It’s a funny thing how people react when they find out you’re a dietitian. Some people immediately jump to their list of questions, and others play it cool and try to keep them close to the vest - but inevitably the questions come out. I don’t mind - I honestly enjoy it a little bit! There are several common questions that almost always appear, and maybe we’ll have a whole blog post on that one day, but today we’re gonna focus on just one.
People ask us all the time what to order when they eat out, and how in the world we can stay on track when we eat away from home. I think there’s some myth that we have this magic code to a restaurant menu or something. I wish this were the case because how freakin’ cool would that be?!? But...we don’t :)
So, I thought it could be helpful to get inside a dietitian’s mind for a bit and see how we (or at least this dietitian) approach making food choices. Before we start, where are all my other late 80’s babies at?! Do you remember the Magic School Bus? I can’t help but picture that I’m Mrs. Frizzle and y’all are loaded up into a tiny magic school bus and about to travel up my nose and into my brain. Too much?
If you have no clue what I’m talking about, you officially now think I’m even more of a weirdo and I feel super old. If you’re curious, you can check out our favorite episode from childhood HERE. Spoiler alert - it’s about the digestive system. Who’s surprised? Let’s continue.
So the first thing I try to decide, partially out of necessity because they ask so quickly, is what I want to drink with my meal. As you’ve probably guessed, my go-to is water. I drink a lot of liquid with my meals, so this tends to be my best bet. Plus, it’s free - which makes my budget savvy heart happy! There are times however, that I want some flavor with my meal. My next favorite option is half ‘n’ half tea (half sweet, half unsweet). Typically sweet tea is wayyyyy too sweet and unsweet...well, I’m southern. Unsweet may as well be a sin. Half ‘n’ half tends to be just right! Occasionally I’ll order a flavored lemonade or soda (gasp). On those occasions, I make sure to order a water as well and skip on refills of the sweetened beverage. This gives me the taste of what I want, but I don’t fill up on liquid sugar and calories before my meal arrives. Gotta leave plenty of room in the tummy for the good stuff!
Next step...and this is an important one folks so pay attention...I ask myself “what do you feel like eating today?”. What a novel idea right? I think so many people get so caught up in what they think they “should” be ordering that they don’t take stock of what they actually want to eat. What I want to eat drives the rest of my decisions. See why this step is so important? :)
Then, I like to give the whole menu a quick once over to survey my options. If you have a good idea of your choices, it’s much easier to narrow down and build from there.
Once I have an idea of the direction I’m going, I start to think through how to maximize the nutrient value of my meal. Get the most bang for my buck if you will. For this, think veggies and COLOR. There is nothing I love more than a restaurant that has a ton of veggie and side options!
Before fully settling in my mind, I do a quick puzzle test. Remember the blog post where we talked about our MyPlate Puzzle Method? If not, you can check out that post HERE.
I think through what I plan to order, and quickly take stock of which puzzle pieces I’ve hit.
Reminder: shoot for at least 2 puzzle pieces for a snack, and at least 3 for a meal!
I always try to come up with a Plan A and a Plan B - just in case they tell me they’re out of something, or my initial plan doesn’t work for any reason. I’ve personally found that if I don’t have a Plan B and this happens, I for some reason feel an immense amount of pressure to make a quick decision (why? I don’t know!) and will pick something less than optimal in a pinch.
Alright. Decisions have been made and we’re ready to roll! Just a couple more tips to keep in mind when you’re ordering.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! I don’t know why people seem so skittish about asking questions at restaurants. This is quite literally what waiters and waitresses are there for. If they don’t know the answer - someone in the restaurant does and they can find out! I waited tables for years in high school and college and I promise it’s not an inconvenience. Just remember to be kind :) If you want to see if you can change out an item..ask! Want to know if they can cook something just a little bit different for you..ask! Wish you could order something off the kids or senior menu but don’t fit the “requirements”...ask! The only thing they can say is no. No harm, no foul.
Always request sauces, dressings, & condiments on the side. Okay, so it might just be me, but I don’t like things overly saucy. Just me? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE sauces, dips, dressings, etc. but I don’t want my food swimming in them. Rather than trying to explain just how much I want (imagine the whole “not a little, not a lot, somewhere in the middle” scenario), I just ask for them to be served on the side. This way, I’m in control of exactly how much I use and where I put it. If I order a salad, I also like to dip my fork in dressing before every bite instead of pouring it directly on my salad. This gives you the perfect ratio of dressing to goodness!!
And quite possibly the biggest tip I can offer is to STOP overthinking every tiny detail and ENJOY your food and the experience. Every meal you have doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect. If you enjoy it, make an effort to include a wide variety of foods (especially fruits and veggies), and stay in touch with the cues your body sends to not overstuff yourself at every meal - you’re winning!
All of that being said, if you are eating out often, it’s not a bad idea to know how to pick out your better options!
Know your terms. Opt for items that are grilled, baked, broiled or steamed instead of fried, stuffed, scalloped and smothered. Sauteed and stir-fried can be good options as well, depending on the sauces, oils and liquids used. Remember - don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Supercharge a Salad. Salads are a great way to get in several servings of veggies in one sitting and can be made into a meal by adding a good protein source. Salmon, steak, grilled chicken and beans are great proteins to add in. Even if there isn’t a protein-rich salad outlined on the menu - ask! Often you can get a salmon fillet, grilled chicken breast, or small steak on the side for just a few dollars to add to your salad. Voila!
Skip or Split. Don’t feel pressured to order an appetizer or dessert, or maybe even both! If you do wish to order one or both of these, split them with a friend. That way you get a taste of each, but won’t go overboard.
Be Savvy With Your Sides. Choose sides wisely. Fries are sooooo good - but aren’t necessarily something you need every day! Try shaking things up by replace your fries with a side of roasted veggies, a baked sweet potato, or a side of fruit.
Mind Your Portions. It is no secret that restaurant portions are HUGE and seem to only get larger. Most portions we are served in restaurants (although there are exceptions out there) are appropriate for at least 2 portions, if not more. Splitting meals is a great option if you happen to be dining with someone who is game! If not, just remember to ask for a to-go box when they bring your meal. Go ahead and split your meal in half and pack one half away to take home. That way you’ll keep your portion in check AND have a meal for later! Win-Win.