Summer means longer days and more time to socialise – often over dinner. But even health-conscious diners can be tricked into making less-than-healthy choices. Dietitian Emilie Isles identifies the common mistakes people make when dining out – and how to avoid them.
While home-cooked meals are your best bet when it comes to controlling what goes into your meal (and your portion size), Australia’s dining landscape is filled with great opportunities to taste various cuisines and foods. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life! While most restaurant menus have at least one healthy option, it may not necessarily be the one you first think. We’ve identified some of the common mistakes people make when ordering from the menu – and how to avoid them.
“All vegie side dishes are good”
Any chef will tell you that fat adds flavour, so be aware of where fat may be added to otherwise healthy vegetable options. ‘Glazed’, ‘sautéed’ or ‘crispy’ varieties of vegetables often contain butter or oil, which significantly increases the kilojoule content.
Steamed vegetables or garden or rocket salads provide a healthier alternative. Request that side dishes such as baked potatoes or steamed vegetables come without the oil or butter.
Instead of: Green beans with a creamy lemon aioli dressing and toasted almonds – 1075kJ, 23g fat and 2.5g sat fat)
Choose: Skip the dressing and ask for them steamed with the toasted almonds – 465kJ, 7.5g fat and 0.5g sat fat)
You’ll save: 610kJ, 15.5g fat and 2g sat fat
“I’m trying to lose weight – I’ll just have a salad”
Salads are often a go-to for anyone watching their weight and are a great way to increase your intake of fibre and nutrient-rich vegetables. But some salads aren’t always what they seem. Take, for example, the huge fat content of a traditional Caesar salad (about 30g fat in a small 250g serve). The croutons are generally made by frying bread in oil then combined with full-fat mayonnaise and crispy bacon and parmesan.
You’re not alone if you fall for the ‘health halo’ around salads. Research has shown that people who are attuned to healthy eating were more likely to choose a dish labelled ‘salad’ rather than ‘pasta’, despite it being the same meal! The bottom line? Just because something is called a ‘salad’, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
A garden salad, bean salad or Greek salad are versatile options that can be ordered as a side dish, or modified to form a more rounded main meal. While the feta in a Greek salad will provide a relatively high amount of fat, it also acts as a good source of protein, which helps fill you up.
And don’t be afraid to ask for additions like grilled chicken to an otherwise low-protein garden salad – this will add flavour to the dish and leave you more satisfied.
Of course, there’s no point selecting healthy ingredients only to ruin it with a poor choice of dressing. Vinegar and citrus juice-based dressings are better options than creamy or aioli varieties – and ask for dressing on the side so you can control the portion.
Instead of: The entrée-sized traditional chicken Caesar salad – 2650kJ, 32g fat and 9g sat fat
Choose: A garden salad with grilled chicken and a French-style vinaigrette – 1080kJ, 11g fat and 2g sat fat
You’ll save: 1570kJ, 21g fat and 7g sat fat!
“It’s vegetarian – it must be healthy”
Like some salads, vegetarian dishes may fail to provide any significant amount of protein, so you won’t feel full and may end up overeating. And simply serving a whole bowl of pasta is not a balanced way to include carbohydrate. Other dishes may fill you up with fat and too many kilojoules with ingredients like cheese (such as vegetarian lasagne) or cooking methods such as fried vegetables, fritters or tempura.
If choosing a salad, look for dishes that include legumes like chickpeas or lentils, as these are great low-GI, high-fibre sources of protein. Pasta dishes frequently appear as the vegetarian option on menus, however pastas smothered in cream or cheese-based sauces can create problems for your waistline – so go for tomato-based alternatives.
Soups such as minestrone or lentil can also be filling and nutritionally balanced; ask for a multigrain or sourdough bread roll for some filling, low-GI carbs.
And while many people are quick to dismiss cheese as a high-fat food, lower-fat varieties like ricotta and cottage cheese are also a great way to include protein in vegetarian meals.
