Most people love dining out, but do you always know what you’re ordering? Learn to avoid things like unsafe or unhealthy menu choices and steep price markups.
“Most restaurants are on the up and up,” says Andrew Knowlton. “But just like when you buy a car or TV, you need to be an informed consumer.”
Here are the 5 secrets you need to know before sitting down at a restaurant table:
Secret #1: Not-So Specials
Chefs do put legitimate items on the specials menu, such as new dishes they want to test out or highly seasonal ingredients like soft shell crabs. Other times, a restaurant orders too much product, so it becomes a “special.” And sometimes, chefs use specials to get rid of old, spoiling foods.
- Be wary of the 3 S’s: spaghetti, soup and sauce. Chowders, stews or pasta dishes can mask not-so-fresh ingredients.
- Watch out for expensive foods like steak buried in sauce; this can be a trick to minimize less-than-fresh flavor. Unusual combinations, like chicken thighs marinara on spaghetti, can also be a red flag.
- Exercise caution when it comes to shellfish specials. “If you see mussels on the menu and it’s also a special, that’s a no, because they’re trying to push those mussels,” says Knowlton.
Secret #2: Fishy Seafood
Like vegetables, fish should be regarded as seasonal and eaten at the peak of freshness. Wild fish is best because it’s sustainable, which means it's better for the environment.
- Choose small fish such as sardines, which are younger and less likely to have diseases than large, older fish like tuna; sardines are also incredibly heart healthy, rich in antioxidants and Omega-3s.
- Don’t order fish in restaurants where you think it could be past its prime. When fish rot, a chemical breakdown releases histamines which, when ingested, can mimic an allergic reaction. Symptoms include rash, wheezing and rapid heartbeat.
- When ordering shrimp, find out where it’s from. Domestic shrimp are best. Tiger shrimp, imported from Thailand and Vietnam, can be raised in dirty pools, eat their own feces and lack good flavor.
Secret #3: Contaminated Kitchens
State health boards set strict standards such as wearing gloves when preparing food. “But, chefs never wear gloves,” says Knowlton. “They’re taught in school to touch and feel foods.” Still chefs’ kitchens are probably cleaner than most home kitchens. And there are clues to determine if a restaurant kitchen is clean or not.
- Check out the dining area. Do the waiters look nice or sloppy? Are the tables clean when you walk in or are they messy?
- Inspect the bathroom. If it has a foul odor or the floor looks as if it hasn’t been swept all week, chances are the kitchen reflects those same standards.
Secret #4: Menu Markups
Menu markups, like calorie labels, can be a good thing. One study suggests people consume 230 less calories when nutritional info is listed on menus. But watch out for “menu engineering” such as dish placement.
- The eyes are naturally drawn toward the upper right, near the center of the page, which is where pricey special boxes often appear on the menu. “They’re not going to put a burger there,” says Knowlton. “They’re going to hide it somewhere down on the bottom left.”
- Putting prices at the end of a description, in the same font and without a dollar sign, detracts from the cost.
- Don’t fall for fancy descriptions like, “fillet mignon encrusted with Madagascar pepper.” Words that hint at intricate flavors can be used to lure diners to pay bigger bucks.
- The second cheapest wine on the list invariably has the biggest markup. “Nobody wants to be the cheapest person to order the cheapest bottle of wine,” says Knowlton. You want to order the second cheapest. Restaurants know that and will mark that one up.”
Secret #5: Diet Destroyers
Restaurants are in the business of making food taste good, which often means adding fat and salt. Even the healthiest fare can be loaded with butter, bacon, cream or other caloric add-ons.
- Many restaurants, particularly chains, list nutritional information on their websites. Go online and investigate before you go out.
- Typically, restaurant portions are huge, often 2/3 of the recommended daily caloric intake. Practice portion control by splitting an order with a friend or take half your order home.
- Ask for healthy substitutions. Order baked or grilled meat or fish instead of fried; get dressings and sauces on the side; and swap fries for a side of veggies.