Keeping the balance: tips on eating well when eating out by Dietitian Helen Bond

Posted 09 November 2018

If you’re a regular at the local coffee shop after the school drop off, partial to grabbing a sandwich at lunchtime with work friends or enjoy a take-away with the family at the weekend, you may well be familiar with the challenge of maintaining a balanced diet when eating food prepared outside of the home.

As a dietitian and passionate foodie, I don’t want to want to take the fun out of eating out – after all, it’s one of life’s great pleasures. However, there are some simple steps we can take to help us maintain a balanced diet when eating out without compromising on taste or enjoyment.

So, here are my tips:

  1. Check out the nutritional information: Lots of restaurants, fast food outlets and coffee houses are now giving nutritional information online (if you have time to check and compare options before heading out!), and on menus and displays in-store to help you make your food and drink choices.
  2. Think about the balance of the meal as a whole: Two courses are enough for some people, but if you plan to have a starter and a dessert, choose a lighter main meal or consider having a starter-size portion, with a side order of steamed vegetables or salad. Pop the chocolates that come with your coffee, in your bag for another day.
  3. Keep in mind portion size: When eating out, it can be tempting to over-indulge particularly when offered larger sized portions. Some restaurants can also be over generous with serving sizes so, before you order, look around the restaurant to see the sizes of the meals. If the mains look big, consider splitting it or request a starter-size serving as your main course.
  4. Don’t skip meals: On days when you know you’ll be eating out, don’t miss meals for fear of overdoing your daily calorie intake. If you’re hungry, you’re more likely to make impulsive decisions and over-order.
  5. Go easy on the nibbles: However appetising, try not to mindlessly pick at the complementary nibbles (olives, capers, crisps, peanuts) and bread rolls before your meal arrives – as those extra calories will soon add up.
  6. Ask your waiter: Don’t be afraid to ask whether the chef will adapt dishes and change ingredients – like swapping chips for some boiled new potatoes, egg fried rice for steamed rice, leaving the butter curls off your veggies or requesting salt not to be added to your meal during cooking.
  7. Choose wisely: As a rough rule of thumb, pick wholegrain or higher fibre breads over white; choose vegetable and tomato-based sauces rather than cheesy or creamy ones; enjoy vinegar and citrus based salad dressings rather than oily ones, and opt for dishes that have been grilled, baked, poached, steamed or stir-fried.
  8. Beware of added extras: Don’t be tempted to order extras such as chips or garlic bread with your main course, a croissant with your morning latte or biscuits with your cup of tea.
  9. Check out the ingredients: You never quite know what’s gone into your food when eating out, and even healthy-sounding dishes can contain high amounts of calories and fat. Look past the name on the menu and check out the ingredients mentioned in the description – if a salad contains lots of cheese, bacon, croutons, olives and caesar dressing, than it could have more calories and fat than some of the other menu options.
  10. Don’t fall for the supersized option: Be careful of meal deals that upsize your food and drink. We all love a bargain, but larger helpings will quickly increase the calorie content of your meal. Instead, choose the regular size and add healthier sides, such as vegetables sticks, fruit bags or side salads to fill you up and get you on your way to your 5-A-Day.
  11. Be mindful: Take your time to appreciate what you’re eating – the taste, smell and texture of the food. It not only adds to the eating out experience, but it will put you in a better position to take control of what, and how much you’re eating.
  12. Take a break: Leave a little time for your food to digest before you order a dessert. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register that you’ve eaten enough.
  13. Be aware of liquid calories: Not only does alcohol contains lots of calories (7 calories per gram), it increases your appetite and weakens your willpower, too. If you are going to drink, finish each drink before you have a top-up so you can gauge the amount you’re drinking and make sure you stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.

So, there you have my hints and tips for keeping the balance when eating and drinking out. I hope that these tips show that you can enjoy restaurant or café-drinks and treats whilst at the same time sticking to your healthy eating principals.

For other tips to help you make informed choices on your family’s diet, please read my other blogs – tips on food and drink labelling made easy and understanding calories – or watch my other videos.