How to dine out and not blow your diet

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent


Banish those thoughts of a tap-water-and-plain-lettuce meal while others enjoy bread, wine and even dessert with their entrees. "Food is a wonderful, enjoyable part of our lives," said Cheryl Graffagnino, obesity prevention dietitian for the Columbus Public Health program Healthy Children, Healthy Weights. "It's not all about saying, 'I can't have this' or 'I can't have that.'"

Graffagnino suggests focusing on what to eat instead of what not to eat. Prepare ahead of time. That especially applies if you're dining out with children who might not be on their best behavior while you're trying to scan the menu for something healthy but delicious.

"Look at the menu online, if it's available," said Gina Casagrande, public relations co-chair for the Columbus Dietetic Association. "Take five or 10 minutes before you go, when you have the time to choose exactly what you're going to get."

Another way to prepare is to eat before you leave the house. "I always eat a small snack before I go out to eat," said Casagrande, director of nutrition and health for Imagination to Burn in Plain City.

"Don't skip lunch or go all day without eating before going to a restaurant."

The biggest problem when it comes to eating healthy while dining out, Casagrande said, isn't necessarily what people order, but how much of it they order. Some simple solutions include buying a smaller portion or eating half and taking the rest home.

But let's say you like to splurge. Who doesn't? That's okay, Casagrande said, but it depends on your definition of splurge and how often you do it. Pick and choose your splurges. If your idea of a splurge is a burger, a large serving of fries, a sundae and a beer, that's a pretty big splurge, Casagrande said. "I usually splurge on one thing: an alcoholic beverage, or a dessert, or a couple pieces of bread," Casagrande said. "That's something you can also plan before you go to the restaurant. Plan what you're going to do when the bread comes, or dessert."

Adam Kessler, founder and owner of Fitness Planning Consultants in Dublin, suggests watching portion sizes and striving for visually equal amounts of protein, good carbohydrates and vegetables at each meal.

When you review a restaurant menu, look for key words that generally signal healthy or less healthy options. Steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached and roasted items are often healthier menu choices than those described as fried, crispy, au gratin and blackened, Casagrande said. "People assume fish is going to be healthy, which generally it is, but if it's blackened ... that's an extra layer of grease and salt right there that's just masking all the benefits of the fish." Instead, she said, you could ask for the food to be lightly blackened. Or, just scrape it off.

Some restaurants designate so-called healthy menu choices. Graffagnino said it's generally a good indication of a restaurant's healthier menu items, but each is restaurant- or chain-specific. They're using their own definition of healthy, Casagrande said. "Most restaurants still put so much sodium on their food," Casagrande said. "I would definitely choose those foods, but I wouldn't assume that they're going to be a healthy choice, just healthier."

When in doubt, ask how menu items are seasoned or prepared. Even if you're not in doubt, ask. Otherwise, you might be surprised by the seasonings or other details left out of the menu descriptions. "Some restaurants are really good at writing exactly what's in the salad," Casagrande said. "Make sure you ask what's actually on the salad."

It's okay to request plain vegetables that aren't seasoned or cooked in butter, Kessler said. "A little seasoning isn't going to hurt, but butter or sauces they put them in ... that devalues the nutrients inside of it." Don't be afraid to ask for what you want. "If it's a heavy plate full of pasta and no vegetables, ask them to fill half the plate with pasta and half with vegetables," Graffagnino said.

There might be an additional charge for a substitution, Casagrande said, but there'll always be other options, such as applesauce or cottage cheese instead of French fries. "Most restaurants these days will do whatever you ask," she said. "Even if it doesn't say on the menu, always ask."

As you've probably noticed, it's not always easy to find healthy options on children's menus. Even if there are healthy menu choices, they might refuse to eat it. "America needs to revamp kids' menus in general," Casagrande said. "I always tell parents to make at least one healthy substitution. Get a side of fruit instead of fries ... or, just say no French fries at all. The French fries cost five cents. You're really paying for the burger. In the long run, you're saving your kids' health."

Are certain types of restaurants healthier? Not necessarily. Buffets are a no-no if you're trying to watch your weight, according to Casagrande. "You pay that $15 and you just figure you've got to eat $15 worth of food," she said. Kessler said he avoids fast food restaurants. "More (fast food restaurants) are offering healthier choices," he said. "You've just got to know what they are."

If all else fails, have a cheat day. "If you're exercising appropriately throughout the week and eating more healthy meals (than unhealthy ones), your body can take a good cheat meal," Kessler said. "Your body can handle splurging."

Here are some resources to help you eat healthier the next time you dine out:

  • Dr. Shapiro's Picture Perfect Weight Loss, by Dr. Howard M. Shapiro

Elizabeth Seufer lives in Canal Winchester with her husband and two children. She writes about parenting, health, green living and more for magazines and newspapers around the country.


Gina Casagrande, public relations co-chair for the Columbus Dietetic Association, suggests looking for these key words that generally signal healthy or less healthy options.

Best bets

  • steamed
  • broiled
  • baked
  • grilled
  • poached
  • roasted

Not so much

  • fried
  • crispy
  • au gratin
  • blackened