Nutrition to go

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Dining out tonight? Eating out most often means turning over control of your (we hope) normally healthful diet to some sauce and-cream, cholesterol-and-fat, salt and-sugar-crazed chef. Right?

Not necessarily. These suggestions from the Society for Nutrition Education and other diet experts will help you make fast, informed food choices when you’re dining out. They’re based on U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines, which emphasize eating a variety of foods, maintaining your ideal weight, controlling fat, sodium and sugar intake and eating foods with adequate fiber.

Plan ahead

First, do your homework on how the chefs at various restaurants do their work. Your city or the area you’re traveling in may offer a dining guide prepared by the Chamber of Commerce, area Cooperative Extension Service, local American Heart Association chapter or hospital dietitians. This might list which restaurants offer leaner sauces, fat-free cooking techniques and other healthier preparations.

If restaurant phone numbers are included, you might call ahead to find out how foods are typically prepared. This can eliminate the unfortunate surprise of, for example, going to an oriental buffet and unexpectedly finding that all the food is fried.

Once you’ve selected a place that has both the ambience and attention to health that you want, keep in mind that you aren’t sentenced to just plain fish and salad with a stingy squeeze of lemon juice. Although you know it’s best to choose lean foods like skinned chicken or fish, the finest delights from the kitchen are in your realm as long as you remember the key rule: portion control.

Set your limits

Your waiter or waitress can help with this. “Tell the waiter, ‘I’m controlling the fat (or sodium, or calories) in my diet for health reasons. I can do that if I have less than the normal-size portions,’ ” says Carolyn Lackey, Ph.D., foods and nutrition specialist with the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service. “Most people will be receptive to you.” There are several ways to manage this.

If your heart’s set on a truly decadent dish buttered, breaded, creamed or cheesed ask if it’s offered in half-or smaller-size portions. Or tell the waiter to bring you half of the regular serving anyway. “Some will try to appeal to your economic sensibilities and tell you it’ll cost the same,” Dr. Lackey notes, “but be firm you’re better off.” Or, if it doesn’t trigger the guilt siren, eat only half of a full entrée and have the waiter immediately take away the rest.

Other alternatives: Choose one or two appetizers for your meal. Order items a la carte for less total food. Share desserts.

Order wisely

Dr. Lackey discovered a good way to avoid salad-bar sinning while working late one night in a restaurant. A waiter saw her with papers spread out on the table and asked if he could save her some time by getting a salad for her. He brought a bowl of fresh greens and crisp vegetables.

“I realized I didn’t have to go over and be drawn to the marshmallow puff fruit salad,” she laughs. Now she asks the waiter for this favor often. Here are some other tips.

  • Watch out for menus peppered with cooking terms, especially those in foreign languages that translate into “fat added.” Sauté also means add butter. Tempura means fried in batter. Au gratin indicates the dish has cheese sauce. And even broiling falls from grace when it’s done in butter. If a term is unfamiliar, don’t be embarrassed to ask what it means.
  • Request that no salt be added to anything during preparation.
  • Ask if fried entrées can be broiled instead. This works well with fish, shrimp and chicken.
  • Have your vegetables steamed or microwaved to keep nutrients in, and fat and sodium out.
  • Banish butter at 100 calories per tablespoon and switch to sour cream at 26 calories per tablespoon whenever possible. Better yet, ask the waiter for a small dish of cottage cheese or yogurt as a topping for your baked potato. These have less than one-eighth the calories of butter or margarine, plus calcium and protein.
  • Having salad dressings served on the side is a popular request but did you know you can request the same for sauces and gravies? You can then give your food a flavorful splash instead of the chef giving it a swim.
  • Choose these excellent appetizers: fresh seafood items like oysters on the half shell, seafood cocktail with a lemon wedge, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid paté, caviar, fried hors d’oeuvres or high-fat dips.
  • Gazpacho, vegetable or bean soups get your dining off to a healthier start than do high-sodium broths and consommés or high-fat creamed soups.
  • If you want French fries, order the thicker steak fries instead of skinny fries. They soak up less fat.

Pick out the buzzwords

Learn these additional buzzwords. According to the American Heart Association, avoiding high-fat, high cholesterol, high-sodium dishes, and finding healthful ones, is largely a method of learning a few menu buzzwords. These terms and phrases telegraph low-fat preparation: Steamed, in its own juice, garden-fresh, roasted, poached, in tomato juice and dry boiled (in lemon juice or wine).

Be conscious that certain low cholesterol, low-fat preparations are also higher in sodium.  Watch out for foods that are smoked, pickled or in broth or cocktail sauce.

Avoid foods that are buttered, braised, buttery, fried, in cream sauce, in butter sauce, crispy, pan-fried, creamed in its own gravy, hollandaise, parmesan, in cheese sauce, escalloped, marinated (in oil), stewed and basted.

With a little practice, experimentation and trial and error, there’s no reason that dining out can’t be a healthful experience.

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