We talk about nutrition a fair degree, and what I encounter pretty frequently is the question about eating out. “How can I eat right when I eat out?”. “What are the healthy options when eating out?”. Well, unfortunately the answer is not what people want to hear. It is next to impossible to eat properly if you are eating out on a regular basis. The primary motivations of a restaurant are providing a meal that appears large, tastes great and is at a decent price. The price point is a variant factor and some restaurants will overcharge because of the market they are in and the perception of quality is based largely on price. If the restaurant can also convince you that you are making a healthy choice, so much the better for them.
In some minor analysis of nutritional information at some common restaurants I find flat iron stake meals at 1200 calories, a chicken pesto dish at 1100 calories. I was able to get breakdowns for a couple things so I could do a detailed comparison. Now, there are better options than these, but at least I could do an apples to apples comparison here. So I’ve got a burrito made at a restaurant that prides themselves with unprocessed, higher quality ingredients with a focus on health.
Restaurant Burrito: 810 calories, 28g fat, 10.5g sat fat 115mg cholesterol, 1620mg sodium, 91g carbs, 2g sugar, 56g protein.
Home made burrito with same ingredients: 686.9 calories, 15.8g fat, 3.6g sat fat, 71.7mg sodium, 554.6mg sodium, 75.4g carbs, 1g sugar, 62.3g protein
So I’ve got fewer calories, significantly less total and saturated fat, 1/3 the sodium, fewer carbs. If we looked at micronutrients we’d see improvement at home as well.
How about a nice salmon plate.
310 calories, 22g fat, 5gsat fat, 75mg cholesterol, 500mg sodium, 5g carbs, 2g sugar , 22g protein
267 calories, 18g fat, 5g sat fat, 54mg cholesterol, 213mg salmon, 0g carb, 0g sugar, 25g protein
This was not going out of my way to pick ultra high quality ingredients either. This is salmon from a large costco bag of frozen salmon, and run of the mill chicken in my burrito. If you source your products from better sources, the numbers are even better. So let’s look at cost. Restaurant burrito $8. Home Burrito $3. Restaurant salmon $19, Home Salmon $5. If we start looking at sides, drinks and other factors the numbers will sway the home cooked side even further. Eating out will cost you 2 to 3 times what you would pay for the same meal at home if you are eating at lower cost restaurants. If you aim higher it can be an order of magnitude increased cost eating out. Some people have tried to use the time and convenience argument for eating out. “But it saves me time”. Really? I can put together a meal in 5 minutes at home if I need to. 20-30 minutes for a well prepared meal. Eating out at a full service restaurant is an hour time commitment minimum. Getting there, being seated, ordering, service, paying and getting back. Now, if I pick grass fed beef, free range chicken and so forth at home my cost does go up, but even with the best and most expensive ingredients I can find I will still spend far less at home than at a restaurant.
Now, it is fine to eat out periodically. To hang out with friends and family and share a meal (though doing that at home tends to build community better as well) is a great thing to do. But, if you eat out as a matter of course you are doing yourself a great disservice. Try to take control of your food. The heath benefits far outweigh the perceived benefits of eating out.