How to dine out, the healthy way

Our social lives revolve around food and drink — cafes after the cinema, restaurants on a Saturday night and sushi or salad bars on work days. Dining out is a way of staying connected within our community, whether it’s catching up with family or enjoying a chat with your favourite barista-cum-friend. In moderation, this is not a problem.

Unfortunately, we’ve become so reliant on takeaway and restaurants that the homecooked meal is being enjoyed less and less. Research suggests Australians now eat 2.7 million meals at large fast-food restaurants every day and $1 in every $3 we spend on food is on meals prepared outside our homes.

In the ideal world, we would all resolve to spend more time brown-bagging lunch and channelling Kylie Kwong while cooking a nutritious evening meal, but convenience food with its flavours and instant gratification holds too much allure. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a taxing work schedule or juggling a sick preschooler and newborn, it’s hard to resist the temptation to slip into your favourite noodle bar for dinner or order some takeaway curry and put your feet up after a day on the run.

This is why you need to plan for quick-fix healthy dinners. Filling your shopping trolley with ingredients such as canned tomatoes and beans, tuna, pasta, brown rice vermicelli, vegies and tofu is a simple but effective practice that will encourage you to make more meals at home.

If you’re like most of us, eating out is your Achilles heel when it comes to weight management. But to protect your health, the Heart Foundation of Australia recommends you aim to eat out (or buy takeaway) on no more than one night a week. Instead, replicate favourite dishes using healthy cooking methods and fresh ingredients.

When you crave a burger, make your own healthier variety, which will be lower in fat, salt and kilojoules. Prepare a lean chicken or beef rissole and serve it on a wholemeal bun with salad and a small serve of wide-cut chips cooked in the oven with a spray of olive oil.

Dining out

Heading off for a relaxing evening of food, wine and conversation with friends? Make sure you take your willpower as well as your wallet. When eating with a group, you linger longer at the table than you do at home, so you’re more likely to indulge in dessert or a second cafe latte. Research released from Cornell University in 2007 has also shown that when people eat at restaurants they consider healthy, they’re more likely to order additional food and underestimate their kilojoule intake.

That doesn’t mean you should become a hermit and swear off social dinners. Nor do you need to become a culinary bore who makes everyone feel guilty by only ever ordering a salad or soup. You can eat out without blowing out if you pay attention to the way your meal is prepared and improve your nutritional savvy so your food choices are smarter.


Restaurant rules

The Vietnamese or Japanese takeaway you think is a healthier choice for tonight’s meal may be as high in damaging fats and kilojoules as fish and chips if you’re don’t order from the menu carefully. “Takeaway and restaurant meals are often cooked with unhealthy trans fats, which may clog arteries and contribute to heart disease,” says Aloysa Hourigan, a senior nutritionist with Nutrition Australia.

“These meals are high in salt (which may increase blood pressure), low in fibre (which means you don’t remain full for long) and loaded with refined carbohydrates (which cause insulin levels to rise, increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes).” When you eat or send out, food portions also far exceed healthy-sized meals, contributing to weight gain. That’s why you need a game plan.


  • Opt for meals on the menu that are cooked using low-fat methods, such as grilling or stirfrying.
  • Ask for sauces and dressings to be served on the side so you can control how much of them you eat.
  • Choose lean meats and ask for a double serve of vegetables or salad so you don’t have room for dessert.
  • If possible, order a child-sized meal with a side salad.
  • Ask for your plate to be removed when you’re full so you don’t keep picking at the leftovers.
  • Choose two entrees (eg soup and salad) rather than a main course or order three courses but don’t eat the whole serve.
  • Order a sorbet for dessert.

Cake break

You’re meeting friends for a coffee and catch-up and everyone is ordering a sweet indulgence to go with their caffeine hit. You don’t want to make anyone else self-conscious but this is the fourth time you’ve done coffee this week. How do you look after your waistline without making your friends feel guilty?


  • Choose fruit salad and yoghurt or, if that’s not on the menu, order an Italian biscuit.
  • Ask if anyone at your table would like to go halves in a piece of cake — but skip the cream and icecream.
  • Order something on the small side such as a gluten-free friand and eat only half.
  • Tell friends you haven’t yet had lunch and order a salad, wrap or sandwich instead of something sweet.


Fast food

Since the publicity surrounding the film Supersize Me, more people have become educated about how quickly and profoundly a diet of burgers and fries can cause our health to implode. Sales of some fast food has dropped off and, in response, many fast-food chains have given their menus a lean makeover. But are menu offerings such as salads, wraps and fruit smoothies really as good as they seem?

“Though it’s encouraging to see healthier takeaway choices, people assume that when fast food is lower in fat or higher in fruit and vegetable content it is automatically low in kilojoules as well, which is not always the case,” says Hourigan. “Wraps and vegie burgers may still be quite high in kilojoules. Team them with a smoothie or yoghurt whip and the kilojoules will quickly add up to levels not far behind those of a burger and small fries.”

