Americans like — make that “love” — to go out to eat, so much so that, on average, we eat out 4.9 times per week, according to a (pre-COVID) Zagat dining trends survey. And while many people dine out because of the convenience or due to a hectic work schedules, the reality is that eating out is enjoyable.
But what if you have diabetes? Does dining out have to become a thing of the past? Not necessarily. You can definitely dine at an infinite number of restaurants and still keep your blood sugars well-managed. Timing of meals, remembering to take your diabetes medication, and portion control are key factors to pay attention to when eating away from home. In addition, using the healthy plate method is a simple but helpful way to keep you on track with making better choices. Here’s how it works:
• Aim for half of your plate to be filled with low-calorie, non-starchy vegetables or salad.
• Have a quarter of your plate filled with a lean protein food, such as chicken, seafood or lean meat.
• Have the other quarter of your plate filled with a healthy carb, such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato or peas.
• Use heart-healthy fats, including olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts or seeds
Tips for top menu choices
Every restaurant is different and that means that foods may be prepared in any number of ways. Your best bet is to ask questions of your waitstaff so that you know what you’re getting. However, in general, the following tips can boost the chances of you making the best choices possible:
Starters and appetizers
• Go for a bowl of broth-based soup, such as chicken, vegetable or hot and sour soup. Skip creamy or fatty soups like chowders and French onion soup.
• Nibble on raw vegetables or crudité with a vinaigrette dressing or some hummus.
• Shrimp cocktail is a low-cal, low-carb starter.
• Vegetable salads are generally a good choice, but ask for dressing on the side so that you control how much is added. And bypass fatty, high-calorie extras such as bacon, cheese and fried noodles.
• Caprese salad (fresh mozzarella with tomato and basil) is a delicious, high-protein starter.
• Indulge in a few tortilla chips with salsa, but then ask that the chips be removed from the table.
• Get your omega-3 fatty acid fix by ordering broiled poached salmon, halibut or tuna. Other healthy fish include cod or scrod, haddock and mackerel. Pass up fried or breaded seafood dishes.
• Go ahead and treat yourself to crab or lobster — eat it plain with lemon juice and maybe a touch of butter. Skip baked stuffed versions, as they can be loaded with calories and carbs.
• Baked, grilled or broiled chicken is generally a good choice. Peel off the skin before you eat the chicken.
• Grilled or roasted lean beef is a good choice. If you can spring for it, order a filet or tenderloin cut to minimize saturated fat. And steer clear of oversized or super-fatty cuts of meat, such as prime rib.
• Burgers can be a good choice, whether you choose beef, turkey or bison. Shave off carbs by removing the top half of the bun, and ask for yours with vegetable toppings (minus the cheese).
• In terms of Chinese food main courses, chicken with broccoli, tofu-based dishes, moo goo gai pan (chicken and vegetables) and steamed shrimp and veggies are decent options.
• If you’re at a Mexican restaurant, try a fajita with chicken, shrimp or beef. You can lower the calories by skipping the rice; or go with a fajita bowl and ask for yours on a bed of lettuce. Ask for a side of beans for a dose of fiber.
• Try fish tacos — but make sure the fish isn’t fried. Also, go with corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas.
• Pasta dishes will be high in carbohydrate, for sure; however, if it’s noodles that you crave, lower the carb count by ordering a pasta primavera (pasta and vegetables) or pasta with marinara sauce. Since portions of pasta can be large, split a dish with your spouse or friend and be sure to have a salad on the side. And if the restaurant happens to offer whole-grain or vegetable noodles, even better!
• If it’s pizza you’re craving, go with a thin-crust pizza (and if cauliflower crust pizza is an option, even better!). Top it with plenty of veggies and chicken, and if possible, ask the chef to go easy on the cheese.
• Roasted or steamed vegetables are good choices, especially if they’re cooked without fat or with a drizzle of olive or peanut oil.
• Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are healthy choices, but because they contain carb, eat just half if the potato is on the large side. Go easy with butter and sour cream; try a squirt of lemon juice, instead.
• If you’d rather forgo a starchy side dish, ask to swap out a potato or fries for a second vegetable.
• Whole-grains provide important nutrients and fiber, so look for quinoa, brown rice, farro, bulgur or barley.
• A dish of fresh berries with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar is an elegant and healthy way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
• A small dish of ice cream or sorbet can also tame the craving for something sweet.
• If you’re wanting something a bit more decadent, go ahead and order the triple chocolate cake or tiramisu — but share it with the table and take just a few bites.
For the most part, restaurants try to be accommodating as much as possible because they want your business and they want you to come back! Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how your food is prepared, as well as questions for easy substitutions.
Since restaurant meals tend to be overly generous in size, see if you can order a smaller size or share a meal with your dining companion. Or, eat half of your meal and bring the rest home for the next day. Don’t forget to check your blood sugar before your meal and then try to check it a couple of hours later to see the impact of that meal on your blood sugar (the goal for an after-meal blood sugar is less than 180 mg/dl). If you’ve overindulged (and it happens!), try to do some activity, such as going for a short walk to help lower your blood sugar.