and social distancing practices shook up the way people dined in the Los Angeles area for over a year. Many of us longed to sit in a crowded restaurant, surrounded by loved ones, during a year when we were often isolated and at home. It feels like a privilege to be able to return to visiting and supporting our favorite restaurants.

While we missed eating out, cooking at home provided the opportunity to prepare and enjoy healthier meals. Now that coronavirus rules for Los Angeles restaurants are loosening with decreased COVID-19 rates, folks are returning to their pre-pandemic eating out habits. Unfortunately, dining at restaurants is often a recipe for unhealthy eating. How can we resume eating out and continue to focus on our health and fitness goals?

Overall, about 70 percent of fast-food meals and 50 percent of full-service restaurant meals are of poor dietary quality, according to researchers who analyzed the selections of more than 35,000 U.S. adults based on the American Heart Association 2020 Diet Score.

Another potential concern with eating away from home is the likelihood of overeating. We know that restaurant meals tend to be large. Plus, it’s not unusual to order two or more items when dining out. Considering more than 50 percent of American adults eat out three times per week or more, the potential for overeating frequently increases for those who include eating out as a regular part of their lifestyle.

Here are some strategies to help you include dining out as a part of a healthy lifestyle:

1. Make a Plan and Stick to It

If your goal is to make healthier meal choices and avoid overeating when dining out, it will help to plan ahead. Check out the restaurant menu before you go and identify some options that are in alignment with your eating plan. While this isn’t always practical for celebratory occasions and large family gatherings, it can be very helpful for those who eat out frequently and want to make the smartest food choices.

2. Avoid the Upsell

Restaurants are businesses with the end goal of making money. While a small number of eating establishments may have missions tied to nutrition or plant-based eating, most do not. Low-cost add-on items, free soft drinks and buy-one, get-one offers, for example, often facilitate overeating. Be cautious of deals and upgrades that may pack the calories on for cheap.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Self-Advocate

You are your best advocate for your own nutrition. Restaurant staff is often more than willing to accommodate simple requests that can make the meal more healthful, allergy-safe and customized for your needs. Putting the sauce on the side, substituting a side salad in place of french fries or requesting grilled instead of crispy on the chicken are just a few menu requests that can help cut unwanted calories and fat from restaurant meals.

4. Drink Smart

Good choices and portion control go beyond food and should be considered with beverages too. Sugary or alcoholic drinks can rake in a lot of extra calories, leaving us feeling tired and sluggish. Of course, water is always number one, but unsweetened tea or lemonade diluted with sparkling water can be really refreshing for summer.

5. Don’t Forget the Veggies

Whether you are eating at a quick service or full-service restaurant, look for menu options that incorporate vegetables. Ensuring that your restaurant meal includes raw or cooked vegetables, which happen to be loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals, helps make the meal more nutritious and filling. See something delicious-sounding on the menu that’s lacking veggies like pasta or a burger? Don’t fret. Ask whether vegetables like broccoli, asparagus or spinach can be thrown in or added as a side item.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.

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