“Let’s Eat Out Tonight”

Inns providing food along with a place to curl up for the night have undoubtedly existed for as long as people have been traveling in large enough numbers to justify the effort.  Establishments where people go for better or fancier food than they eat at home, however, or even just for gastronomic variety, are a more recent phenomenon.  Some historians trace the rise of the modern restaurant to the French Revolution, when cooks from households of the nobility suddenly found themselves out of a job. The now-normative two-career family has undoubtedly given restaurants a further boost by adding the elements of time and convenience to the equation.

Whether it’s a family outing, date night for the parents, part of a courtship ritual, a chance to get together with friends, or just a quick bite on the go, three quarters of Americans now eat out at least once a week.  Thus, restaurants are part of our regular nutritional landscape, not just an occasional splurge.

For quitters trying to control postcessation weight gain in the context of an increase in appetite, restaurants present a special challenge. Although you don’t have to eat in a restaurant to encounter large portion sizes, it definitely helps. According to one study, the average size of a hamburger is nearly 25% larger than in was 1977, and soft drinks 50% larger. Studies have repeatedly shown that people eat more when confronted with larger portions. And to make matters worse, your meal may be even more calorie-dense than it looks:  For example, a portion of Spaghetti & Meatballs at Macaroni Grill contains a whopping 2,270 calories, 56 grams of saturated fat, and 5,330 mg of sodium.

Eating more than you want, need, or intend to eat is not value for money.  Here are a few little tricks that can help you keep your favorite restaurant from supersizing you:

  • Don’t wait till the end of your meal to request a doggie bag. Ask your waiter to bring one along with your entrée and put half your food in it before you even start.  (I’m sometimes asked if I’ve ever really done this.  The answer is yes, many times, and no one has ever given me grief about it.)
  • As for a glass of water in addition to, or instead of, a glass of wine.
  • Order two or three appetizers instead of an entrée.
  • Skip the bread and start with a salad.  Studies have shown that eating a garden salad before the main course cuts down on overall caloric intake.  But beware, the dressing can undo all your good work.  Two tablespoons of Ken’s Steak House Creamy Caesar, for example, adds up to 100 calories, including 18 grams of fat.  Ask to have the dressing served on the side; then, dip your fork in the dressing before loading it up with greens.
  • Share a dessert with your companion, even if the restaurant charges extra. Or skip it altogether.

And finally, support legislation mandating nutrition information on the menu.   Knowing what you’re facing can help you make wise choices and leave the restaurant feeling as good about your meal as when you entered.

© 2009 All Rights Reserved, Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau
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