Resolution Reckoning—Reining in the Excesses of Eating Out

January 2016 View more

Given their natural bias toward good health and physical fitness, the timing of New Year’s resolutions has always seemed peculiar. Certainly the turning of the calendar represents a fresh start, so there’s some built-in logic there. There’s probably also an argument to be made that the excesses of the preceding holiday season provide a perfect blowout before the gastronomic austerity to come in the Fat Tuesday-Lent model.

Still, there’s something about the dreary deep-winter, post-holiday landscape—particularly here in the Midwest—that begs a night out of the house. After a whirlwind of shopping and cooking and home entertaining during November and December, many folks are ready to let someone else prepare a few meals, even if they have to venture out into the snow and cold to enjoy them. Hibernation may be a very real phenomenon, but so too is cabin fever and nothing takes the chill off like a night out at a great restaurant.

But while that pesky resolution—be it a weight-loss goal or cholesterol target or calorie count—may not seem to stand a chance against most restaurant menus, two local experts believe that proper planning and focusing on some of the common menu danger zones can help keep things on track.

Prodigious Portions

Not every restaurant has a promotion involving a free T-shirt and a picture on the wall for consuming some absurd amount of food in one sitting, but almost every one could. Just because a place doesn’t hang its hat on a behemoth burger or a horde of hot wings doesn’t mean it’s not serving up what could be considered an outlandish portion.

“The number one nutritional issue at restaurants by far is portion size,” said Christine Palumbo, a Naperville-based Registered Dietician/Nutritionist and speaker. “Over the years, it’s become a trend we’ve become accustomed to, so now customers expect those large portion sizes.”

The “bigger = better” mindset is pervasive, but Palumbo believes that while diners may not be able to change how much a restaurant chooses to serve, they can certainly find ways to control how much of those portions they choose to eat.

“If you have the self-control to eat only half of what is served, you should do that and take the rest home,” she explains. “But for a lot of people, they’re going to eat whatever is put in front of them. So a good option is to ask the waiter to box up half of the portion upfront and just bring it with the check. That way, you never see it and you’re not tempted to eat more than you should.”

Snap Decisions

Another common pitfall for many diners is impulsiveness. Even in this age of countless picture-packed online review sites, when most patrons know practically everything about a new restaurant before they even step foot through the door, many people still aren’t nutritionally game-planning their night out as well as they could be.

“I think one of the most important things that someone can do to prepare to dine out is to plan ahead,” said Elizabeth O’Malley, a Registered Dietician/Nutritionist at the Center for Health and Nutrition in Naperville. “That starts with trying to anticipate when you’re going to be dining out, and to start thinking about what you’re actually going to eat at those meals. A lot of times dining out is kind of a last-minute decision that people are making at the end of the day when they’re tired from a long day of work and they’re hungry, and that tends to lead to overeating. Planning ahead and thinking about it in advance can lead to better choices,” said O’Malley.

To-Do (or To-Don’t) List

Both O’Malley and Palumbo agree on several other measures that diners can take to head off caloric catastrophe. For instance, one key aspect of planning is not visiting a restaurant in a state of near-starvation. Having eaten sensibly during the day leading up to an evening out can help derail the impulse to attack the menu with little or no discernment.

Managing the nutritional nightmares of added sauces and dressings is another must, and it may be best to skip the appetizer slate altogether—a minefield of calorie-packed mini-meals disguised as fun, tasty shareables. Unless it’s a broth-based soup, a reasonable side salad or maybe a shrimp cocktail, the appetizer course rivals only dessert as a deadly threat to the nutritional resolution.

“I know that servers won’t appreciate this opinion, but unless you’re a construction worker or a field hand, you probably don’t need an appetizer—which might be as big as a meal in and of itself—in addition to your regular meal,” Palumbo says.

In the end, O’Malley and Palumbo say the key to keeping those resolutions relevant beyond the middle of January is probably that boring old standby—moderation.

“Some people eat out every meal,” Palumbo says. “It can be done healthfully, but it takes a significant amount of self-control.”

The Curse of The “Diet Plate”

There are a plenty of reasons why otherwise sensible and fairly healthy people might choose to abandon their good intentions and hard work for an evening of gastronomic indulgence, but these three surely top the list: hamburger patty, cottage cheese, and peach half. That mismatched trio represents the classic “diet plate” foisted on diners by generations of restaurateurs reluctantly caving to pressure from the health movement.

Suffering the indignity of the “diet plate” is no longer the only way to enjoy a night out for those hoping to eat a little more healthfully. Several local eateries are offering a number of more appealing ways to keep the calories in check than simply opting for a meal not worth eating in the first place.

Seasons 52
The entire concept here is centered on fresh and healthy, as evidenced by 90 percent of the menu items, including desserts, individually holding steady below the 500-calorie marker.

3 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook

The Italian chain’s Lighter Side dinner menu features starters and entrees clocking in at less than 600 calories, including almond pesto chicken, roasted vegetable risotto and jumbo lump crab cakes. But you’re on your own against the temptations of the bread basket.

2752 Showplace Drive, Naperville

Cooper’s Hawk
Mind your wine intake and stick to the Life Balance menu of mindful portions—which includes selections like ahi tuna tacos and grilled tenderloin medallions, all coming in at 600 or fewer calories—and you can fly out of this hotspot with your waistline intact.

1740 Freedom Drive, Naperville