While you’re counting kilojoules, don’t forget to consider your intake of sugar and salt. A muffin might be 97 per cent fat-free but if it’s high in sugar and twice the size of a cupcake, it’s not a healthy choice. Similarly, meals like wraps or sandwiches are often high in salt, particularly if they contain processed meats such as ham or pastrami (which are laden with preservatives and flavourings your liver will have to deal with later).

In newer fast-food outlets, even the humble sandwich is not what it used to be. Chicken schnitzel or ham? Mustard or low-fat mayo? Which one is better for your health? If you must eat fast food, make a point of patronising only outlets that display nutritional information so you can compare foods and make the healthiest choice, even when you’re in a hurry.

“Make sure you always choose the smaller sizes even when ordering sandwiches or bread rolls, otherwise a large torpedo-style bread roll could still see you wolfing down close to 2000kJ and over a tablespoon of fat,” Hourigan adds.

Better to opt for a salad? That depends on how it’s dressed. Choose a non-creamy dressing instead of Thousand Island or Caesar, which may contain as much as 22g of fat per 250g serve. By comparison, a garden salad with French or Italian dressing will often contain 1–5g of fat per serve. Remember also that a salad is not the best option if it’s not filling enough — you’ll be at high risk of ordering a burger or snacking on your partner’s or kids’ fries.


  • Order the medium rather than the mega-size burger.
  • Skip the fries, which are very high in fat and kilojoules.
  • Opt for water instead of a thickshake.
  • Choose salads that don’t contain fried croutons or bacon and select salad dressings that are not creamy.
  • Know your health stats: low-fat should be less than 5g and you should eat no more than 70g of fat a day (for a woman) and 90g (for a man). Low-salt foods should contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g (and you should have no more than 2300mg of sodium per day).
  • Avoid meal deals: paying 12 per cent more to upsize a fast-food meal means an average 23 per cent increase in kilojoules, 25 per cent increase in fat and 38 per cent increase in sugar, according to research from the School of Exercise Sciences at Deakin University. Many of these Deals also chew up 77 per cent of your daily kilojoule intake in just one meal. Yet reducing the portion — even by just a half serving of chips — can actually impact on weight reduction.


Snack attack

Even if you eat really well most of the time, it’s easy to get caught out needing food when you’re en route somewhere. You might find yourself flagging when heading home from work because you didn’t have time to eat lunch or you might need to energise yourself on your way to a holiday destination when you don’t have time to stop at a cafe. So you pull in to a petrol station for a pitstop but the only foods on offer are all kinds of high-kilojoule snacks. Hmmm … so tempting, but clearly not the best choices.


  • Buy a fruit ‘n’ nut nibble mix or some raw nuts.
  • Choose a pre-packaged sandwich (preferably wholemeal).
  • Go for oven-baked pretzels rather than chips.
  • If you must choose chocolate, opt for a single bar rather than the family-sized block.
  • Buy an iceblock instead of an icecream.
  • Choose plain water in preference to a flavoured milk or fizzy drink.

Celebrations and parties

At any celebration, whether its a wedding, party or work function, there is a strong live-it-up atmosphere that can encourage you to over-indulge. Keeping your alcohol intake in check will help you stick to your resolve to make healthier food choices.


  • Fill up on a few glasses of water before you leave home.
  • Skip the crudites and the bread roll before the meal.
  • Eat only half of the entree and dessert.
  • If the meal is buffet style, choose a smaller plate and fill it with salad and vegetables first so there’s less room for protein foods such as chicken or meat (remember, protein portions should only amount to the size of your fist).
  • Always eat slowly, putting your fork down between each mouthful. Give your brain 20 minutes to register fullness — that way you’ll be less likely to over-indulge.
  • If the party is for a child’s birthday, make sure you take some healthy snacks and set them out as food for the adults. This will help reduce the temptation to pick at chocolate crackles, lollies, chips and flavoured popcorn — foods you may never normally eat but which may appeal due to those lovely associations with your childhood days.
  • Take your piece of wedding cake home to eat tomorrow.
  • If you’re at a party where snackfoods will tempt you all night, reach for the carrot sticks and dip rather than the crisps or peanuts (and drink plenty of water so you don’t end up using wine or soft drink to quench your thirst).
  • If it’s someone’s birthday in the office, take your piece of the three-tiered sponge when it’s offered and have a bite, then bin the rest when no one is looking. Or bake a muesli slice as your birthday offering — then join in the celebration without having to worry about overdoing the kilojoules by having a slice.


How lean is that cuisine?

You can’t always choose where you end up having dinner, but by controlling what you order you can ensure that your food choices are the healthiest on the menu.



Choose: Clear soups, steamed appetisers, steamed rice,
stirfries with vegetables, tofu, beef, lamb, chicken or seafood.

