Eat This, Not That!
Zaira Ahmad, MS, RD
These days, Americans are eating out more often. According to the United States Healthful Food Council, Americans purchase a meal or snack outside of the house 5.8 times a week.
In the past, dining out was seen as an indulgence where one could forgo the rules of healthy eating for a treat. Now, as it is commonplace, staying nutritious while eating out is important in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Excess calorie, carbohydrate, and fat intake can lead to obesity and chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Most restaurants serve hefty portioned entrées. Factor in sides, condiments, drinks, and desserts and you could be consuming over two thousand calories in just one sitting!
When a Muslim goes to a restaurant, he or she is faced with the additional challenge of staying halal. Read on for tips to achieve a healthy and halal dining experience.
Choose an appetizer to share with others and keep it relatively light. Don’t fall into the trap of consuming an ample starter and losing space for your entrée. You’ll end up eating your entrée even if you are not all that hungry, resulting in over-eating. Avoid cheesy, greasy, fried appetizers so you can appreciate your meal when it finally arrives! Try edamame (lightly seasoned steamed soybean pods) to get more veggies in your diet.
When selecting an entrée, choose from items that are baked, grilled, or sautéed instead of fried. Fried foods contain more oil/butter, increasing the fat content. If an entrée has multiple sources of fat—such as a burrito with sour cream, cheese, and guacamole—choose just one to add texture and creaminess to your meal. Try to choose a plant source of fat such as avocado, nuts, and plant oils. These sources are known to be rich in monounsaturated fats, which can prevent heart disease.
Stay halal: Be aware of enzymes used in cheeses. Pepsin is sourced from pigs, rennets are sourced from calves, and microbes are considered vegetarian sources. Your server should be able to inquire about this information from the kitchen for you. Also know that sometimes entrées, such as duck, are cooked in bacon fat or lard. This information should be stated in the item description on the menu, but that may not always be the case. It’s also helpful to become familiar with different names and preparations of pork. Some examples include: prosciutto, chorizo, capicola, pancetta, and mortadella.
Drinks add unnecessary calories to your meal. Instead of sugar-laden sodas try seltzer/club soda with a lemon or lime slice added. Unsweetened iced tea is also a suitable choice. The healthiest option, however, is to choose water; it will best maintain your body’s hydration balance compared to any other drink option.
Stay halal: Become familiar with common names for alcoholic drinks. You wouldn’t want to order a “Long Island” iced tea by accident!
Sides and condiments can increase fat and calories of an already decadent meal. Instead of fries, ask about the steamed vegetable side options.
Condiments such as mayonnaise add a creamy texture but are high in saturated fat. Skip the mayo and ask if you can have a slice of avocado in your sandwich instead.
High calorie salad dressings should be used sparingly. Consider this a rule: If you can’t see through the dressing you should avoid it. Instead, ask for a mix of olive oil and vinegar. Recall that olive oil is a healthy fat and can reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Many times sauces served with entrées contain wine. Although a portion of the wine will evaporate in the cooking process, a percentage of alcohol still remains in the food. This makes it impure for consumption. Ask your server to substitute in a sauce that does not have any alcoholic ingredients…otherwise get ready for a bottle of hot sauce!
After a large meal, you may want to ask yourself if you are really still hungry. If you truly want to order something sweet, consider splitting a dessert with your dinner party. You need only a couple bites to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you are unsure about ordering dessert, try this: have fruit with yogurt at home. You’ll be increasing your daily fiber intake and preventing indigestion all at once!
Stay halal: Many desserts contain ingredients that are not considered halal. Be aware that pie crusts and cannoli shells are traditionally prepared with lard. Cheesecakes may be prepared with beef and pork gelatins. Be mindful of desserts that include alcohol as an ingredient, such as bananas foster and tiramisu.
Dining out may seem like a challenge, but maintaining the purity of food consumed is an obligation for Muslims. Take the time to carefully read menus and ask your server or management for more information regarding food ingredients and preparation if needed.
To maintain healthy eating while dining out or ordering in, look for opportunities to make optimal choices and increase your vitamin, fiber, and healthy fat intake. With a few adjustments your meal can be both healthy and halal!
Zaira Ahmad is a registered dietitian from New Jersey. She has a master’s in nutrition and food science as well as experience in clinical dietetics, counseling, and long term care.