Going out to eat is one of life’s finest pleasures. But sometimes, restaurant-going isn’t easy. There are a multitude of factors that can make or break your experience. Even the menu can be a minefield.
At a time when new health trends are ubiquitous, it’s difficult to discern a menu’s language. And certainly, food-borne illnesses are always a concern when eating out, too, as reports of infected foods causing sickness continue.
To help you navigate a somewhat convoluted experience, here are TIME’s top 10 tips and restaurant industry secrets to help you be the best customer while also having the most positive culinary experience possible.
1. Don’t believe the posted calories
When you’re ordering food at a restaurant that posts the calories, it may be wise to account for a little extra. Restaurants often miscalculate, according to Abbie Gellman, a chef and dietitian. Gellman says that there’s often a 20% window for caloric levels to be higher or lower than advertised.
“I think people kind of assume that what they see is 100% accurate without fully understanding that part of it,” Gellman says.
In the case of a fine dining restaurant or anywhere else without advertised calorie amounts, Gellman says there’s a reason why the food often tastes better when you eat out, and you need to be aware of the additional ingredients used to add flavor in the cooking process.
“There are a couple things that happen in a restaurant that make [food] taste good. One is butter, and the other is salt,” Gellman explains. “So, if you go out to dinner, chances are very high that there’s a lot more butter and salt in that food than you would be using if you were cooking at home.”
2. How do I eat healthy and eat out?
Familiarizing yourself with restaurant menu lingo is the best way to combat these pseudo-healthy foods and make smarter choices, Gellman says. Remember: items prepared with healthy ingredients don’t necessarily make the whole finished dish healthy for you.
“You want to stay away from words like ‘fried’ or ‘battered’ — anything that includes deep frying, or a lot of fat, or a lot of breading, or things like that,” she warns.
The words you should be looking for on the menu are ‘grilled,’ ‘baked,’ ‘sautéed,’ ‘roasted’ and ‘braised,’ Gellman says. These are dry cooking techniques, so there will always be less added oil and butter.
Still not sure what to order? The healthiest food on menus tend to be baked, roasted or grilled fish, according to Gellman. “That’s something that usually has less fat associated with it,” she says. “Just make sure you pay attention to what the toppings are.”
3. Pasta isn’t bad in moderation — but there are healthier ways to enjoy it at a restaurant
While the Internet is abuzz with concerns over carbs, Gellman says there’s a lot of false information out there. Pasta isn’t always bad for you, and there are ways to make healthier pasta choices when eating out, Gellman says.
Homemade pasta has fewer ingredients—making it a healthier and cleaner option than processed pasta that isn’t as fresh. But, because chefs don’t necessarily keep nutrition in mind, Gellman recommends to always practice careful portion control.
With pasta, Gellman says, restaurants often serve up to four or five cups, when you only need half a cup to feel satiated, especially when coupled with a side of vegetables or a nutrient-dense alternative. If you’re served too much extra food, split a pasta dish with a friend or partner, she suggests.
4. Getting the gluten-free option does not make food healthier
When restaurants don’t have their calories posted, it may be tempting to go with something that appears healthier, like “gluten-free” pasta. The diet trend of going gluten-free, Gellman says, is not something that will help someone become healthier. That’s because gluten-free versions of dishes often contain the same amount of calories as their gluten-filled counterparts, according to Gellman.
As a result, Gellman says you should only choose the gluten-free option if you have Celiac disease or any kind of auto-immune response to eating gluten.
“I think people get confused,” she says. “Obviously there’s so much information out there. It’s really hard to keep up with all the changes.”
5. Know how to tip at a restaurant
It’s not just customary to tip — it’s almost always necessary, according to Douglass Miller, a lecturer at the Hotel School of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. Even if your experience is subpar, it’s important to bear in mind that your server makes much of his or her salary from tips, he says.
But there are ways to modify your usual tipping. For example, if you get a bottle of wine you don’t necessarily need to leave a full 20% on the total of the bill. “You might leave 20% on food but only 10-15% on a beverage,” Miller says.
Ultimately, in a culture where restaurants are not required to pay minimum wage to their servers (unless their combined base wage and tips fall short of that mark), Miller says to keep in mind that servers deserve to feel appreciated by customers.
It’s best to find a gratuity sweet spot that fits your budget, while also being respectful. “The guest should be tipping where they’re comfortable at,” Miller says.
6. Trust a server’s recommendations
When you’re not sure what to order, it’s a good idea to ask the server for a recommendation. Miller says that a good server will put aside his or her personal tastes to help you find a dish you will enjoy.
“To me, the proper way of making recommendations is based off of what the guest is looking for,” he says.
Naturally, the better the restaurant, the more knowledgeable the server should be. But Miller says all waiters and waitresses should know as much as possible about a restaurant’s food. “The more a staff member knows, the better experience it is for the guest, and ultimately, the better it is for the restaurant,” he says.
Gellman adds that asking a server for additional details on menu items is an important step for mindful and healthy eating, too.
7. The customer is not always right
The age-old adage of servers and restaurant guests everywhere is that “the customer is always right.” But that’s not definitively true, according to Miller.
“You want the customer to believe that they’re always right — that does not necessarily mean that they’re always right,” he says.
In a normal case of misunderstandings or server-guest disagreements, it’s in the best interest of the restaurant to go with the guest’s take on the situation, Miller says. But, in the case of harassment or intoxication, the restaurant will certainly not condone inappropriate behavior — at which point, the customer is not right, Miller says.
8. Anything less than medium is undercooked
The next time your server asks how you’d like that hamburger cooked, you should rethink your response of “medium rare.”
Anything less than medium-well is an undercooked burger, and therefore more dangerous in its potential for causing food-borne illnesses, according to Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer with Marler Clark law firm, who represents individuals infected with food-borne illnesses.
In fact, a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that “many restaurants prepared ground beef in ways that could lead to undercooking or cross contamination.”
9. Food-borne illnesses most likely come from fruits and vegetables
According to a recent CDC report, though meats of “animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated,” raw fruits and vegetables can easily become contaminated and spread food-borne illness as well.
“Exactly how those items are contaminated — whether they’re contaminated before they get to a restaurant or once they get to a restaurant — has a lot to do with a restaurant’s food-handling practices and whether or not there’s cross-contamination,” Marler says.
In 2000, an E.coli outbreak at a Sizzler restaurant in Milwaukee caused hundreds to fall ill — a 3-year-old girl died from the infection. This case was an example of poor food handling, Marler explains. Surprising as it may be, Marler believes that the outbreak originated from watermelon. The watermelon itself was not initially infected with E.coli, but it was poor food-handling techniques that led to the contamination of the fruit, he says.
“It was the fact that they were cutting up watermelon in the back on the same cutting board that they had been tenderizing steaks on,” Marler says.
Though it does limit your choices, Marler says sticking with fully cooked menu items can help to protect yourself from food-borne illnesses. “The best thing to do is be a bit more defensive and make sure that what you’re ordering is cooked,” he says.
10. Do your research
There are ways for patrons to protect themselves, Marler says. He suggests researching your restaurant of choice in advance on Yelp and other sites to find information about the restaurant’s food-handling processes ahead of time.
“If you are paying attention to places to eat, there are online sources now [that can help] — either the Health Department or social media,” Marler says.
And when it comes to nutrition, Gellman offers similar advice. “Educate yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says.
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