Dining out has become a national pastime. So has porking out. Is there a link between the two? You bet your burgers. We're a fast-food nation of overeating eater-outers, and if you want to trim down and stay healthy, I suggest you try my favorite new sport: menu aerobics.
It's played sitting down, using just your hands — with an assist from your agile brain. The playing field is every restaurant in America. Here are some of the simple to grasp, if not always easy to follow, rules. The only skill you need is mindfulness. Eating out isn't the enemy. Spacing out is.
SPLIT MEALS. When did portions in American restaurants explode? It's obscene. Europeans gasp at our super-size meals. Asians faint. We're the fattest nation in the world, with the heart disease and diabetes to prove it. And research supports the obvious: The more food on your plate, the more you eat.
So share an entree with someone else. Even if there's an annoying split plate charge, it's worth it. More and more, smart restaurants are offering up half orders or smaller portions right on the menu. Train yourself to order less. Tell yourself you can always order more if you're still hungry. (You won't be.)
FOCUS ON STARTERS. Advanced players skip over the entrees. Instead, they focus on the appetizers, sides and salads. That's where the gold is. The food's still a taste thrill, the portions are more manageable, and yes, the prices are lower.
You'll also save hundreds of calories when you make a meal from two appetizers or one starter and a salad, but calorie counting isn't the point. It's not as bad as texting at the table, but it can ruin the pleasure of the meal. When you eat, eat. Slow down. Chew. Enjoy. Guilt around food is counterproductive and actually promotes indigestion.
WAIST NOT, WANT NOT. Menu Aerobics is played best with a doggy bag. You order the entree you want, eat half, and take the rest home. If you meet a hungry person or stray animal on the way, be generous. If you hate leftovers because they tend to turn to pond scum at the back of the fridge, consult the Menu Aerobics manual for further instruction, including recipes.
SKIP OVER FRIED. Menu Aerobics gives you the core strength to glide quickly past the deep fried stuff: the fried chicken, the fried fish, the fried cheese curls. It's not a matter of "bad" food as much as a bad habit. When you have a lapse — and you will — and you wind up with a plate of fried onion rings the size of a Chihuahua, at least pull off some of the breading.
This is extremely challenging in the case of crispy french fries, so if that's your weakness, don't panic. Ask for the salt, count out 9 beauties (not out loud), and be conscious of every bite. Move the rest out of reach.
SAY THE MANTRA. Memorize this phrase until it rolls off your tongue without the slightest embarrassment:
"Dressing on the side, please."
Was that so hard?
Practice at home, and repeat it with a smile in every restaurant you visit. I'm all for tasty sauces and dressings, but many places pour on way too much without thinking, and without thinking, you take it all in.
Instead, dip your fork in, and sprinkle lightly.
DO YOU NEED BREAD? Some menu aerobic practitioners shun the buns and ask waiters to take the breadbasket away. Too many calories, too much gluten, too much bloating. If you can't resist, satisfy yourself with a few bites or crusts. If you want butter — and who doesn't? — make a little go a long way.
ORDERING WINE? If you're not interested, fine, but if you are, take the menu aerobics pledge and exercise moderation. Then you can toast your good judgment, repeatedly, throughout the night.
DESSERT! Talk about a minefield. Menu aerobics doesn't require you to deny, deprive or punish. You already know that the healthiest desserts are fruits — fresh or icy. But there are genius pastry chefs out there determined to defeat your game plan. So OK, order one gorgeous caramel-coated brownie with two scoops of pecan green tea ice cream, and pass it around the table. Be sure to take the first bite ... and kiss it goodbye.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O: HOLD THE SYRUP "I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time.' So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance." — Steven Wright
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle expert, well being coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected] She also produces EnExTV, a digital reincarnation of her award-winning TV series about sports, fitness and adventure, for kids of all ages, at youtube.com/EnExTV and facebook.com/EnExTV. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.