By Lorna Williams
The fast-paced lifestyle that many of us lead, finds more and more of us eating more and more meals away from home. A busy schedule that keeps you on-the-go makes it difficult to find time to eat healthy on a daily basis. It is even more challenging to eat healthy while you are away from home, or while traveling for business or pleasure. For some, eating out is a special treat and for others, it is a way of life. Over the past 30 years, eating out has become increasingly popular for Americans. It has been estimated that half of America’s food dollars are now being spent on food away from home (USDA and National Restaurant Association). We are a mobile nation – constantly on the move. This fact presents special challenges to those who wish to control their weight or even for those who just want to eat healthy and nutritious food. It is much easier to control what and how much you eat at your own home and in your own kitchen. But on business trips, while commuting, in your office, on vacation, dining out for pleasure, or at a sporting event or concert, it can be a challenge.
There may be a correlation between the increased frequency of eating out and the increase in obesity rates in the United States. Foods that are prepared at home tend to be healthier than foods eaten away from home. Conversely, foods eaten away from home tend to be higher in fat and saturated fat, calories, and sodium. They also tend to be lower in fiber, calcium and iron than foods prepared at home. It can be difficult to follow the dietary guidelines when eating out. Food is available everywhere we go—schools, businesses, drugstores, convenience stores, bookstores, supermarkets, vending machines, sports and cultural events and recreation centers. It is possible, however, to make healthy food choices everywhere you go. With planning and forethought, and a little extra effort, eating out can be both healthy and enjoyable. Following are some tips to help you make wise selections when you find yourself dining away from home.
- Start the day in a healthy way. When you start the day with a healthy breakfast, you are more likely to eat well through the day. Whether eating breakfast at home or on the road, learn to make smart choices. Make low-fat choices that include lean protein choices (maybe a low-fat smoothie). Another good choice would be hot oatmeal with raisins and/or nuts. If you eat eggs select a healthy preparation method such as poaching for less fat.
- If traveling, remember to travel light. Eat foods that are easy to digest when traveling. It is more difficult to digest foods when your daily routine is altered. You can compensate for this by making lighter food choices. Choose soups and salads to make sure you get the fiber and vegetables you need.
- If possible, eat your main meal at lunch and a light meal at dinner. This is a healthier way to eat whether at home or traveling.
- Keep you body hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Keep a water bottle with you so you have easy access to drink it. This will also help you to control portions when eating at restaurants.
- Expand your choices. Choose restaurants with large menus. The greater the number of menu items, the more likely you will be to have healthy options. Be adventurous and try new foods prepared in a nutritious way. Be sure to ask your server in advance about how the food is prepared. Many restaurants are willing to prepare foods according to your specifications if you ask them to. Also, look for vegetarian options on the menu. Even some fast food restaurants are now offering vegetarian options which may be lower in fat and calories. Also look for whole grain options that may be available.
- Choose baked, grilled, broiled, or steamed options over fried foods. Select wraps and limit condiments – especially those that are mayonnaise based.
- For a quick breakfast or lunch when traveling, look for ready to drink soy shakes that you can be kept in a cooler or hotel refrigerator. Dried fruits, nuts, seeds, trail mix and protein bars travel well and are good for healthy snacks on the road. Seek out the local farmer’s market or roadside stands for fresh fruits to snack on.
- Fast food restaurants are everywhere. The menu items offered at these restaurants tend to be higher in fat, calories and sodium than other restaurant food. However, more and more fast-food restaurants are offering healthy options. Learn which restaurants offer the healthiest choices. Look at the whole menu to see the variety available to you. Ask for nutrition information if it is not posted. Watch out for super-sized items as they may add more fat and calories. When you do eat a fast-food meal, try to balance the rest of the day with healthier food choices. Choose fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grain breads and low fat dairy products at your other meals.
- Choose salad as a side dish rather than French fries or other high-fat items.
- Don’t overeat just because you are dining out. Share your meal with someone in your group, ask the waiter to pack half of your meal in a carry out box before bringing it to the table, or ask for lunch size or half-size portions. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets as these tend to promote overeating.
- No matter what you eat or where you eat, pay attention to portion sizes. Learn what standard serving sizes are and try to follow them.
- A serving of meat is like the palm of your hand.
- A serving of green salad is like an open cupped hand.
- A serving of fruit or vegetable is like a closed cupped hand.
- A serving of baked potato is like your fist.
- A serving of cheese is like your pointer and index fingers together.
- A serving of chips or pretzels is like two (small) handfuls.
- A serving of salad dressing is like your thumb.
- Limit sugar intake by drinking water or other unsweetened beverages with your meal (try to avoid sodas). Also, choose fruit for dessert as opposed to fat and calorie-laden extravaganzas.
- Enjoy all dressings and condiments on the side so you can control the amount on your food.
- Don’t forget to exercise. After eating a meal away from home, spend a few minutes exercising (riding the stationary bike or walking on the treadmill, etc.) to help you digest your meal. This will help you to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed full of energy.
Eating out has become the American way of life – whether due to necessity, business, or pleasure. You don’t need to stop eating out in an effort to consume healthy foods. It is possible to eat healthy away from home, even at fast-food restaurants. You must however, learn to be choosy. Planning – where you will eat, what you will eat, and how much you will eat – is the key. Make wise choices from the menu options available and focus on portion control. By doing so, you can enjoy the benefits and pleasure of dining out while maintaining your health and vitality.