Smart Menu Choices

From a nutritional point of view, restaurant dining has three basic pitfalls:

  • Serving sizes are too big.
  • Garnishes and side dishes are too rich.
  • Meals have too many courses.

Not to worry. Exercise a little care and caution, and you can order from any menu, secure in the knowledge that pleasing your palate doesn’t mean tossing away all nutritional common sense. The following list of strategies can make any restaurant experience a joy.

  • Starting simple - Set the nutritional tone of dinner right off the bat with your choice of appetizer. You have two possible alternatives. The first is opting for a really rich, high-density food such as pâté de foie gras (literally: fat liver paste) and then coast downward, calorie-fat-and-cholesterol-wise, for the rest of the meal.

A second alternative is choosing a tasty but low-calorie, low-fat appetizer such as clear soup, a salad with lemon juice dressing, or shellfish such as shrimp cocktail (10 to 30 calories a shrimp) with no-fat (catsup/horseradish) sauce. This choice allows you more food later on.

  • Elevating appetizers to entrees - For smaller portion sizes or to skip the calorie-laden sides that come with most entrees, order an appetizer as your main course.
  • Skipping the fat on the bread - Don’t butter your bread. Don’t oil it, either. Many chic and trendy restaurants now serve up a dish of flavored olive oil in place of butter. True, the olive oil has less saturated fat than butter, and it has no cholesterol, but the calorie count is exactly the same.

All fats and oils (butter, margarine, vegetable oils) give you about 100 calories a tablespoon. Note: You may get even more calories from the oil if you do a lot of dipping. Consumer alert: Don’t assume that your bread is low-fat just because you didn’t butter it.

Many different types of breads come already buttered (or oiled). One example is foccacia, the thick squares of savory Italian bread. Others are popovers and muffins. To test the fat content of your bread, pick up a piece or put it on your napkin. If your hand feels greasy or the bread leaves an oily spot on your napkin, you have your answer.

  • Undressed veggies - Victorians boiled vegetables into a yucky muck — no color, no texture, no taste. Then came 20th century butter, cheese, and cream sauces, often burnished under the broiler to a browned crust.

Now, smart restaurant cooks rely on herbs and spices, reduced (boiled down and thickened) fat-free bouillons, unusual salad combinations, and imaginative treatments such as purees and kabobs to make their vegetables tasty but trim. The result? Food heaven and nutrition joy. The vegetable flavors come through, and the calories stay very, very, very low.