Kitchen Impossible: What’s Safe to Eat Off the Menu?

By: StacyAtZeel

Bad news for foodies: A recent study published by Rand Corporation found that, based on the energy and nutritional value of restaurant quality foods, a whopping 96 percent of restaurant entrees fall quite short of the guidelines as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We're not just talking Burger King and Wendy's here either; this refers to all restaurants, from pub to posh.

Naturally, this begs the question that, if 96 percent of menu items don't meet USDA guidelines, then what foodsare safe to order? Kate Kaczor, nutrition assistant atLaura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services, weighs in.

Skip the salt (and butter and oil)

According to the study, most of the main entrees are within the calorie limits, but far exceed the saturated fat and sodium contents recommended. To help limit the intake of these, restaurant goers should ask for their dishes to be prepared without added butter, oil or salt.

Having the waiter doggie bag half your meal before receiving it can also help in avoiding too high an intake of saturated fat and sodium. Many restaurants have some sort of heart healthy symbol next to dishes that are low in calories or fat, and they can be a good guide to selecting wholesome dishes. Typically, however, sodium is not taken into consideration when selecting these dishes.

There's no place like home

When selecting a dish at a restaurant, try to mimic a nutritious meal you would prepare at home. Opt for a dish with a lean protein such as grilled chicken or salmon, a whole grain such as brown rice or a baked potato, and a vegetable such as steamed broccoli.

Even with this selection, however, portion sizes tend to be too large. A serving size of meat is typically three to four ounces, while restaurants usually serve six or more, for example.

When ordering a sandwich, try to select whole-grain bread and substitute mustard for mayo and other high fat spreads. (The sandwich will still taste delicious and you'll save loads of calories!) Pair the sandwich with a side salad or steamed vegetable. If you're dying for fries, split them with a friend.

Forgo fried, crispy and creamed

Try to limit your selection of entrees that include descriptors such as "battered," "creamed," "buttered," "crispy" or "scalloped," as these typically indicate a higher fat dish. Salads can be a great choice, but as the study found, when salad dressing is included in the calorie count, the entrée can have as many calories as a standard dish.

Toppings such as bacon and cheese can also increase the fat and sodium content. So choose a salad with lots of veggie and fruit toppings paired with a lean protein, and ask for the dressing on the side so you can decide how much you really want.

Drink wisely

According to the study, many of the children's meals fell within the guidelines, but specialty beverages catered to children were often very high in calories. When selecting a beverage for your child, avoid sodas and milkshakes. Instead select water, seltzer or low-fat milk.

Before and after

Appetizers and desserts can add significant calories, saturated fat and sodium to a meal. If you can't get around having some when dining out, pick one of the two and share with those you're dining with.

Appetizers such as mozzarella sticks, potato skins and onion rings are very high in sodium and fat and can rack up as many calories as you would typically eat in a meal if portions aren't closely watched. Stick to whole grain tortilla chips with salsa for a lower fat appetizer or start off with a side salad or broth-based soup for a more nutritious option.

For desserts, try to limit very decadent dishes such as fudge cakes and crème brulee unless eating with a large crowd who can split it. Stick to mini desserts, fruit bowls or a small dish of frozen yogurt.

Other things to keep in mind

This study found that those restaurants that only supplied nutritional information when asked to do so via e-mail tended to have higher calories compared to those who readily supplied it to their diners. Additionally, non-chain eateries were not looked at in this study and may have different nutritional data, but similar principles can be applied. With all the current press about the obesity epidemic and rise in chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, it is likely that more and more restaurants will be offering more wholesome options.

Overall, eating out is part of the American culture. While the options tend to be higher in saturated fat and sodium than is ideal, it is still possible to eat out and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Simply chose options that mimic healthy dishes made at home and practice mindful eating to ensure you eat only as much as your body truly desires.

Here is a great menu decoder that can help diners decipher what is really behind a menu item to help them make more nutritious choices.