The holiday season's in full swing, and between all the shopping, baking, and cleaning on your To-Do list this month -- on top of work, kids, laundry, and all your other 365-day-a-year responsibilities -- you might find yourself reaching for that Chinese take-out menu a bit more often than usual.
But never fear: holiday gatherings at restaurants and take-out on busy weeknights don't have to derail your healthy eating habits this season. While it's always ideal to prepare a nutritious home-cooked meal chock-full of grains and greens, who has the time when there are retail bargains to score, travel plans to arrange, and in-laws to entertain?
There's no need to feel guilty about letting someone else do the cooking (for a change). I'm living proof: I managed to lose 90 pounds while continuing to dine out -- or order in -- at least three times a week. Here's how you can do it, too.
1.) Do your homework. Spend some time Googling your go-to restaurant and take-out options to learn exactly how they're prepared -- better yet, many restaurants and fast food chains post nutritional information their websites, or you can find it on sites like Calorie King or Diet Facts.
While a Chinese restaurant's chicken with broccoli is a calorie bargain at around 250 per cup, General Tso's chicken (which is deep fried) can pack a whopping 1,000 calories and 40 grams of fat per serving. You may think you made the virtuous choice with the chef's salad at the local diner, but add up the calories, saturated fat, and sodium in the deli meat, dressing, croutons, eggs, and cheese, and you might as well have ordered the cheeseburger.
2.) Beware hidden fat traps. When I sit down with a menu and start perusing meal descriptions, I know there are words that, loosely translated, mean "don't even think about it." Some of these food preparation descriptors include: fried, breaded, creamed, smothered, alfredo, battered, au gratin, crispy, and scalloped.
On the other hand, you can just as easily search for words that indicate the meal is prepared in a much more waistline-friendly way, such as grilled, steamed, baked, lean, braised, sauteed, poached, or broiled.
3.) Plan ahead. Many girls' night out crises have been averted because I took the time to map out what I wanted in advance. Even fast food chains have better-for-you options these days, but you'll probably miss them if you wait until you're at the drive-thru with six cars honking behind you or succumb to peer pressure when your friends want to share the cheesy spinach and artichoke dip. But if you've already determined the healthiest options on the menu -- and committed to the shrimp cocktail or fruit sorbet -- it really does make it that much easier to say "no, thanks."
4.) Open up your mouth. No waiter has ever refused to make alterations or substitutions to my order, or to ask the chef how something is prepared. I may be one of those people now -- the kind who peppers the waiter with questions and makes several special requests -- but at least I know I'm saving hundreds of calories by not being afraid to ask for sauces on the side, extra veggies and less cheese on my pizza, wheat pasta instead of white, to hold the mayo, butter, or oil, or to swap a side of curly fries for a baked potato.
5.) Size matters. When it comes to meals you haven't prepared yourself, it's just as important how much you eat as it is what you eat. Some people ask for a take-out box with their meal to get half the food out of their sight before they even begin eating, but I find it a bit less look-at-me-I'm-on-a-diet to physically divide the food on my plate. Our waistlines continue to expand right along with restaurant portion sizes, but simple things like putting down your fork between bites, or opting for the petite cut of sirloin over the 16-ounce prime rib can go a long way in making sure you're not mistaken for Santa Claus on the 25th.
What are some of your strategies for making healthy choices while dining out or ordering in?
Image via Mykl Roventine/Flickr