MARQUETTE - Restaurant dining is a typically tasty, often festive occasion, although sometimes a necessary convenience for those with hectic schedules.
Restaurant food, however, has also become synonymous with giant portions, heavy and calorie-ladened choices and endless refills.
If you know how to read a menu, however, there are healthy choices to be found at almost any restaurant you choose.
Making healthier choices once seated inside a restaurant isn’t always easy, when menus often offer increased portion sizes and free soda refills. But making better choices in restaurants is a necessary ingredient in improving health. (Journal file photo)
"Anywhere you can find healthy choices," said Marquette General Hospital registered dietitian Deb Sergey. "It just takes looking at the menu."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010 Americans spent 47.9 percent of their total food dollars on food eaten away from home, with the nation spending close to $2,000 per capita.
Although restaurants do offer options like bottomless fries and steaks large enough to feed a family of four, just because those options are there doesn't mean you have to order them.
"Part of it is being knowledgeable," Sergey said.
When you get to the restaurant, take time to read over the full menu to know what your options are. Many restaurants post their menus online, so you can start planning what you want to eat before you arrive.
If you want to start your meal with an appetizer, avoid heavier options that are fried, buttery or cheesy. Starting with a salad or broth-based soup, however, can help curb your appetite so you eat less for your main course and helps you get in an extra serving of vegetables. Just watch how much dressing goes on your salad - order it on the side - and how many times you dip into the bread or chip basket during your meal.
As far as drinks go, Sergey suggested sticking to water or unsweetened beverages, such as iced tea, to cut down on the number of unnecessary calories in your meal. Although tasty, beverages such as pop and alcohol contain a large number of calories, particularly if your glass is being refilled several times during the meal.
When it comes to ordering your main meal, think about portion sizes. Many restaurants are beginning to offer half-sized entrees. If those aren't an option, ask for a to-go container at the beginning of the meal and pack up half of your plate or share with someone else at your table.
"If it's on my plate, I'm probably going to keep picking at it," Sergey said.
Besides portion size, remember to look at how the plate itself is made up. Aim for half your plate to be made up with fruits and vegetables. For an entree, look for word clues in the menu like grilled, baked, steamed, broiled poached or stir-fried, as those preparation methods are usually healthier. Clues that a food isn't prepared as healthily are buttery, breaded, fried, pan-fried, creamed, scalloped, au gratin and a la mode.
For side dishes, choose a baked potato, steamed vegetables or rice instead of fries or onion rings.
While dinner salads might be tempting for those who are trying to eat healthy, watch out for toppings like cheese, croutons and dressing which can quickly add up.
Sergey also suggested trying out meatless or vegetarian options at restaurants.
And for desserts, try splitting one dessert between the entire table so you don't end up eating the entire dessert yourself or order a sorbet or fruit salad.
Then, once your food arrives, make sure to eat slowly and listen to your own stomach to tell when you are full.
The most important point, Sergey said, is to order what you want. For example, if you want a sandwich without mayonnaise or with extra vegetables, order it that way.
Combining what you know about healthy eating with the ability to modify your order to fit what you want will go a long way to helping making restaurant eating a healthier choice.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.