Can eating out be part of a healthy diet?

In most big cities - and especially here in Shanghai - eating out is part of your daily life to socialize, work, and to conveniently fill your belly without making a mess in your own kitchen. Of course there are more and more healthy options on most restaurant’s menus, but can eating out regularly really be part of a healthy diet?

While I completely understand the convenience eating out can provide, once you start to cook yourself, you will realize that eating out can just never be as healthy as preparing your own meals at home. Even if you select a salad on the menu with a lean meat, do you really know about the quality of ingredients that go inside? At home you are likely to use the best ingredients - both for flavor and nutrients. When eating out, you can never be quite sure of the quality of the oil a restaurant uses, where the meat came from, and how much sugar, salt or other additives were used in the making of your dish. While it might taste nice and look somewhat healthy, there are a lot of question marks surrounding your plate.

As a general rule of thumb, try to have more home cooked meals than meals out every week. This also includes snack times, when we are often tempted to grab a cookie and coffee on the go somewhere. Yes, I completely understand that making your own meals requires time and lots of food prep. Check here for some tips on how to make your life easier with this. I always think the easiest meal to start with is breakfast, since you can whip up a healthy, filling breakfast in no time. Lunch may be harder to plan for, since preparing a lunch box to take with you to work is not for everyone. Busy people also often schedule lunch time meetings, so perhaps dinner would be a better option to shoot for another home made meal? From the 7 nights a week, try to make something at home at least 3 nights.

And for snacks, stock up on healthy, easy alternatives such as veggie sticks, trail mixes, and make your own dips for the week. This requires hardly any time!

When you do eat out, here are my top 4 tips to keep your plate as healthy as possible. This is for the times when you are not going out for a date night to your favorite restaurant to really indulge :-)

1. Make half the order veggies

In all my nutrition coaching, I like to focus on filling half of your plate with veggies. There are multiple reasons to this, but mainly veggies are water and fiber rich, filling you up with lots of healthy nutrients, so you don’t indulge so much with other things. When going out, make veggies the priority. Order a salad to start with, a a vegetable based soup or check out the side dishes listed on the menu - these are often a gold mine for simple veggies.

If you then can’t resist the pizza, pasta or whatever else your heart desires, at least you might not eat as much of it!

2. Share

One thing I love about living in Asia is the culture to eat family style - meaning sharing all the food on the table with each other. Not only does it make for a unique socializing experience with your friends and family, it also makes sure you can try a bit of everything without having to over eat. Often when we go to restaurants, emotions take over our ordering rather than logic. Of course we know that the salad with chicken would be the better choice, but the grilled cheese sandwich is so good at this restaurant. If you decide to order family style instead, you can have the best of both worlds!

3. Make your drink water every time

If you eat out a lot, often it is not the food that brings people’s healthy lifestyle down, but the additional drinks you order. Maybe you believe that certain meals only go with a special drink: Italian food with a glass of wine, beer with your tacos, a coke with the burger. If you realized above that you eat out more than half of your meals, make it your rule to only drink water when eating out with only one meal out indulging in your favorite alcohol. If plain water is too boring, ask for some lemon slices to make it a bit more interesting. Soon enough, you won’t even realize what you are missing out on!

4. Have go-to healthy options

Most of us have the best of intentions when it comes to preparing a healthy dinner at home - and then life and work take over and we are running late, not wanting to whip up a healthy meal at 9pm. At these times, make sure you have some healthy go-to options for restaurants and dishes. No matter where you are in the world, healthy restaurants are popping up everywhere. I am often not a fan of the bland food some of them serve up as “healthy” food, but sometimes that is just what your body needs. Or find restaurants that will make dishes for you with special needs like less white sugar, less salt, maybe no MSG. Either way, have these fall back options ready to go when life gets too stressful!

Do you have any other tips on eating out? I would love to hear from you below in the comments or send me an email :-)

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