Avoid: Prawn crackers and toast, fried rice, sweet and sour or lemon-sauce dishes and deepfried foods such as spring rolls, egg rolls, dim sims and fried icecream.


Choose: Sushi and sashimi, miso soup, ramen noodle dishes, yakitori and teriyaki or udon noodles in broth.

Avoid: Deepfried dishes such as katsu-don (fried pork) or tempura (seafood or vegetables in batter).


Choose: A rice noodle soup with lean pieces of beef or chicken with bean shoots, chilli and lime. Other good choices include ricepaper rolls, steamed rice and stirfries.

Avoid: Spring rolls and fried noodle dishes.


Choose: Clear soups such as tom yum goong, stirfries, satay skewers, grilled beef salad and hotpots.

Avoid: Coconut-based curries, fried noodles such as pad thai and deepfried entrees such as fishcakes and curry puffs.


Choose: Dishes with lentils, chickpeas and vegetables, and sauces such as yoghurt-based curry, rogan josh (lamb or goat in a tomato-based sauce) and tandoori. Eat with steamed rice and chapattis.

Avoid: Creamy curries such as korma and butter sauces, deepfried samosas, pakoras, pappadams and oily breads like naan.



Choose: Minestrone, an antipasto plate or pasta with tomato-based sauces accompanied by red wine and fresh fruit or gelato for dessert.

Avoid: Lasagne, creamy risottos or pasta sauces such as boscaiola and alfredo, garlic bread, fried mozzarella sticks or extra parmesan cheese.


Choose: Dolmades, grilled lamb or seafood dishes, kebabs or plaki accompanied by Greek salad.

Avoid: Spanakopita, cheesy dishes such as moussaka, fried foods such as calamari and honey-laden baklava.


Choose: Blackbean soup, burritos and flour tortillas with lean chicken, meat and sides of salads and vegetables.

Avoid: Fried rice, nachos, refried beans and sausages such as chimichangas. Ask for all food to be served without cheese or sour cream.



Choose: A pizza made from bread dough and baked on the oven floor rather than a pizza with a thin, crispy base, which is higher in fat. Ask for less cheese or a low-fat cheese. Order a small pizza so you eat only one or two slices with salad.

Avoid: Meats such as bacon and pepperoni and choose vegetable toppings such as tomato, artichoke, mushroom and chicken.


Choose: Flame-grilled chicken, then remove the skin.

Avoid: Rotisserie chicken. The stuffing prevents fat from dripping out so it’s taken up by the meat, increasing the kilojoule count.

Fish ‘n chips

Choose: A fish fillet and ask for it to be grilled.

Avoid: Thinly cut chips such as French fries — the larger the chip the less fat it absorbs while frying, so try to find a takeaway outlet that offers large-cut New York-style fries (skip the sour cream).

Fast food

Choose: A pie and some corn on the cob or have a wholemeal chicken salad sandwich — even as an evening meal, it will provide you with protein, carbs and greens.

Avoid: Fried foods that sit being reheated all day, such as Chiko rolls, dim sims and kranski dogs — they’re high in fat and low in nutrition.


Quick Tip

Eating on the run? Then head for a sushi bar — the service is just as quick as in a fast-food outlet but the food is much better quality. The vinegar in the rice mix keeps the glycaemic index of sushi low despite its rice content and, as long as you avoid fatty fillings like fried tempura prawn, this is a healthy low-kilojoule takeaway option.

Watch what you drink

Though you might associate weight gain with over-indulgence in food, your choice of drink can also play a pivotal role. Before you order that chardonnay, cafe latte or can of fizzy, remember this:

Soft drinks: Have been linked to weight gain, according to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital study in Boston, which tracked 90,000 women over eight years. Those who drank at least one sugary drink a day weighed more and had an 83 per cent greater chance of developing diabetes type 2 compared with those who had a soft drink only once a week.

Re-think: Make that fizzy drink a once-a-week treat. The rest of the time, stick to water with a twist of lemon to pep up the taste.

Alcohol: This is treated like a poison in your body, so you use it up immediately. This means a delay in burning off the kilojoules from your food, which may then be stored as excess weight.

Re-think: Go for spritzers or lite beers to lessen alcohol content and steer clear of alcohol if you’re planning to order a high-fat meal such as a creamy pasta or fish and chips.

Coffee and tea: Tea may be high in antioxidants and coffee may be high fibre, but load these drinks with sugar and full-cream milk and you increase your kilojoule intake and spike your blood sugar.

Re-think: Slowly retrain your palate by reducing the amount of sugar or honey and mixing half full cream and half light milk until you’re drinking only the low-fat. Order herb tea for a fresh, flavoursome change and steer clear of milky coffees such as lattes and mochas.

Stephanie Osfield has been a freelance Health journalist for 15 years.

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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