Restaurant Dining: A Cost to Your Health and Wallet

Resturant dining and cost

My spouse and I are health conscious because I am a dietitian and not a hypocrite, and his life depends upon it. We regularly visit an area of southwest Michigan, and recently had breakfast at a local diner with great TripAdvisor reviews. Unfortunately, we did not agree with the great reviews on TripAdvisor. Here’s why I think there’s a restaurant dining cost to your health and wallet!

Restaurant dining menu and cost

The menu was limited, but I will be the first to state that this is not necessarily a bad thing. A limited menu may end up focusing on food quality, rather than an abundance of mediocre dishes. The good news here was the staff was more than happy to substitute requested egg whites for whole eggs.

Now the bad news: the nice multi-grain bread was already buttered on the bottom of the toast (so did not realize it until it was eaten), the portions were huge (I know many people want large portions for the money being doled out), and I saw no fruit options on the menu. Other bad news: the bill was $30.00 for what we could have made at home for probably a dollar at most, and made it a lot healthier in a shorter amount of time. This is, in fact, the key issue with dining out on a regular basis.

Restaurant dining cost to your health and bank account

More fat 

If you make the same food at home, you can control the fat in the dish with very simple recipe tweaking. Restaurants don’t typically care about the high fat content in their meals because fat carries flavor and texture. And of course, they want you to return for another meal! You can bank on eating more calories than you anticipated due to the higher fat content. You can also assume that it will be more difficult to meet your weight loss goals.

More calories

And, let’s not forget the simple concept that larger portions, when eaten, yield more calories. Unless you can exercise a lot of self-restraint while dining out, you will most likely eat your whole meal. If you can consistently ask for healthy substitutions such as fruit for fries, you are on the right track. Also, you need to get in the habit of bringing at least half of your meal home. And who doesn’t want that yummy appetizer, dessert, or cocktail while dining out? It’s probably safe to say that if you are eating at home you are not eating those extra high calorie goodies.

Salt in restaurant food

More sodium

If you are fortunate to find a nice restaurant meal low in fat and overall calories, the sodium is probably lurking. I have yet to see a healthy restaurant meal that is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, and sodium. If you think the sodium content does not matter because your blood pressure is fine, you need to think again. High sodium intakes cause other health problems such as bone loss and are correlated with increased cancer risk. And, if you hop on the scale the next day, you can credit that weight gain of several pounds to fluid retention from all that salt you ate.

More money

My husband made a lower sodium chili on Sunday, and pointed out that the entire pot of chili cost less than a few dollars. Purchasing a bowl of chili at a restaurant would have cost about $6.00. He used half a packet of low sodium chili powder and added additional beans plus veggies, creating a healthier chili.

When you must dine out at fast food restaurants

Ironically, thinking in terms of restaurant food chains rather than non-chain full-service restaurants may serve your health concerns more effectively. Unless you live in a cave, you have seen nutrition information is posted at your favorite fast food restaurant. In 2014, the FDA set into motion new labeling requirements for chain restaurants. By now, all that nutrition information has been available to customers for years. If you pay attention to that posted nutrition information, it can help you make better decisions while dining out. There are lots of helpful websites to start planning for healthier choices. One that I really like is HealthyDiningFinder. Put in your zip code and you can start your search for healthier cuisine.

Casual dining establishments

Consider frequenting casual dining restaurants that actually have a set calorie controlled menu with a lot of choices such as the Cheesecake Factory. While in the past I would have cringed at dining there, they have made great strides with their Skinnylicious menu options. I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty the food was from that menu and ecstatic with all the choices for under 600 calories. I can’t say the sodium was acceptable across the board with that menu, but as I stated, it’s very hard to nail the fat, calories, and sodium content of any restaurant meal.

Full service restaurants

Restaurant dining cost to health and walletClearly, fast food options are not always what we want or need for social occasions. Always try and check out the restaurant menu online prior to arriving there. This will at least allow you an opportunity to avoid split second and thoughtless decisions when ordering. Socializing with friends while trying to order without some prior thought does not usually translate to a healthy choice.

Dining at restaurants without published nutrition information

Looking for plain menu options like a ladies’ cut filet or chicken that is not smothered in sauce might be good options. Add some steamed vegetables and plain baked potato and you’ve made some wise choices. By skipping the appetizers, cocktails, and desserts you are on your way to helping your waistline. And that bread basket is always a problem, right? Ask the wait staff to keep it in the kitchen or move it to another part of the table. And, if portion sizes of your meat based entree are larger than a deck of cards, bring the leftovers home if you are serious about managing your healthy diet. Help yourself with that action by asking for the “doggie” bag at the beginning of the meal!

Final thoughts

While eating out is recreational for many, it should be a treat for special occasions rather than your regular diet. Eating at home more often will result in a healthier diet and bank account. With that stated, here are some additional tips to manage food choices and calories when eating away from home. Eating at home is a win-win scenario, except for the dirty dishes. With all the money you can save, you can buy a new dishwasher!

Do you have any strategies for managing your calories, fat, and sodium while dining out that I didn’t mention? And what recommendations can you share to keep restaurant dining cost to a minimum when you do splurge?

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