Tips for Reading Restaurant Menus
Nine common misconceptions about eating healthier at restaurants.
9 Restaurant Lies To Watch Out For
Eating healthy doesn’t mean always staying at home and nibbling on rabbit food. Luckily, more and more restaurants are offering healthier alternatives, so eating out comes with less guilt. However, you still need to be watchful for fancy menu language that may be indicate good marketing rather than good nutrition.
Use Healthline’s guide to help decipher menu jargon so you can keep your eating habits healthy.
Sneakily Unhealthy Salads
Salads may sound like a healthy alternative, but that’s not always the case. Fat, calories, and sodium sneak into your greens via dressings, croutons, and fixings. For example, a salad with bacon in it loses its healthfulness pretty quickly. Many restaurants add salt while mixing the greens with the dressing.
To avoid unwanted extras, ask for dressing on the side. Better yet, ask for a side of olive oil. It too contains fat, but it’s the kind that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help your body.
What is Aioli, Anyway?
Many restaurants are using the term aioli to add a bit of flair to their menu, but don’t be fooled by the fancy wording. “Aioli” is typically nothing more than an emulsion of eggs, oil, and a kick of garlic. It’s the same thing as mayonnaise, which is known for packing a wallop of fat. If you’re watching your weight, watch out for aioli.
“Fresh” is yet another popular buzzword on menus. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has warned people about eating fish on Mondays: most fresh fish markets are closed on Sundays, meaning that by Monday, the fish may be a few days old.
While this might be a bit of foodie snobbery, beware the use of the word “fresh” on a menu, as it might be a relative term. Don't be afraid to ask the waiter about when and where the fish was purchased.
Eating veggies is good, but too much heat and water during cooking can suck out the vitamins and nutrients—especially vitamin C (due to oxidation). If you don’t want to eat your veggies in their raw state, steamed (as opposed to boiled, grilled, or roasted) is a better alternative. Stir-fry is popular and can be a good choice, but watch out for too much oil. Ask your server to request that the chef limit the oil when preparing your dish.
Serving Size vs. Portion Size
Getting a plate piled with food doesn’t mean you have to eat everything that’s on it. Serving sizes in restaurants have ballooned to convince diners that bigger is better. You may feel you’re getting more bang for your buck, but what about your waistline?
Portion size refers to the amount served (in a restaurant or in packaged foods). Serving size is the recommended measurement of how much you should actually eat. So, you may get a heaping “portion” of salad, but the “serving” may only be half of what’s on your plate.
The Iced Tea Misconception
This may be one of the first beverages your server mentions. It sounds healthier than soda, and tea is good for you, so why not? Here’s why not: unless the tea is unsweetened, you may as well have ordered a soda.
Sweetened iced teas are often loaded with sugar and caffeine. As you keep sipping to quench your thirst, you only get thirstier and are more likely to order another round. Best bet: go for the water.
“Free” isn’t necessarily free. For example, what certain foods may lack in fat, they make up for in sugar, flavor additives, and carbohydrates (think super-sugary, fat-free frozen yogurt).
Instead of offering vitamins and minerals, these versions sneak in unhealthy calories in the form of refined carbs and sugars that your body converts to triglycerides—a type of fat that can lead to heart disease. While your body likes fats—and needs them—just be sure you’re giving it the right kind. Avocadoes, almonds, fatty fish, and olive oil all contain “good” fats.
Understand the Meaning of "Reduced Fat"
Low-fat items don’t necessarily mean low-calorie. Similar to fat-free claims, reduced fat foods make up for the decrease in fat by accommodating with extra sugar or carbohydrates to keep the flavor.
Making smart choices—and being aware of snazzy buzzwords—will help you eat healthy when eating out. Choose leafy greens and raw vegetables. Steer clear of creamy sauces. Skip the mayo. Opt for hard rolls not brushed with butter.
Beware of Buzzwords
For starters, you’ll have a side salad with the “fat-free,” “house-made” dressing, and the “gluten-free,” "artisan" pizza with "farm-fresh" topping (see the chickens to the left) for an entrée. These buzzwords are eye-catching, but beware of what lurks behind the hype.
The label “gluten-free,” for example, was originally intended to alert celiac disease sufferers that foods didn’t contain wheat, rye, or barley. While gluten-free items may be higher in price, they can also be higher in fat. No gluten means no wheat, but manufacturers often replace wheat with fat substitutes.
More Healthy Eating Information
You don’t want to blow your diet just for a night out, but some diets allow for a bit more flexibility than others. See our 23 Diet Plans Reviewed: Do They Work? slideshow to see which diet is the right fit for you.
If you’re looking to add a little healthy touch to your life, you might want to start with our Healthy Summer Cocktails recipes for your next get-together.