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4 Things I Learned About Eating Out & Health While Working As A Chef

Healthy eating in restaurants | Feed Your Awesome MachineWhen I was 15, I left school to train as a chef. Back then, I was somewhat of a wild child. My art teachers thought I was crazy, but most people weren’t surprised.

I loved food. I loved eating it. I loved coking it. I loved talking about it. Not much has changed.

I devoted the first 4 years of my working life building my career in hospitality. I worked in 2-3 restaurants at a time, all around Australia (plus a few in Cyprus), either in the kitchen, or front of house as a waitress or manager.

Hospitality was just the way I liked it- constantly challenging, high pressure and a big melting pot of crazy personalities. In my experience, Anthony Bourdain book Kitchen Confidential wasn’t too far wrong.

It was like a mad young love affair.

It was a love hate relationship...

At some point along the line, there was a moment. A moment when I realised that hospitality wasn’t rewarding anymore. I wanted to work with food in a more creative way. I wanted my work with people to go deeper. I wanted to make an impact. I wanted a little work life balance (although admittedly, it took me another 10 years to figure this one out).

That’s when I dove head first into nutritional science.

My one true love.

Restaurant food & home prepared food. What's the difference?

If you haven’t worked in a few restaurant kitchens, it’s easy to make the assumption that what you get served in a restaurant is pretty much the same as you’d cook at home. For example, if you order a tuna, white bean and avocado salad at a restaurant, nutritionally speaking it must be similar to making it yourself.

This assumption leads a lot of smart people to believe that as long as they choose the healthy options in a restaurant, then they can eat out as often as they like without compromising their live-healthy, look-and-feel-great goals.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly work this way.

The hard truth is, the food you eat in a restaurant will almost never be as nutritious and healthy as what you prepare at home.

Eating Out Healthy | Melanie Stephens

4 surprising things you might not know about restaurant food (unless you're a chef):

  1. Your restaurant meal has less nutrients than you think: 99% of commercial kitchens prepare everything in advance. That means the vegetables you ordered as a side dish were cut and cooked the day before, reheated in the microwave and then left to sit under the bain-marie for an few extra minutes by the stressed new waitress who is busy fixing an order she messed up. Every added step in the food preparation chain equates to a decrease in nutrients. By the time you get it, there are often few nutrients left. So while those vegetables are certainly not bad for you, they won’t do much to recharge your metabolic batteries.
  2. Commercial kitchens mostly cook with rancid vegetable oil. You diligently avoid anything deep-fried and “crispy” on the menu. That’s a good start. But how about a stir-fried prawn and vegetable dish, the grilled vegetables, or that salad dressing? Extra virgin olive oil is expensive and a restaurant is a business. So it’s more than likely whatever you order will have been prepared with a generous glug of rancid vegetable oil.
  3. Most restaurants use pre-packaged food (even some fancy ones). I was shocked the day the head chef at a well-known 5-star hotel proudly showed me the new food products they’d be using to save time in the kitchen. Premade pesto, sauces, premade soups, and hollandaise, to name just a few. Being a budding nutritionist, I immediately checked the ingredient list. Preservatives, salt, sugar, rancid oils. Yuck.
  4. Most chefs don’t train nutrition. To be a qualified chef in Australia, you have to jump through a few hoops. One of those hoops is a yearlong course in the theory and practice of professional cooking. I’ve done this course and to my disappointment there was barely even a whisper about nutrition. In many European countries you don’t even need formal training to be a chef, learning on the job is enough. Chefs don't create based on what you need for optimal health, but what will keep you coming back for more. So don’t assume anything. Even if you see the words “heart healthy”, “low-fat”, or “healthy-option”, take all this with a grain of salt.

Is all restaurant food the same?

During my years in hospitality, I worked with some amazing chefs that took great pride in their work and refused to use anything but the freshest ingredients prepared from scratch. So my 4 points above certainly don’t apply to all restaurants. But in the 30 or so restaurants I worked with, from bars and cafes to fine dining and 5-star hotels, this was what I saw, at least to some extent, in 95% of cases.

And it’s not because chef’s don’t care. Most do. But often their hands are tied, with everything coming down to pressures from management to keep costs down, and the practical need to get out countless meals to hungry customers as quickly as possible.

How to Eat Out Healthy with Friends

What's a healthy-foodie to do?

Eating out is a real pleasure, and I do it with reverence often. But not too often.

Personally, I choose restaurants known for their quality, and limit eating out to once or twice per week. I’m diligent about this because I know that even if I make the healthiest choices- which I always do- while it won’t negatively impact my body too much, it isn’t going to do anything to nourish me the way I need.

High all day energy, great mood, mental acuity. These are all things that are super important to me. Eating out too often means I can’t possibly get the nutrients I need to maintain this level of personal fabulousness.

That’s why restaurant food for me is always used as a fun social experience- never a fall back.

So when you find life getting busy and chaotic (as it always will), and when eating out becomes a fall back instead of the occasional pleasure, stop and take a step back. Ask yourself how you might organise your life just a little better so you don’t have to rely so heavily on eating out. You’d be surprised what fun simple ideas you can come up with if you just ask yourself the right questions and create a little space for answering them.

How many times per week do you eat at a restaurant? Do you use it to strengthen your social relationships or often as a fall back? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Melanie Stephens, Optimum Nutrition in Paris

I’m Melanie Stephens a qualified nutritionist, chef and workout enthusiast who’s wildly passionate about helping people get healthy, lean and energised so they can lead truly exceptional lives of their own design.

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