Instead of: A small serve of fettuccini with creamy sun-dried tomato sauce – 3415kJ, 23g fat, 10g sat
fat and 10g protein
Choose: Spinach & ricotta tortellini with napolitana sauce – 2200kJ, 17g fat, 4g sat fat and 17g protein
You’ll save: 1215kJ, 6g fat, 6g sat fat, and gain 7g protein
Even when avoiding typical fried entrée choices like spring rolls and curry puffs, many Thai menu options can contain significant amounts of fat, sugar and salt, thanks to coconut milk, sweet sauces and soy sauce.
While you may have heard about the ‘benefits’ of the fat found in coconut-based products, much of this fat is saturated fat. Palm oil, often used in Asian cooking, is also high in saturated fat. Don’t be shy about asking if these ingredients are used to prepare the dish – if so, ask if they can be removed or substituted for other ingredients (for example, canola oil).
As a general guide, laksa and creamy curries contain a significant amount of saturated fat and excess kilojoules. And Pad Thai, often perceived to be a healthier option, is actually high in energy and fat, due to the fried noodles, large amounts of sauce and chopped peanuts.
Fresh rice paper rolls or steamed dumplings are a great entrée alternative to deep-fried spring rolls and fish cakes. Choose main courses that don’t contain coconut milk, such as Thai beef salad, green papaya salad or a simple stir-fry with steamed rice.
Other healthier options include barbecue meat with vegies, and clear-style soups such as tom yum. If you order a stir-fry, be sure to include a generous serve of veg and choose one with a lighter sauce (such as lemongrass and chilli). Steer clear of satay and oyster sauces, which are high in fat and/or sodium and keep an eye on your rice portion – aim for about half a cup or a quarter of your plate.
Instead of: A medium serve of Pad Thai – 3530kJ, 46g fat, 11g sat fat and 2500mg sodium
Choose: Chicken, chilli & basil stir-fry with steamed rice – 2100kJ, 5.5g fat, 1.5g sat fat and 2350mg sodium
You’ll save: 1430kJ, 40.5g fat and 9.5g sat fat
“Carbs: friend or foe?”
There are two traps here – one is avoiding carbs altogether, which makes you feel deprived and more vulnerable to going overboard with dessert. The other is having too much of the wrong carbohydrate. It’s easy to fill up on bread while waiting for your meal – the danger is not compensating for it when you get to your main meal.
Many restaurants also tend to use potato as the main vegetable in their meals – and sometimes add lots of fat by frying or mashing them with butter and cream. Including low-GI, lower-kJ carbs in your meal will make you feel more satisfied and curb the temptation to splurge later.
Passing on the white bread at the start of your meal, but ordering an entrée-sized pasta will leave you feeling satisfied. It also helps to consider which parts of the meal are providing carbohydrate and to control your portion: a small portion of rice to accompany a vegetable-rich Asian-style meal is a great example. Opt for a baked potato or sweet potato instead of fries or mash, and request a smaller portion. By ensuring you have a good balance of carbohydrate, lean protein and vegetables, you’ll feel satisfied without needing to fill up on less-than-healthy options later in the meal!
Instead of: Eating too few or too many carbs, think about your meal as a whole. If you choose to have bread at the start, reduce your carbohydrate portion during the meal. If you want dessert, share one so you get a taste but don’t break the kilojoule budget.
“I’m going out for dinner, so I won’t eat lunch”
Arriving at a restaurant really hungry is a mistake that can really take a toll. While waiting for your entrée or main to arrive at the table, you may find yourself mindlessly (and hungrily) reaching for the bread basket. The trap again here is that we rarely adjust our main meal portion to compensate for the pre-dinner intake.
If you are going out for dinner, include a lower-GI, higher-protein snack in the afternoon to curb your appetite. Try a 200g tub of reduced-fat yoghurt, or low-fat cottage cheese and sliced tomato on wholegrain crackers.
