The Cheerful Caregiver

Five Tips for Making Healthy Choices when Dining Out

Last updated: Oct 24, 2011


Every Saturday and Monday, Mom and I go out for lunch. Dining out is one of her main joys in life, so I don't want to deprive her of it. Yet I find it hard sometimes to make healthy choices when we go to a restaurant.

First, there's the issue of restaurant choice. I like eating at Mom & Pop places offering fresh (often locally sourced) food. Alternatively, I prefer chain restaurants that publish their nutrition information so I can make choices by looking up the data.

Mom, on the other hand, cares not a whit about calorie counting. She is the kind of person who can consume vast quantities of food and still not seem to put on a single pound. Also, our lunches out usually constitute her main meal of the day, so she wants to go someplace where she can get a substantial meal.

Stress too plays an issue in potentially overeating when I dine out. I'm still grieving my dad, and with Mom's recent manifestation of dementia-like symptoms, I've become stressed over the prospect of what the future holds. Frankly, just being around Mom and adjusting to the new dynamic between us (I'm becoming the caretaker, while she's becoming dependent), gives me the jitters.

When we first began our dining out routine, I'd eat like Mom because it helped assuage my emotions. That strategy didn't benefit my waistline or reduce my stress level, though. Rather, I became more stressed as I experienced feelings of loss of control over my diet regimen. Happily, over the past year I've learned some strategies for keeping my own calorie count down while allowing Mom indulge to her heart's content.

1. Choose a restaurant in advance so you can check nutrition information on the web

Many chain restaurants now post nutrition data on their websites. From fast food outlets like McDonald's to casual dining establishments like Applebee's, restaurants share nutrition information on menu items so diners can plan healthier meals.

2. Keep nutrition information in the car

It may not be as onerous as it sounds. I've found Mom and I really prefer dining at just a handful of restaurants. I keep a few pages of print-outs from the computer under the driver's seat so that I can make choices on-the-fly if we're making an impromptu restaurant choice.

3. Eat just half the meal

This is my tried-and-true trick for keeping calorie intake in check. If Mom wants to eat lunch at a restaurant with large portions, I order a to-go box with my meal. As soon as my lunch arrives, I scoop half of it into the box and place the box on the seat of the booth next to me. "Out of sight, out of mind" really works for me.

4. Eat mindfully

As I sit down at the table, I take a moment to assess how I'm feeling. If I notice I'm holding my shoulders up, it's a clear sign I'm stressed. Ditto if I feel tightness in my abdomen. In these cases, I take a deep breath and order something light. I make it a point to "eat" my meal visually and aromatically before I take a single bite. And when I do take a bite, I focus on the flavors and textures of the food. These tactics help me slow down and enjoy the meal.

5. Indulge occasionally

Where's the fun in life if you don't occasionally eat something really bad for you? Besides, if you allow yourself free rein in the restaurant from time to time, it makes it easier to summon the self-discipline to make healthy choices the rest of the time.

Today, I'm taking Mom for lunch at a dive cafe that happens to be the only place I know of in Albuquerque that still serves a traditional Monte Cristo sandwich: Turkey, ham, and cheese squeezed abundantly between three pieces of Texas toast, dipped in batter, deep fried, and served with strawberry or raspberry jam. Heaven! I'll make up for it by exercising more this afternoon.