There are more restaurants than ever before. America has a booming food service industry, and food television programming has made people more aware of the culinary arts than ever before. With the variety of cultures that flourish in this country, you have a plethora of dining choices. But good nutrition requires you to examine the way you dine out.
Convenience Versus Social Dining
The next time you find yourself in a restaurant standing at a host’s station, ask yourself why you are there. Is it because you are celebrating a special occasion? Are you spending some quality time with loved ones? Or are you simply looking for convenience over nutritional value?
Few restaurants are known for their nutritious meals. Yes, an occasional vegetarian or whole food establishment pops up from time to time, but these places are few and far between. Restaurants generally aim to attract a specific audience. Determining a restaurant’s target audience is the first step in figuring out the healthiest places to dine.
Fine dining establishments are marketing toward the special occasion, or well-to-do diner. This is social dining. The experience is meant as a form of entertainment. A dining experience.
Longer, more leisurely meals with multiple courses are a showcase for cuisine, and not necessarily meant to be well-rounded nutritious offerings. Prices usually reflect these targets, though quality doesn’t necessarily follow.
While these restaurants may not have particularly nutritious offerings on the menu, chefs in these establishments are more generally willing to fill special orders regarding less fat and salt. Here, too, you are more likely to find the kitchen using high-quality foods, including fresh, seasonal produce.
Theme restaurants can also be targeting the social diner, but here, the atmosphere is the main focus, not the food. This type of restaurant is less likely to have a healthy focus, and if the theme is geared toward kids, you will likely find even fewer healthy options.
Fast food, whether it be a worldwide chain, or a local taco stand, has only convenience to offer you. These restaurants focus on filling common cravings for fatty, salty, and sweet foods. They are located at convenient spots, including freeway off ramps, major intersections, grocery stores, and school campuses.
Their goal is to get you to buy from them rather than cook for yourself, and so far, they have succeeded. People cook less than ever before. In fact, many kids grow up today never learning to cook. This trend is a dangerous one.
If you go to restaurants regularly, consider cutting back. Ideally, restaurants should be reserved for special occasions, but once a week is a good place to start. The health benefits of eating at home are substantial, and you’ll save money, too.
Choosing the Right Restaurant
Healthy restaurant choices are not as important as healthy menu choices. Some of the world’s healthiest cuisines, from places like the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia, also offer unhealthy choices. (Take the egg roll, for example. Delicious, but deep fried and full of oil.) But there are restaurants in which you are more likely to find healthy offerings. For example, restaurants with vegetarian menus are usually a good bet.
Asian cuisine typically emphasizes grain and vegetables and uses cooking methods that retain more nutrients. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines use far more grains and legumes and more monounsaturated olive oil.
California cuisine is a trend from the 1970s that emphasizes fresh seasonal ingredients in a fusion of Latin American and Asian styles. It has a lot to offer in the way of nutrition, as does the latest trend of raw cuisine, in which food is barely cooked, if at all.
But these cuisines can be just as bad as a bacon cheeseburger and fries if you don’t choose wisely off the menu.
Healthy Menu Choices
Some restaurants, especially nationwide chains, have now begun to advertise healthful options. Low-sodium, low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fiber, or “heart-healthy” options are clearly labeled, often with seals of approval from the American Heart Association.
Most places, however, do not have specialized menus, and it is up to you to know what to avoid. Steer clear of anything labeled “jumbo,” “extra large,” or similar phrases indicating enormous quantity. Chances are the portion is over-sized. Don’t order anything fried. Look instead for foods that are grilled or broiled. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, and request that foods be cooked without butter or oil if possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask for special orders. Most restaurants are used to it, and many chefs will happily replace your French fries with vegetables, salads, or fruit. Remember, restaurants need your business. They know that if they can please you, you’ll likely return.