Wonder where all those extra calories are coming from? Have you considered how often you eat away from home?
Of course, high-calorie meals can be made right in your own kitchen, but most restaurant choices are surprisingly steep in calories.
Consider: One frozen coffee drink can have more than 500 calories; a large order of fast-food fries contains about 500 calories; a half-dozen battered and fried chicken wings has about 600 calories; and a grilled oriental chicken salad can have 1,500 calories.
Eating at a restaurant can be a great treat, but many meals are large portions and high in fat and sodium. If you truly eat out rarely and are conscientious about your food choices at home, you can splurge at an eatery. But many of us eat out frequently, especially if you consider buying lunch, take out and fast food.
Not having to plan and prepare the meal seems like a bonus. However, if you simply order whatever sounds good, you cannot control ingredients, and you are not really considering the balance of the meal. For example, at home you may decide to bake your breaded chicken and use skinless breast meat, while a restaurant will typically fry the chicken and may not use the leanest cut. At home, it might seem reasonable to pair your baked chicken with a steamed vegetable or a salad and use a light dressing for flavor. At a restaurant, the chicken will often be paired with fries and ketchup. These discrepancies in preparation will result in huge differences in calories.
Some tips to help combat these challenges include maintaining a balance, choosing lower-fat options, controlling portions and simply knowing the facts.
When deciding what to eat, reference the United States Department of Agriculture’s My Plate illustration.
According to the initiative, half of your plate should contain fruits and vegetables. An easy choice at most restaurants is to order a side salad. A typical side salad with light dressing has fewer than 100 calories (remember the number of calories the large order of fries had?).
If you know the meal will be unbalanced, try eating more of what you will be missing at other meals that day. For example, choose a garden salad for lunch if you are having pizza and wings for dinner.
Look for low-fat choices whenever you can. Fat has 9 calories per gram (unlike protein and carbohydrates, which both contain 4 calories per gram), so if you can cut that, you will cut calories.
Coffee drinks often contain a lot of sugar and fat, so ordering a low-fat option made with skim milk can drastically cut calories. Choosing low-fat dressings and condiments (such as mustard instead of mayo) and omitting fatty extras like cheese or bacon from your order will also help.
Restaurants often serve large portions, so consider the size of your meal. Even healthy, lower-calorie options will add up if you are eating them in large quantities. If you know the restaurant of your choice serves large portions, consider splitting a meal or saving half of your meal for lunch the following day. Portion control also helps with drinks and sides, which all add calories.
If you eat or drink someplace often, see if you can get access to the nutrition facts for the food. Most large chains make their nutrition information available online, and more and more chains are starting to make them available in the store. Non-chain eateries probably won’t have this information, but you can look up nutrition information for generic versions of those foods online. Sometimes what sounds healthier may actually have more calories than what you would have ordered to begin with.
We, as a society, are eating away from home more often than ever before. Restaurants know that people crave high-fat, sweet and salty foods and like to get a lot for their money, so many eateries appease that standard. With a little planning, though, you can make smart choices while eating away from home.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.