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Make Healthy Choices When Eating Out

It's time to celebrate and head out to your favorite restaurant. But there are a few snags. One friend is diabetic, another recently had bypass surgery and you and the rest of your friends are paying more attention these days to healthy eating.

What to do?

Surprisingly, heading for a favorite restaurant is one suggestion a dietitian made noting a restaurant you go to frequently will know your likes and dislikes and what you need.

"I tell my patients, It's what you eat, how you prepare it and how much you eat," said Hardeep Kaur MS, RD, a dietitian at Inova Mount Vernon who works with cardiac patients and those in the critical unit.

"The biggest challenge is portion size," she said commenting that in her travels overseas she has noticed that restaurant portion sizes are much smaller. She said she had read one study which compared a popular American chain restaurant with similar type of restaurant in France and Great Britain. "We were eating three times as much."

She suggested sharing entrees, appetizers and desserts or just ordering an appetizer. Another suggestion was to order an entree and immediately set half of it aside to take home.

"We should cut down on how much we eat, you are not a trash can," she said.

How food is prepared also makes a difference, Kaur said, noting that fast food is really loaded with fat and that a customer may easily be fooled. Chicken may have more calories than a simple hamburger. Her recommendations are simple for those heading for fast food. "Say no to French fries, make sure the food is not fried. Don't go on a regular basis."

"BEING A SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, most of our fare is much more healthy," said Rob Fleming, executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's Reston restaurant. He agreed with Kaur that preparation was very important.

"I would take a sautéed item or a grilled item and do something poached, steamed or pan seared," he said. He noted that he would use less cream, little or no butter, infusions of fresh herbs and fresh vegetables, heavier acids such as vinegar and tomato products.

Other possibilities include changing the starch from the very rich mashed potatoes to an herb rice pilaf or a noodle dish with olive oil and garlic.

He gave an example of a popular but rich dish that could easily be changed, jumbo lump crab cake, usually friend, but very good broiled. He noted that there were a great many healthy items on the menu including lean fish and salmon with its high concentration of good fats. He said those concerned about cholesterol might want to veer away from Tuna and shellfish.

Kaur, who has her own cooking show on a Montgomery County cable station, where she demonstrates how to make healthy Indian food, said she would not generalize as to what kind of cuisine was lighter in calories. All American food such as steak and mashed potatoes is high in calories but Chinese food can be loaded with calories as well. A Spinach pie might sound healthy but fat and cheese are major ingredients she noted upping the calorie count.

"There are ways to be creative and cut down on fat and calories," Kaur said. One way is to make sensible choices — steamed dumplings instead of fried, plain rice instead of fried rice at a Chinese restaurant. "Ask for additional vegetables, restaurants will do that. Ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side," she said. "Make sure you're not starving when you eat out. That way you will really enjoy the food when you get to the restaurant.

As for finding a favorite restaurant Kaur described one Thai restaurant that is very willing to make changes for her.

"On any given day we get numerous request," said Fleming. "Any guest's concerns I address myself, he said, whether its someone's allergies or another concern. "I make my food fit into what they need."

FLEMING SAID THAT dietary concerns have created a whole new element in line cooking. "When I started it was the chef's way or the highway," but now he notes that the staff is phenomenally well educated and sees to guests' needs on a regular basis.

While the arrogant chef of British TV fame may just be a memory, Fleming notes with a laugh that when it comes "to the dessert tray I throw in the towel. " He added that "there is always a straightforward bowl of fresh berries in season or a fresh crisp citric sorbet."

Rosa Buono, owner of Rafagino's in Fairfax insists "all my menu is a healthy menu. What people want we do."

She pointed out Rafagino's cooks to order so changes can easily be made.

The restaurant is mainly southern Italian with some northern Italian dishes. "We only cook with virgin olive oil," she said. "None of the dishes are pre-prepared. We have no fried food in the restaurant."

That said, she notes that when guest come in they can find out what's in a dish, can have something take out and cooked whatever way they want.

Kaur noted that sometimes choices were socio-economic rather than made by deciding what's healthy. She pointed that eating out at fast food restaurants was cheaper although there were alternatives like soup places. Even then clear soups are better than cream soups.

At other restaurants however, large portions were not the norm. "They are served very elegantly and tastefully with small amounts," she said.

In the end the choice is up to the customer with healthy food available for those who want it.