By: Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN —
Eating out now has a permanent place in our busy lives. The restaurant industry reports 20% of Americans eat out at least once a week, while 45% of us eat out multiple times each week. It’s convenient, offers more choices than what we might have at home, and is a great way to relax and socialize with family and friends without having to clean up afterwards.
But this can be a challenge if you’re one of the more than 100 million adults in the U.S. living with diabetes or prediabetes. You may be wondering, “How can I eat out if I’m following a special diet as part of my diabetes care plan?”
Well, the answer is simple. Just as you must make good choices when deciding what and how much to eat at home, you must also do that when eating out. Menu options may be different, but your personal meal plan remains the same. Since you are the expert about what should or shouldn’t be on your plate, it’s your job to help the person taking your order understand exactly what you want.
As you’ve probably experienced already, restaurants vary greatly in how well they can meet your needs. Those with standardized menus, like fast-food eateries, can’t make many changes since most of their food is portioned and partially prepared in advance. Others places make it clear right on the menu whether they allow substitutions and what special diet options are available, such as low-carb, gluten-free, or vegan.
Since most people living with diabetes need to control the carbohydrates in their meals, two of the most effective ways to do that are to avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and limit servings of bread, pasta, potatoes and other high-carb foods. Ordering a diet drink or adding a low-calorie sweetener to your unsweetened beverage is possible everywhere. Reducing the carb count of your meal can be done by making requests such as:
You can find other options by reading the menu thoroughly in order to see everything available in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to ask for sautéed mushrooms instead of gravy on your chicken or broiled cod in your fish tacos instead of breaded and fried. Chefs are used to getting special requests today and are ready to do what they can to accommodate you. It’s also good for their business if it makes you into a regular customer.
Here are some menu terms that can also help you find better portion sizes and lower prices without even asking.
A la carte – all menu items are priced separately, salads and side dishes are not typically included with the entrées
Blue-plate Special – a low-priced meal that typically changes daily and is not on the regular menu
Combination Meal or Combo Meal – typically includes specified food items and a beverage at a lower price if ordered as a “combo” than if ordered separately; sometimes called Value Meal
Early Bird Special – a reduced-priced dinner menu offered during a specified time in late afternoon /early evening
Entrée or Main Course – the most substantial course or dish in a meal (in U.S. and Canada), typically containing the meat, fish or other protein source
Family Style –courses are served on large serving platters to be shared by everyone at the table
Happy Hour – period of time when alcoholic drinks are available at discounted prices with free or reduced-priced appetizers
Prix Fixe or Table d’Hote – a set menu at a fixed price that typically includes an appetizer, entrée with two side dishes and dessert
Small Plates or Tapas – small dishes similar to appetizers ordered a la carte and often shared
Tasting Menu – a chef-selected meal that offers a variety of dishes served in small portions
Evert AB, et.al (13). Nutrition Therapy for Adults with Diabetes or Prediabetes: A Consensus Report. Diabetes Care. 2019;42(5):73-754 https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/42/5/731
Restaurant Success in 2019. Toast Industry Report. https://d2w1ef2ao9.8r9.cloudfront.net/resource-downloads/2019-Restaurant-Success-Report.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf
Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN is a registered dietitian, cultural anthropologist and scientific advisor to the Calorie Control Council, whose 30+ year career includes maintaining a busy nutrition counseling practice, teaching food and nutrition courses at the university level, and authoring 2 popular diet books and numerous articles and blogs on health and fitness. Her ability to make sense out of confusing and sometimes controversial nutrition news has made her a frequent guest on major media outlets, including CNBC, FOX News and USA Today. Her passion is communicating practical nutrition information that empowers people to make the best food decisions they can in their everyday diets.Reach her on Twitter @EverydayRD and check out her blog The Everyday RD.