By Kirsten Serrano
I wear a lot of hats in the food world and one of those is being a restaurateur. My husband and I have owned an Italian restaurant for 22 years. I know how the restaurant world works and what foodservice suppliers offer. I know the slim profit margins and the corners that typically get cut in order to make a profit.
When you outsource the sourcing and cooking of your food, it’s a lot less likely you will maximize nutrition and quality. I see dining out as a compromise, and compromises are a part of life. It’s so nice to be served, enjoy a meal with family and friends, and try something you don’t normally eat.
The key to better nutrition when dining out is to look for whole foods and avoid the highly processed ones, that means finding restaurants that are really cooking. Sadly, that can be a tall order! I find that many Americans buy into the illusion that most restaurants are cooking from scratch.
The whole industry is built upon keeping food prices and wages down. To do so, there is a lot of “warm cutlet A” and “top it with sauce B” happening in restaurant kitchens. The emphasis is on cheap ingredients that can be combined in addicting ways by low-wage labor.
I encourage you to make your dining out dollars count. For many, that means dining out less but spending more when you do. The larger your community, the easier it will be to find restaurants that really earn your dining dollar, but there are gems to find everywhere. Here are some tips for identifying restaurants that make more nutrient-dense foods with lower toxins:
- Farm-to-Table. Restaurants advertising farm-to-table eating are sourcing part of their food from local farmers. Sourcing locally means that someone inside is cooking from scratch.
- Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, etc. Restaurants advertising meals to meet these special diets may be cooking from scratch. As special diets like these become more mainstream, the food processing industry is keeping up by supplying restaurants with processed foods that meet these needs.
- Independent and/or Chef-Owned. There are a million restaurants you can automatically weed out because they are chains. Look for privately owned and chef-run restaurants. Generally, these folks are passionate about their craft.
- Price Point. Expect to pay more. You get what you pay for (hopefully).
- Integrity. They can tell you what’s in their food because they made it. Try asking a fast-food place what’s in the food.
- Special Orders and/or Allergen Flexibility. The more willing they are to meet your needs/tastes tells you how much cooking is going on. No substitutions across the board is a red flag for a place serving you premade factory food.
How careful you are when you eat out is obviously a personal decision that depends on your health, the parameters of your diet and how often you eat out. You can embrace occasional meals out and still safeguard your health if you follow some guidelines.
Here are my tips for smart ordering when eating out:
- Start with vegetables and fruits. Add some great protein and build from there.
- Avoid fried foods. It’s not that they are fried. It’s that they will be fried in highly inflammatory omega-6 fats, like canola, soy and/or corn.
- Ask if your food can be prepared with olive oil.
- Beware of sauces, dressings and marinades. Just like at the grocery store, they are often full of inflammatory fats, added sugars, too much sodium and non-food ingredients. At chains, they are mostly unavoidable.
- If the proteins served are conventionally raised, look for lower-fat options. If you are lucky to be dining at a place with well raised protein, fattier cuts are fine for most.
- If you are following a special diet with serious consequences, be extremely careful. The risk of cross contamination and a less-than-prepared staff is significant. For some, the risk is just not worth it.
Regardless of where and what you eat, enjoy your meal. Food is about more than nutrients, calories and fuel. It is also about flavor, experience and celebration. Dine well.
Kirsten Serrano is a nutrition consultant, chef, farmer, food literacy educator and the best-selling author of “Eat to Your Advantage.” You can find out more about her work at SmallWonderFood.com.