Have you counted how many times a week you and your family eat out? You'd be surprised to find out just how much food you eat away from home each week.
From Monday to Friday, school children gobble up canteen food, college students lounge around munching on cafeteria food, and working adults run to restaurants and coffee shops during lunch hours for a meal.
On weekends, many indulge in the "mamak-stall gathering" with friends and family; sometimes into the wee hours of the morning after a football game.
In addition to this, with a wide variety of restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and 24-hour hawker stalls easily available around the country, it's no wonder that eating out has become a common dietary pattern for us in Malaysia.
According to Dr Tee E Siong, president of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM), most people who live in urban areas have busy, fast-paced lives, leaving little or no time to prepare healthy meals at home. This results in more and more families eating out, busy executives skipping meals, and young children consuming more fast food.
Studies have also shown that consuming food away from home has become more common as household incomes increase.
The foods we choose when dining out generally have more calories, fat and saturated fat, than home meals and snacks.
"There are many hidden ingredients such as fat, sugar and salt in these meals. Studies have also showed that eating out frequently is associated with obesity, higher body fat or a higher body mass index (BMI). Consuming more foods away from home is also linked to consuming more sugary drinks and less fruits, vegetables and dairy products," explains Malaysian Dietitians' Association president Indra Balaratnam.
While restaurants, cafes and mamak/hawker stalls are convenient places for meals and provide opportunities to socialise, the results of eating out may be less than favourable to our health.
It is great if you think about eating healthily when dining out, as most of us are more prone to eating more calories and fat, as well as foods that are less healthy. It is possible to have healthier meals away from home.
"Eating healthily outside the home is not difficult. What you must do is make wise food choices and go to places where you can order healthier, low-fat meals. Also, try to order foods that are prepared with lower sugar and salt content," advises Indra.
She adds that everyone must practise the three key principles of healthy eating: eat in balance, moderation and variety. The Malaysian Food Pyramid is the best guide to help you achieve these key principles, as well as guide you on the types of foods and portion sizes you should consume.
"In every meal, try and eat a sensible amount of food from all food groups, and practise moderation when you eat so that you don't overindulge. Remember that no ONE food can provide ALL the nutrients your body needs. So eat a variety of foods from the five different food groups to gain the maximum nutritional benefits from these different food types," explains Indra.
She also shares a few more tips that you can practise when eating out:
- Order more grilled, baked and boiled food choices in meat, poultry and fish dishes.
- Order more fruits and vegetables as side orders to substitute for fries.
- Ask for sauces separately.
- Order small portion sizes, or share your food with friends.
As a result of modern lifestyles, many Malaysian families find it difficult gathering their family members together for mealtimes at home. It is however worthwhile for families to make greater efforts to have mealtimes together.
"Dining together and enjoying home-cooked meals as a family benefits everyone. Research shows that children who often eat together with their family members generally eat healthier and are more likely to have a healthy body weight," says NSM honorary treasurer Assoc Prof Dr Zaitun Yassin.
Assoc Prof Zaitun adds that eating together as a family has been known to protect kids from disorders such as binge eating, deliberate vomiting, and skipping meals. Family mealtimes provide a setting where parents can look out for early signs of an eating disorder and discuss it with their child before it becomes worse.
"Eating together also benefits grown-ups. Adults who eat with their families at least once a day tend to eat more vegetables and fruit, drink less soft drinks, and eat fewer fried foods. These provide them with important nutrients such as calcium, fibre and iron. This also saves them money while giving them the opportunity to model healthy eating to their children," reasons Assoc Prof Zaitun.
Family mealtimes are the best time to help members in a family re-connect and improve their relationships with one another.
These mealtimes foster a sense of security and stability within the family, and it also provides opportunities for adults to model table manners and nutritious food choices to the younger ones.
Moreover, home-cooked foods are always more nutritious and healthier.
"Family mealtimes are a good way to involve everyone in the kitchen when preparing meals.
"Get your children involved in choosing the recipes, as well as serving the meals. During mealtimes, turn off the television, and try and take phone calls later.
"If your family usually watches TV during dinner, break this habit slowly. Begin with one or two TV-free meals a week and gradually increase the number. Limit other distractions as well," advises Dr Tee.
Dr Tee recommends pleasant conversations, and avoiding nagging, scolding or complaining during family mealtimes. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak and be heard and always include your children in conversations.
Finally, remember that a family, who eats together, stays together, and also eats healthier!