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Eating out healthily at restaurants and cafés

How to avoid the menu traps and still enjoy a healthy meal out.

Eating out is part of life. Most of us do it and we do it more often than ever before; last year New Zealanders spent $4.8 billion on meals outside the home.

But unhealthy ingredients can hide in innocent-sounding dishes.

Happy, healthy eating out doesn't mean depriving your taste buds or always choosing 'rabbit food'.

There is plenty of food that gives you all the flavour with not too much fat, salt and sugar if you know the tricks and what to ask.

And unlike eating at your Mum's, you don't have to finish everything on your plate!

  1. It's a good idea to order water for the table and drink at least one glass for every glass of wine. This helps to fill you up and slow down your eating – and drinking!
  2. Order plain bread with the butter or preferably olive oil served separately. Garlic, herb or pizza bread has the fat already added.
  3. If the dish you are thinking of ordering comes with a sauce, check if it is creamy. Even tomato sauces are sometimes 'finished' with cream. A 50ml dash of cream (less than ¼ cup) adds an extra five teaspoons of fat to the sauce.
  4. Restaurant meals are often light on vegetables. Order extra vegetables or salad to balance out your plate.
  5. At Asian restaurants, stir-fried dishes with extra vegetables are great. Check if the curry is made with coconut cream, which has lots of artery-clogging saturated fat. With sweet and sour dishes, the meat may be pre-battered and fried which adds extra fat.
  6. If you love dessert, choose an entrée as a main with a side serve of salad or vegetables.
  7. Fresh fruit, sorbet or coffee with biscotti makes a great dessert.
  8. Or if you need a chocolate fix, order a trim hot chocolate – for far less kilojoules than the chocolate cake with cream.

At a buffet we are often tempted to try a bit of everything – we tend to eat more when our brains think there is more to choose from. But this strategy can have the plate overflowing before we're halfway around the table!  Here are some tips for navigating the buffet:

  • Start by choosing a small plate.
  • Scan the buffet before you line up and serve up.  This way you can plan what you are going to eat and don't fill your plate up with foods you are not so keen on.
  • Get your plate proportions right: cover at least half the plate with vegetables and salad BEFORE you move on to other items.
  • Use your eyes. When the food is in front of you – at a buffet, function, food hall or café display cabinet – you can get an idea of its health value by looking at it. Colour, if it is natural, is a good sign – it means you are getting some vegetables or fruit. Shiny is usually a bad sign – it is often the oil or fat glistening in the food case lights.
  • Try and make a rule to visit the buffet once only for each course. There's no rule that says you have to try everything on the table.
  • At functions, loitering around the food table is hazardous to your waist-line. Place a few foods on a plate and move away from the food!
  • If it's serviettes rather than plates, skip the seconds on foods that leave a ring of fat on the serviette.
  • Soda water-based drinks provide that filling fizzy feeling with no kilojoules. And, if it's in a wine glass, you are less likely to get the rolled eyes, "Oh my gosh, how boring" look than if you are clutching a glass of water.
  • If you can, get your drink served in a tall glass rather than a short, fat one. This tricks our brain into thinking we're getting more.
  • When you refill your wine glass, alternate water with wine.
  • Offer to drive sometimes – you're sure to be popular. 
  • Use diet mixers and soft drinks to keep the kilojoules down but not the flavour.
  • Enjoy an alcohol-free punch for a change.  You might find a gem for a future party of your own.
  • Try and put your glass down between sips; you'll drink more slowly.
First published: Oct 2007



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