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How to Choose a Healthy Meal from a Restaurant Menu

September 10th, 2009

healthy-restaurant-menu-choices.jpgFeeling overwhelmed by the myriad choices on a restaurant menu is not uncommon, especially when trying to choose a healthy and nutritious meal. Menus are designed to be enticing, and many do not include nutritional information unless mandated by law. Understanding the following cooking concepts will help you make wise decisions when choosing a meal from a restaurant.

Who doesn’t love fried foods, or better yet, fried foods dripping in cream gravy? These sure may taste good but you’re not doing your body any favors by eating them. The following are a few keywords that you should look for on a menu so that you can avoid them if selecting a nutritious meal is your goal.

Cream Sauce

A towering bowl of pasta with all sorts of wonderful ingredients in it, then smothered with a decadent cream sauce may sound like heaven or the perfect meal, but lurking in and around those noodles is a whole pile of fat that your body won’t thank you for. A bowl of pasta with cream sauce can have upwards of a full cup of cream in it, and many times closer to 2 cups. At 44 grams of fat per cup of cream, can you afford to have your full day’s worth of fat in one meal?

Sautéed

Sautéing is a fancy word for pan frying something in butter or oil. While among the favorites of many diners, sautéed meats and vegetables may taste fantastic but the average serving has upwards of 2 tablespoons of oil and butter in it which adds up to more than 25 grams of fat. And that lovely velvety sauce that comes with your sautéed chicken? Eat it sparingly as it’s made with the leftover oil and butter from sautéing your chicken.

Breaded or Fried

Offering the best of both worlds, delicious and crunchy breaded and fried foods may taste great but they are so very bad for you. While it’s true that many restaurants are opting for healthier frying oils with no trans-fats, the reality is that fried foods will retain some of that reused frying oil, and it’s going to land right on your thighs.

au Gratin

A fancy French word for ‘with cheese’, au gratin has been Americanized to mean ‘dripping with cheese and sometimes even cream.’ While cheese can be a wonderful accompaniment to many dishes, it should be used sparingly or even ask for it on the side. High in fat and sodium, cheese can turn an otherwise healthy dish into a nutritional nightmare.

This sluggish economy is good for diners in one respect, in that restaurants are having to bow to consumer pressures to offer reasonably sized meals and to incorporate healthier choices on their menus, even if they continue to resist publishing full nutritional data. Many restaurants are offering choices that are heart healthy, and these are indicated by a tiny heart symbol next to the meal description. If you’re still lost while looking at that menu, the following terms are ones to watch for as they typically describe meals that are going to be more nutritional.

Grilled

Vegetables and meats that have been grilled are going to be a good option while dining out. Full flavored and often marinated prior to cooking, grilling doesn’t add excess fats or calories during the cooking process. Grilled seafood, meats, and vegetables are fantastic on their own, so avoid any sauces that may be served with them.

Steamed or Poached

Steaming isn’t the bland cooking process that it once was. A good chef will use a multitude of herbs and other aromatics to enliven steamed foods. Steamed vegetables and meats are a fantastic choice while eating Asian foods, as you can avoid excess sodium and fats that usually come with stir frying.

Poaching is a cooking method whereby foods are submerged in flavorful liquids and very slowly cooked. The result is moist and tender meats which are infused with flavors, and devoid of unnecessary fats and other cooking oils. Just beware any sauces that are served with the poached foods as these can be fat and calorie traps.

Baked, Smoked, or Roasted

Any of these are great preparations for meats. When prepared properly, smoked meat doesn’t need any additional sauce, not even barbeque sauce. Roasted and baked meats are also great solo, but are equally good with gravy. Just ask for the gravy on the side and inquire if the gravy is made in house or from a mix. Gravies that are made from commercial mixes tend to be very high in sodium, so avoid those if possible.

While most restaurants are trying to keep up with customer demand for more nutritious menu offerings, the reality is that many chains are reluctant to release nutritional data unless absolutely necessary. In addition, your waiter is often undertrained and will be reluctant to ‘go and ask’ for more information on a meal. Armed with some basic knowledge of food preparations, you can safely navigate that menu so you don’t regret your meal in the morning!


Jennifer Allen is a professional writer and chef who has now managed to achieve a total of 36 article submissions and 24 sales at Constant Content.


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