A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Eating out? How to choose heart-healthy

group of friends enjoying a meal at a bar and grill restaurant / making healthy choices in restaurants

If you know you’ll be dining out, do your best to eat well-rounded, low-sodium meals the day before, the day of and the day after.

Doc’s orders: A well-balanced, low-sodium diet.

You’ve got this. You’re making changes.

And then it happens. You have dinner plans at your favorite restaurant. What do you do?

Marshfield Clinic registered dietitian Kari Mizgalski says keep the plans, at least when they’re occasional, and follow these tips to make heart-healthy choices at restaurants.

Make special requests

“Most choices at restaurants are high in fat and sodium,” Mizgalski said. “Make swaps and ask questions. A few extra minutes with your waiter are worth a heart-healthy meal.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Swap out fries for greens. Most restaurants allow side swaps without charge. If they do charge, it is minimal compared to the difference in sodium levels. Spend a couple extra dollars. Your health is worth it.
  • Order dressing on the side. Dip your fork in dressing before digging into your salad, or go without. Consider additional salad swaps for an even healthier night out.
  • Beware of sneaky soups. Even one small cup may have half your daily sodium recommendation. If you do order soup, be sure to pair with a low-sodium entrée or side.
  • Ask for unsalted. Unless the entrée or side is premade, you can always ask for your dishes to come unsalted.
  • Follow the plate method. Adjust your order to match this method as best you can. Fill half your plate with fruits and/or vegetables, a quarter with whole grains and a quarter with lean protein.

Closely read the menu

“You actually can learn a lot about how your food is prepared by closely reading the menu,” Mizgalski said.

Terms like baked, broiled, roasted and grilled mean the dish is likely prepared with less fat. Chefs aren’t adding fat to those dishes.

“Friday fish is popular in the Midwest. You can still enjoy those nights out without overloading on sodium and fat. Give baked or broiled fish a try, and ask for a baked potato,” she said.

Fried or sautéed signify chefs are adding fat. Ask your waiter how the chefs fry or sauté the dish. Is there healthier cooking oil on hand? Could they reduce amount of oil used to prepare your order?

Eat well the day before, of and after

“I like to tell my patients, ‘If you know you’ll be dining out, do your best to eat well-rounded, low-sodium meals the day before, the day of and the day after,’” Mizgalski said.

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