Eating Out the Healthier Way

Breakfast at a coffee shop, lunch at a burger joint, dinner from a noodle stall. If this describes your typical weekday meal plan, you are one of millions across Asia who are now eating more and more meals out of home. After all, most of us spend a sizeable part of the day away from home so it's inevitable that we eat out as well.

Eating out is very much an Asian phenomenon, with street food sellers (called hawkers in some countries) selling everything from local burgers to traditional noodle-based fare forming an essential part of the Asian food landscape; in addition to stand-alone restaurants offering cuisines from all over the world. International fast-food chains have also become popular, and offer a quick and hygienic option for people on the more.

Eating out need not be a guilty or unhealthy experience. Practising the same guidelines as home-cooked meals would  ensure that eating out provides the same kind of nutritional benefits. Besides, eating out does have its advantages: it takes a lot less time and hassle (no need to prepare and wash up afterwards) and one is more likely to savour foods from other ethnic groups or cuisines while eating out. In addition, eating out exposes one to a rich variety of foods - a key recommendation for good nutrition; something those of us with limited cooking skills may not be able to adhere to at home!

Safety First

Nevertheless, there are pitfalls to avoid in eating out. In Asia, especially in developing countries, some street food and eateries hygiene standards are a little dubious. Food sold on side-walks may be at risk of being contaminated by dust and other pollutants.
Furthermore if eateries do not have access to clean water for  washing, microbes that cause food poisoning may contaminate food. Also, unless the seller keeps a chiller on-site, raw cooking ingredients like meat and seafood may be breeding grounds for microbes - especially if they are not cooked thoroughly.
Therefore, the first rule to eating out healthily and safely is to be choosy about the outlet. Avoid eating in places where cleanliness is suspect. The stall's location, the food preparer's cleaning habits as well as his/her overall hygiene should give an indication of the safety of the food. Good food hygiene standards are being achieved, by many, and one of the benefits of globalisation, is global food hygiene standards using systems like HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). Comprehensive and mandatory training for food handlers in Good Hygiene Practises are also becoming increasingly common. Nevertheless, personal vigilance is always prudent, so remember always to look out for tell-tale signs like food that has been left warm too long, food that is left uncovered, etc.

Watch the Oil and Salt

Some ready-to-eat foods have more oil, salt and sugar than home-cooked food. Oil and salt could also be hidden in sauces, dressings and condiments. For example, the low-fat nature of Japanese meals is certainly a health bonus, but the soy sauce served with many dishes is high in sodium. To ease up on these, ask for the dressing or sauces to be served on the side and use them sparingly.     

Other healthy alternatives could include using low-calorie or low sodium  alternatives. Add cut chillies without dousing them with soy sauce, or add only one or two drops. Use mustard and ketchup instead of mayonnaise on burgers and sandwiches, and pepper or lemon juice instead of salt.

Substitute Your Choices

Sometimes eating healthier requires some substitution work. Ask for less oil or salt in your food. Instead of doubling your meat portions, ask for more vegetables instead when ordering noodles or rice. Request wholewheat instead of white bread in your sandwiches, low-fat milk in your beverages and baked jacket potatoes, salads or steamed vegetables instead of fries.  

Instead of pizza with plenty of pepperoni and cheese, order instead a veggie pizza with additional vegetable toppings. Pizzas with a thin crust (instead of the traditional thick crust) also good for cutting calories.

Cut down on the calories at fast-food restaurants with low-fat milk shakes (which are a great source of calcium), 100% juices, bottled water, sugar-free black, green or oolong teas, or diet soft drinks instead of regular soft drinks.  Fish or chicken burgers or 100% ground beef patties without extra toppings will all help to keep calorie intake down.

Mind the Portion Size

 A common problem with eating out is a greater temptation to eat more than one would at home. Large extra-value portion sizes can seem tempting because of cost savings, but opting for the bigger portion size can lead to eating more than is necessary to satisfy appetite, and ordering a larger fries or drink could add as much as 25% more fat and calories to your meal.

As well as matching your order to your appetite, be very aware when enjoying your meal, of how much you are eating. Pay attention to the food and your hunger levels and most of all take a little time to enjoy your food, and for your body to signal when your hunger is beginning to be satisfied. If you find the meal or snack you are eating is larger than you need, consider sharing with a friend, or request a take-out box and eat it for lunch the next day, or just leave the last few mouthfuls. Depsite what parents may have told you in childhood, it really is OK not to finish everything on the plate or in a carton!

The Bottom Line

Eating out is a way of life in Asia, and can be a wonderful pleasure. 'Splurging' on less healthful foods occasionally is not a problem but as eating out becomes the norm rather than the exception, it helps to plan in advance and be aware of the options out there. Being aware of the eatery's hygiene, making the right choices, keeping portions in check and going for a wide variety of foods will ensure eating out, even on a regular basis, becomes a convenient, healthy and enjoyable experience!

Here are some healthier options when eating out

  Choose More Often Choose Less Often
Chinese Steamed white rice or if available, brown rice. Steamed, roasted, poached, boiled, barbecued, grilled, stir-fried dishes. Soup noodles, assam--based dishes, steamed yong tau foo, dim sum Fried rice/noodles, butter rice, deep-fried dishes, stewed meats with a lot of oil, curries with coconut milk, "dry" noodles
Indian Steamed rice, plain thosai, chapatti, dhall curries, tandoori and tikka dishes, vegetarian dishes Briyani, roti canai, naan, papadams, curries with coconut milk, korma, deep-fried dishes, samosas
Thai/Malay Steamed rice, tom-yam soups, plain spring rolls, vegetable salads, kerabu, stir-fried, grilled, roasted, steamed dishes, satay, kebabs, fresh fruits Fried rice/noodles, nasi lemak, curries with coconut milk, deep-fried foods, desserts with coconut milk, curry puffs, deep-fried meats and seafood doused in rich sauces
Japanese Steamed rice, sashimi, sushi, soup udon or soba, teriyaki, sukiyaki, chawan mushi, stir-fried dishes Fried rice/noodles, tempura, katsu dishes
Western Salads (light dressing), baked potatoes, shrimp cocktail (without dressing), baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, poached, roasted dishes, stir-fried/steam vegetables, pasta with light sauces, fresh fruit, sherbet, sorbet Cream-based soups, oil-based salad dressings, garlic bread, french fries, onion rings, fried, creamed, stuffed, buttered, breaded dishes, pasta with rich sauces, rich cakes, puddings
Fastfood Broiled or grilled burgers, roasted (skinless and unbreaded) chicken, baked potatoes, salads, light-crust pizza with vegetables and less cheese, low-fat milk shakes, diet sodas, 100% juices Burgers with extra pan-fried meats and cheese, french fries, onion rings, soft drinks, full-fat milk shakes, sundaes