By Christy Tapocsi, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Whether it’s due to busyness or just plain enjoyment, we often find ourselves dining out. If we’re not careful, this habit can derail our healthy goals. But, it doesn’t have to!

Eating out can absolutely fit into a healthy lifestyle. We just need to equip ourselves to make smart choices.

Today, I am sharing six tips to help you navigate any restaurant's menu.

1. Look past the dish names to the descriptions.

The title of anything—a food item, movie, song, book—is meant to catch your attention. But, don't stop at the enticing meal names. Focus on the dish descriptions to find the info you need.

For example, Kickin' Chicken Southwest Salad sounds inviting, and since it's a salad, you might think it's all healthy. The description says it has lettuce, tomatoes, crispy chicken, fried tortilla strips, two kinds of cheese, and guacamole with a spicy ranch dressing. This tells you that the majority of toppings are high in calories and fat. You may still choose to order the salad, but now you will know to limit your fat and calorie intake in subsequent meals and snacks.

2. Learn the jargon.

Now that you are reading the menu descriptions, make sure that you also understand what they’re saying. In the example above, the chicken is described as crispy. This is another way of saying it's breaded and, most likely, fried. Below, I've created a short menu cheat sheet. For more in-depth info, see this glossary

  • Typically made with butter, cream/milk, and/or cheese: Au gratin, alfredo, béarnaise, beurre blanc, béchamel, creamed, hollandaise and velouté
  • Other words for "fried": Battered, breaded and crispy
  • Usually lower in fat and calories due to cooking with little or no oil/butter: Grilled, baked, poached, broiled, roasted, steamed, stir-fried and lightly sautéed

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Not sure what something on the menu means or how an item is prepared? Ask! The wait staff is there to help. Ask them for tasty, healthy recommendations.

Also, don't hesitate to inquire about substitutions. Can they serve the dish grilled instead of fried? Can the side of fries be swapped out for a salad? If the sandwich comes on white bread, can they substitute whole wheat?

4. Order food you actually enjoy.

As a Registered Dietitian, I often hear people say that they "should" order that or "should" eat this. I encourage you to determine the healthier foods that you like. Eat those, and don't eat the ones that you don’t like. Forcing yourself on a unappetizing diet is not sustainable. With that being said...

5. Dare to try something new.

Eating out is a great way to explore new foods, flavors and cultures. Order something off the menu that you are curious about. Ask the wait staff to describe how it tastes. I also encourage you to order something that you typically don't make at home. Dining out is a great way to inspire your taste buds and come away with new ideas for what you can learn to cook.

6. Slow down and listen to your body.

Restaurant portions seem to be getting bigger and bigger. You don't have to clean your plate! Also, just because a meal comes with sides or the desserts are discounted, it doesn't mean you have to order them. Tune in to your body, and listen for its signals.

It takes the stomach about 20 minutes to communicate to the brain that it's full. Pretty cool, huh? So, eat slow and enjoy the company you are with. As Mary Poppins said, "Enough is as good as a feast!"

I hope these tips help you stay on your healthy track this year and have a little fun! 

Establish Healthy Habits with the Y

Ready for a healthier eating approach? Get more information on YMCA memberships and health and fitness programs offered at your local YMCA center near you. Let us partner with you in reaching your healthy living goals!