‘Eating out’: Numbers on menus not enough to ward us off overeating

Eating out is such a major part of any social scene these days. Bowling teams, coworkers, women embarking on a girl’s night: They all pile into a restaurant that can accommodate large groups of hungry people, to enjoy the atmosphere, the company, and a great, savory meal that just magically appears before them.

Heck, even the term for dating is to “go out” to eat with someone, in the old stereotypical dinner and a movie date.

The act alone of going out to eat has an indulgent ring to it, am I right? While some people (who probably, for health reasons) count those calories or keep an eye on those carbs when perusing their menus, the mandated law requiring chain restaurants to list nutrition information of its meals appears to be going to waste on the general public. Why?

An article published earlier last week by Carol Tice called “Calories on Restaurant Menus Won’t Make Us Eat Less — But Here’s One Thing That Might” makes a very valid point on this very American behavior  called “eating out.”

Think about it: Why do we “eat out?” Just the term alone seems to indicate treating ourselves, getting together with friends, and just having a good time. It’s time to let our hair down and celebrate – as well as forget about the worry and frustrations of the week, the stresses of our jobs or conflicts with people in our lives. Heck, the whole reason why we “eat out” is because we’re trying to avoid the work of preparing yet another meal this week. We want to be pampered, and let someone else cook for us. It’s hard to fault us with that mentality.

But what also gets thrown out the window are healthy choices, portion sizes, etc. After a hard day, week, whatever it is we’re escaping from to an evening of indulgent behavior for, we also shut down our brains about how many calories are in that third beer we just polished off, or how much we’ll hate ourselves in the morning for that BIG plate of chili cheese fries we just ordered. Why do we care, right? We’re eating out! We deserve to “treat” ourselves, and peh, it’s only one meal! We’re not there to count calories.

Available online for chain restaurants or right in front of you on your menus, how many of us actually pay attention to the nutrition facts when we go out to eat? Not enough to make a difference.

I, eyes cast sheepishly downward, admit to adopting that mindset as an infrequent restaurant patron myself.

While it seems an almost useless endeavor to require restaurants to comply with the new law to post nutritional info for the majority of us, it’s still a great tool to have when we decide to use it.

So – if those scary calorie numbers on our menus aren’t whipping Americans into shape, what is the answer? Probably nothing short of a miracle, unless we get restaurants to start serving healthier meals and smaller portion sizes.

And, as the article points out, that’s where Halfsies comes in.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, neither did I until today! But the concept behind this organization is actually pretty novel, and could work, if more people were aware of it. The video below gives you an inkling about their vision:

As an eat-out more than eat-in nation, Halfsies certainly gives us food for thought…

But until the initiative gains momentum, here are some tips for eating healthier when out to eat, while still having a good time, from Choose My Plate:

  • As a beverage choice, ask for water or order fat-free or low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, or other drinks without added sugars.
  • Ask for whole-wheat bread for sandwiches.
  • In a restaurant, start your meal with a salad packed with veggies, to help control hunger and feel satisfied sooner.
  • Ask for salad dressing to be served on the side. Then use only as much as you want.
  • Veggie kebobsChoose main dishes that include vegetables, such as stir fries, kebobs, or pasta with a tomato sauce.
  • Order steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
  • Choose a small” or “medium” portion. This includes main dishes, side dishes, and beverages.
  • Order an item from the menu instead heading for the “all-you-can-eat” buffet.
  • If main portions at a restaurant are larger than you want, try one of these strategies to keep from overeating:
    • Order an appetizer-sized portion or a side dish instead of an entrée.
    • Share a main dish with a friend.
    • If you can chill the extra food right away, take leftovers home in a “doggy bag.”
    • When your food is delivered, set aside or pack half of it to go immediately.
    • Resign from the “clean your plate club” – when you’ve eaten enough, leave the rest.
  • To keep your meal moderate in calories, fat, and sugars:
    • Ask for salad dressing to be served “on the side” so you can add only as much as you want.
    • Order foods that do not have creamy sauces or gravies
    • Add little or no butter to your food.
    • Choose fruits for dessert most often.
  • On long commutes or shopping trips, pack some fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, low-fat string cheese sticks, or a handful of unsalted nuts to help you avoid stopping for sweet or fatty snacks.
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Whose plate is turning “one” today? Yours!

In case you didn’t know, today is a special day: Happy 1st Birthday, ChooseMyPlate.Gov!

While I haven’t personally been utilizing this great resource, a cursory look at the website today has impressed me. With a clean, user-friendly interface for the Internet surfer, you can learn about all of your basic food groups: Fruit, veggies, grains, and protein foods, as well as oils and dairy. They give you an idea on how much should be in your plate of each, how to measure them, and the health benefits of each, among other helpful tips. The site also has some great tabs with other related information regarding physical activity (how to be more active, and why), weight management tips/tools and resources (BMI calculator, calorie burning charts to help you keep focused, etc), healthy eating tips, and a helpful little chart regarding empty calorie foods. Empty calories are foods high in energy-providing calories from solid fats and/or added sugars, but contain little to no nutritional value. I even saved this chart to my computer, myself.

Good stuff.

While the website itself is great for navigating your nutrition choices, the USDA has certainly established its presence on all manner of social media, as well. Want to get more interactive with your plate? Take a photo of your ChooseMyPlate inspired meal, and post it in their Flickr Pool (this actually excites me a little, where is my camera??). Want nutrition and food-related news from the government and legislative side? Like the USDA’s page on Facebook. Want tips and healthy eating reminders and resources? Head on over to their Twitter page.

And then there’s the USDA on YouTube, with sundry videos on everything from new food safety cell phone apps to new endeavors taken on by the USDA to help consumers eat, and shop, healthier.

Talk about a cornucopia of information for the nutritionally ambitious. So head on over to wish ChooseMyPlate a happy birthday, and while you’re at it, see what they have to offer. You might learn a thing or two you didn’t know that you didn’t know about your dinner plate.

Eat well, everyone!