Making 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.

One of my favorite New York City restaurants, a Mediterranean fish house in the East 40s, serves an appetizer consisting of a really big (and I mean huge) bowl of maybe 30 steamed mussels in their shells in a low-oil fresh-tomato sauce with one crusty piece of French bread underneath to sop it up with.

When I add a glass of cold, dry white wine and one more piece of bread, this appetizer becomes a meal in itself — with a lot fewer calories and less fat than most any entree on the menu. Less expensive, too.

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.

Going naked: 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. You don’t have to settle for that boring steamed stuff and definitely not veggies so raw they have no taste.

The difference between raw cauliflower and cauliflower that’s been steamed for 15 or 20 minutes and dusted with dill is so vast that people who insist on passing out the stuff cold should be charged with vegetable abuse.

To reap the low-calorie rewards, avoid veggie dishes labeled

  • Au beurre (with butter)
  • Au gratin (with cheese sauce)
  • Batter-dipped (eggs, oil, fried)
  • Breaded (breadcrumbs, oil, fried)
  • Fritters (fried)
  • Fritto (fried)
  • Hollandaise (sauce with butter and egg yolks)
  • Tempura (battered and fried)

Minimizing the main dish

I won’t insult you by telling you to avoid fried foods. If you’re reading this book, you already know that the best choice is something broiled, baked, or roasted — without added fat, and with the drippings siphoned off.

But I can’t avoid noting that you can lower the fat content of any main dish simply by wielding a mean knife and fork to cut away the vestiges of visible fat on your chops or steak or poultry.

Another approach is to order a main course meat dish without the “main” part. That is, order your meat, fish, or poultry as a small-serving appetizer, and then ask your waiter for a veggie entree.

Or opt for all the nifty little extras that usually accompany the meat course, ordering the veggie side dishes à la carte instead of a veggie entree. Demand tiny boiled onions. Baby peas with mint. Pickled beets and red cabbage. Sugared carrots. Sautéed spinach. Darling little boiled or baked potatoes with a crust of paprika or cumin.

The more, the merrier. The result may not be entirely fat-free, but it almost certainly has fewer calories, less fat, more dietary fiber, and a wider variety of vitamins than plain meat or poultry.

Sidelining sauces

Dining out is a treat, so treat yourself — within reason. You can have your béarnaise (egg yolks, butter), béchamel (butter, flour, heavy cream), brown sauce (beef drippings, flour), and hollandaise (butter, egg yolks), as long as you have them in reasonable amounts.

Ask the waiter to bring the sauce on the side, take one tablespoonful (about a soup spoonful), and hand the rest back to the waiter.

When ordering from an Italian menu, the general rule is to avoid the olive-oil-based sauces and choose the tomato-based red sauce. (If the chef where you’re eating fattens up the tomato sauce with olive oil, forget this rule.) Many restaurants now make their red sauces skinny — all tomato, little or no oil.

Satisfying your sweet tooth

After a heavy meal, your body often craves something sweet. Lower your calories, fat, and so on by splitting a dessert with your dinner partner. Or opt for rich but fat-free sweetened coffees: espresso, Greek, and Turkish brews seem most satisfying. Hate coffee? Have a diet cola.