Dining out? How to make balanced choices at any restaurant

Restaurant menus can be confusing sometimes. Does the word “crispy” indicate fried or baked foods? Are salads really the best option? Descriptive “fluff” words and hidden preparation methods can be hard to decipher.

Try these decision-making strategies for a simpler and healthier night out.

Avoid hidden saturated fats and oils.

If you’re at a restaurant and craving a lighter meal or snack, avoid choosing items with the terms “breaded,” “crispy” or “golden” — these words usually mean the food has been fried, which can translate to saturated fat and calories.

Instead, opt to have your food baked or grilled. The chefs are usually accommodating and can make those changes easily. Pan-fried options can be another alternative if you really want crispy food on your plate. This preparation method usually means the food absorbs less oils and excess fat. However, if you’re craving those French fries, simply choose the smaller portion or share with friends to make it lighter and more communal!

Drink smart.

It’s common that when someone goes out to eat, especially on vacation or the weekend, they might also order a drink with dinner, like a soda or alcohol beverage. Unknowingly, you could be consuming hundreds of extra calories and high amounts of sugar.

If you want to order drinks, remember moderation and either order one or get a smaller size to satisfy the craving. Or, if you can go without it, choose unsweet or zero-sugar options for soda and teas, or just water. If you’re still craving the sweetness, you can order your drink unsweetened and simply add sugar to your liking. That way, you’re in control.

Related: How to make smarter beverage choices

Ask for salad dressings on the side.

Salads sound like a safe, balanced grab-and-go option, right? Turns out, they might not be! Salad dressings on your veggies can be deceptively high in calories and saturated fat content.

For example, 2 tablespoons of ranch dressing alone can have as many as 6 grams of saturated fat and some flavored vinaigrette dressings are high in sugar and salt. These can really add up and throw off the balance of your salad. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 25 grams for women and no more than 35 grams for men. In addition, no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily intake should come from saturated fat.

So, next time you order a salad, ask for dressing on the side so you can easily adjust the amount you want to put on your veggies to stay in control of your calorie intake. Some restaurants also carry “light” salad dressings, so go ahead and give them a try too! Lastly, don’t forget to look for the added sugar content on food labels — go for the foods that have 10-12g or less of added sugar per serving!

Following these tips can help make a meal out or while traveling healthier and more nutritious while also ensuring you’re still enjoying your food and will be satisfied with your meal. Use any combination of these tips to help keep you on track with your nutrition goals and maximize your nutrition when dining out.

Looking for more ways to eat well and be healthy? A nutrition expert can help.

This article was contributed by dietetic interns Libby Hill, Wendy Snowden, Yanni Liu and Shannon Sullivan.

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Dining out? How to make balanced choices at any restaurant