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Eating at restaurants offers plenty of perks — conven­ience, appealing options, fun with friends, a break from cooking — but it can also lead to serious pitfalls for your well-being.

These days, more of us are eating away from home a lot more often. So in this installment of The Living Experiment, we unpack the challenges of restaurant dining. We cover the importance of knowing what you want to get out of a particular meal, strategies for navigating subpar dining options, and the hidden world of questionable food suppliers.

We also provide suggestions for thinking outside the default-menu box. And, of course, we offer some experiments to help you take command of your dining choices, whether you’re eating at an airport or a multistar Michelin restaurant.

Know Your Goal

  • Some restaurant meals are about getting sustenance into your body, and others are special culinary adventures or celebrations of life. It helps to know in advance what kind of meal you’re having, and to what extent your health priorities will drive your eating choices.
  • Having high nutritional standards is smart; having an ironclad “all or nothing” approach to eating (total self-indulgence vs. total self-denial) may not be necessary, or even helpful. Decisions about whether or not to have wine and dessert, for example, or to partake of the signature house popovers may be best made occasion by occasion.

Where to Eat

  • In a world where the majority of restaurants are not at all designed with your health in mind, scoping out places that make meals from good, whole-food sources can be tricky.
  • Farm-to-table, chef-driven, and authentic ethnic places tend to be among the best options, but also the hardest to find.
  • Beware of menu green­washing: presenting industrial factory-farmed ingredients as “farm fresh” when they are not.
  • Keep in mind, most run-of-the-mill restaurants get all their ingredients through supply chains fed by factory farms, feedlots, and commodity brokers.

Ordering Smart

  • Typical menu choices are packed with flour, sugar, dairy, industrial oils, and low-quality animal proteins. Multiple carb-heavy elements (breadsticks, toast, pasta, crackers, muffins) may come with your meal.
  • Don’t assume you’ll get resistance if you request mixing-and-matching your way to a healthier plate. Can you find an unadulterated, simple piece of protein and surround it with some simple vegetables? Ask nicely, and you might be surprised by what’s possible.
  • Even if you don’t see anything promising on the menu, ask what types of vegetables are in the kitchen that day. Often, there’s something back there.

Special-Menu Guidance

  • Beware menu items labeled “heart healthy” and “low-cal.” They tend to be carb-heavy, low-fat nutritional disasters.
  • Before you request a gluten-free menu, see what’s on the regular menu, so you know what additional elements might be available for your mix-and-match choices.
  • However you choose to eat, know that finding and asking for what you want gets easier with practice. And the special orders you request today may very well help drive tomorrow’s healthy restaurant trends.

Experiments

Pilar suggests:
Ask for off-menu food swaps. If an entrée comes with a side of potato, rice, or pasta, consider swapping out the starchy option for a nonstarchy vegetable. If you like the looks of a protein-based starter, order that (versus a less appealing entrée) and combine it with one or more veggie sides. Ask about available-but-not-listed fresh greens (like spinach) that could be simply sautéed and served with olive oil or butter and lemon.

Dallas suggests:
Ask healthy friends for restaurant recommendations. If you’re traveling, ask a local, or use desired search terms (“organic,” “local,” or “farm to table,” for instance) in an app like Yelp.

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