When you get to the restaurant, remember that while olive oil contains a good amount of healthy monounsaturated fats, it is still very energy-dense. If you do decide to have some bread and olive oil, pour a small amount of olive oil onto your bread plate to avoid repeatedly dipping into the communal bowl of oil.
Another way to help avoid over-eating is to order your main in an entrée size. And if you do order a full main, you don’t have to eat it all – it’s perfectly acceptable to take home leftovers.
Instead of: Having only a green salad for lunch and eating a whole large supreme pizza at dinner because you’re starving – 5480kJ, 56g fat, 29g sat fat and 2980mg sodium
Choose: A chicken wrap for lunch and have only three pizza slices for dinner – 3350kJ, 27.5g fat, 14g sat fat and 1700mg sodium
You’ll save: 2130kJ, 28.5g fat, 15g sat fat and 1280mg sodium
“Sushi is healthier than other cuisines”
While this can be true, there are some kinks in the sushi train line you should be aware of. Varieties such as chicken schnitzel, tempura prawn and soft-shell crab contain a significant amount of saturated fat, as they are usually deep-fried. Japanese mayonnaise also contributes significant fat and kilojoules. While avocado is a source of healthy fat, it still contains a high energy load, so watch your portion sizes.
Edamame beans are a delicious snack and a great choice to supplement your sushi. Sashimi and teriyaki chicken varieties of sushi provide lower-fat alternatives.
Wasabi mixed with a little soy sauce packs a flavour punch and is low in fat. But while soy adds flavour, it has a high sodium content, so keep it to a minimum. And opt for raw salmon and tuna over cooked tuna to avoid extra kilojoules from sauces.
Instead of: Tempura prawn sushi hand roll – 975kJ and 6.5g fat per roll
Choose: A raw salmon sushi hand roll – 410kJ and 2.0g fat per roll
You’ll save: 565kJ and 4.5g fat per roll
“Fish is a fail-safe option”
We are all aware of the benefits of regularly including fish in our diet – omega-3 oils have been linked to reduced inflammation, reduced risk of heart disease and improvements in brain function, just to name a few. With many people unsure of how best to cook fish at home, it’s often a popular choice when dining out.
However, many fish dishes come with a butter-based sauce or have been cooked or fried in oil. When paired with chips or sauces such as a mayonnaise or aioli, the fat and kilojoule content of your seemingly healthy choice can skyrocket.
Look for steamed, baked or grilled fish dishes, as well as fish carpaccio or ceviche dishes. The latter two are quite light options, so try adding a side salad or steamed vegetables. Ask your waiter if sauces or aioli can come on the side, or simply replace them with another option where possible.
Instead of: Battered fish and a full portion of chips – 2530kJ, 34g fat, 10g sat fat
Choose: Grilled fish and a garden salad, and share a portion of chips – 1410kJ, 12g fat, 3.5g sat fat
You’ll save: 1120kJ, 22g fat, 6.5g sat fat
Five questions to ask your waiter next time you eat out
1. Is any butter/oil added before serving?
If you can prevent any last-minute addition of oil or butter to your meals then it is definitely worth asking. Often added as part of final presentation adjustments, there is potential to avoid this.
2. Is it possible to swap the aioli (or other creamy sauce) for a balsamic or soy-based dressing?
This is a very easy change for the kitchen to make, so remember to ask at the time of ordering rather than once your meal arrives.
3. Can we get some olives instead of bread and oil?
This is a quick easy way to reduce caloric intake, provided the olives aren’t stuffed. Kalamata, either plain or marinated, are common options. You could also ask for crispbread or wafer thins, instead of bread.
4. What kind of oils does the chef use?
Many kitchens will use vegetable oil blends or partially hydrogenated oils which are not the best option as they are higher in trans or saturated fats.
5. How big is the portion; can I get a smaller portion?
If you are given early warning that a meal is a large portion, you may be able to request a smaller or entrée-sized portion.
Remember, even the smallest changes can make a difference, particularly when made consistently over time.