It happens the first night of every vacation. My husband and I are so happy to have arrived at our destination that we head out for a celebratory meal. But it's only when we see our entrees arrive that we remember what dining out has come to involve: Super-sized portions, especially in the United States. When we eat out at home we're more apt to ignore this reality, probably because we have a refrigerator waiting to store the leftovers. After that first vacation dinner, we vow to order more judiciously for the rest of the trip. With some strategizing, we usually succeed (unless we come to the table with separate cravings and a reluctance to share).
Decades of Extreme Portion Growth
No matter where we eat, portion sizes can be a challenge for over-50 bodies that require fewer calories than they used to. "As you get older, your metabolism slows down so you need to start eating less," says Lisa Young, nutritionist and author of Portion Teller. But restaurants have steadily increased the size of their dishes to offer more bang for the buck and create a sense of value for the consumer. Young believes portion sizes in restaurants are generally two to five times larger now than they were 30 years ago.
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For a sobering lesson on just how much our meals have grown, take one of the Portion Distortion quizzes developed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health. You’ll discover, for example, that today’s plate of spaghetti and meatballs totals about 1,025 calories, more than twice what you could expect from the dish 20 years ago. And a restaurant chicken Caesar salad is now 3 cups carrying 790 calories, compared to 1.5 cups and 390 calories 20 years ago.
Bigger portions pose a psychological challenge for boomers who were raised to be members of "the clean plate club," says dietitian Angela Lemond, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But some restaurants are attempting to attract more health-conscious diners by adding smaller plates to their menus. Applebee’s, for example, has a selection of entrees under 550 calories; Romano’s Macaroni Grill offers a set of plates that are 600 calories or less; and even the Cheesecake Factory, long notorious for its massive portions, now offers a “SkinnyLicious” lineup of entrees, small plates and snacks. “It’s not spa food,” says Jayne Hurley, senior scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "but these offerings will certainly have a lot fewer calories than what you’d get on a regular menu."
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When you're eating out and trying to avoid megameals, consider these strategies:
Plan ahead. If you can, review a restaurant’s menu online before you leave home to see if it offers lighter dishes. A good place to start is HealthyDiningFinder, a website that collects menu information for thousands of U.S. restaurants. The site lists dietitian-approved menu choices by local ZIP codes. (The same information is available on the iPhone app YumFinder.)
Don't arrive hungry. Many of us limit our eating before a meal out to "save our appetite." We shouldn't. "When people go too long without eating and then go out to eat, they tend to overeat," Lemond says. You’re more likely to make a better food choice if you’re not famished when you arrive at the table.
Share the meal. Order a big dish and split it with your companion. There’s little resistance to this at most restaurants, although some may add a "plating charge" (typically $5 or less) for dividing the meal in two and providing side orders for each sharer.
Order smaller courses. Consider starting with a soup or salad (dressing on the side, of course), then having an appetizer as your main dish. But order carefully, Hurley says, because small doesn't always mean healthier. Fried onion blossoms or mozzarella sticks are "the worst things on the menu, really high in calories and fat," she says.
Get the kid’s meal. "The portion size is more appropriate, and many restaurants don’t care if you’re over 12," Lemond says. This is a more palatable option at outlets where the kid's meal is a smaller version of the restaurant's main dishes and not just generic mac-and-cheese or chicken fingers.
Ask for a half dish. Some restaurants will accommodate you, particularly if the entree is easy to make in a small batch, like pasta.
Fill the doggy bag first. When you order, ask the waiter to set half the dish aside in a carryout box before it even gets to the table. Or ask for your takeout box as soon as the meal is served, then set half of it aside to take home before you start eating. (To get an idea of proper portion sizes, check the suggestions at choosemyplate.gov).