Sixty or seventy years ago, eating out in a restaurant or buying takeout food was practically nonexistent in our community. A kosher eatery was very rare in those times, most people probably weren’t able to spend any extra money on what at the time was an extravagance. Even in the non–Jewish world, the idea of fast food style restaurants had not yet infiltrated our culture. (McDonalds only started in the early 1950’s and it took a while in order to manifest itself into becoming a norm of society). But today, every type of Glatt Kosher Mehadrin eating establishment exists. They are usually conveniently located and there are many to choose from. Going out to eat has also become the norm for much of the population and is not longer very expensive. Whether it is a pizza/falafel shop, a takeout burger joint or an upscale. But eating in a restaurant of any kind can contribute to poor health and weight gain. With a few adjustments, however, eating out can be a pleasant experience and when not done too often, can even be a positive health experience.
Just like anything else involving eating, planning can make a big difference. Getting menus ahead of time is easy in today’s world. Have it emailed or faxed to you so you can go in knowing what you are ordering ahead of time. This will remove a lot of the temptation of thinking “at the moment” and making poor choices.
The biggest problem is the amount of food served. A regular full course meal in a fine restaurant is actually enough food for 6 people. Food establishments compete with each other not only in the quality of the food, but also in the quantity. The average 4 course meal in a better restaurant today is enough food for about 3 people. So tip number one-either share your food with someone, or, try ordering just a bowl of soup and an appetizer instead of a main course. Also, don’t be shy, ask the waiter for a doggy bag right at the beginning of the meal and take home half for another day. See if half portions or children’s sizes are available.
But portion size is only one issue. How food is prepared is certainly a huge consideration. Restaurants generally are concerned with taste and the presentation of their food. They are usually not concerned with the caloric content of what they serve and they don’t care too much about the nutritional factors involved in how they prepare or cook their food. Restaurants use more unhealthy fats, sugars and salt than most of us would use in our own kitchens. Flavor enhancers such as MSG are also very common-particularly in oriental-style places. MSG often leaves a person with a headache and bloating and if there is a strong sensitivity or allergy to it, the effects can be more severe. Choices that contain the words, “Alfredo”, Breaded”, “Creamy”, “Crispy”, “Tempura”, or Parmigiana” always indicate a high-fat, high-calorie content. Instead, look for the words, “steamed”, “poached”, “roasted”, “boiled”, “grilled”, and “baked”.
Ask how certain dishes are prepared. Many seemingly healthy choices are prepared with margarine or butter. Ask for the vegetables without butter, sour cream, and high-fat sauces. When going to Sandwich Shops, just cut the sandwich in half and save the second half for the next day. At a fast food outlet, go for the grilled chicken instead of that double burger. At Salad Bars, avoid the marinated and oily salads. If you go for the Pizza, order healthy toppings and less cheese on the pizza. If you like Chinese, request that your vegetables be stir fried or steamed with as little oil as possible.
Most times, eating out is either a social occasion or a meeting of some nature. That also means you are sitting around the table for a long time=- a much longer time than one normally would need to eat. And with a bread basket sitting in the middle that is often refilled, or in a middle eastern style eatery you might have a variety of dips and salads on the table to start, it is quite easy to exceed normal caloric intake before you ever get to the main course. Take a slice of bread or two and make sure that bread basket doesn’t come near you again.
Prepare yourself before even entering the restaurant. If you know ahead of time that you will be eating out, start cutting back on your daily consumption even two days before. See if you can access a menu BEFORE you go so you can see what healthful choices you can choose from. Don’t arrive very hungry. That will surely put you in overeating mode. Drink plenty of water before you start the meal to keep you full and hydrated.
Desserts are a particular problem in fine restaurants as they are usually very rich, very high in calories and often time contain non-dairy whips and creamers that are loaded with trans fats and chemicals. Mousses, cakes and chocolate delights are indeed temping and usually they look great; they often look better than they taste. But better restaurants also offer fresh fruit for dessert or you can just skip it altogether (and save some money too!).
Fast food establishments are even more challenging health-wise. Even the “fresh” salad bars are sometimes sprinkled with the highly allergic sulfites in order to preserve the vegetables. But if you are in a situation where you must resort to fast food, keep your portion sizes under control and go for the leanest choices. Order “small” as opposed to medium or large sizes. Drink water instead of colas and other sweet drinks.
Eating out can be and should be an enjoyable experience. After all, you don’t have to wash the dishes and clean up and you don’t have to cook and serve. So, enjoy the company and the ambience, but at the same time, don’t harm your health. It’s very tempting to get huge portions because the make it worthwhile financially. You are getting more for your money (you can share or take home) but is costs you in health.
Making healthful and smart choices when eating out will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.