Dieting at Disneyland

by Stephanie Wien, staff writer

The beginning of a new year always brings with it resolutions to do things differently this time around, including getting in shape. A trip to Disneyland doesn't normally conjure up visions of healthy eating—the culinary temptations loom large, from corn dogs to cotton candy. However, for those counting calories, fat grams, carbs or Weight Watchers points, there are ways to enjoy a Disney vacation without breaking the dietary bank. We hope our tips and suggestions, which come from personal experience in visiting the parks, will help you stay in control in your next Disney park trip.

Know those portions before you go

Anyone who eats out in the United States knows that portion sizes are larger now than ever before. When you're not controlling the ingredients, it can be a real challenge to determine just how many ounces, tablespoons or cups are in the dishes you consume. Some good rules of thumb for gauging portion sizes are:

Meat: 3 ounces of meat, such as steak or sliced deli meat, should be about the same size as a deck of cards or a check book.

Pasta: 1 cup of pasta is about the size of a tennis ball

Cheese: 1 ounce of cheese is equal to four dice.

Familiarize yourself with serving sizes at home before your trip. Measure out a cup of cereal, weigh lunchmeat while putting together your sandwich. Doing this will help you to get a better feel for what a serving size of your favorite food looks like.

For some more eye-opening information on portion-size increases, check out the National Institutes of Health's "Portion Distortion" quizzes (link).

Tame the Portion Monster

When dining out, one strategy for dealing with large portions is simply to take part of the uneaten meal home. However, on vacation you typically don't have the ability to store and reheat leftovers.

Most entrees served at the Disney parks are sufficiently large that they can be split between diners. A couple can often split a meal, augmenting the entree with dinner salads. You also might consider ordering appetizers or soup, which typically come in smaller portions.

Pizza slices at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port are the size of two average pizzeria slices, making them big enough to split. MousePlanet File Photo.

Tortilla Jo's Taqueria in Disneyland Resort's Downtown Disney has a walk-up window with lower-priced a la carte options. Enjoy the tacos (2 per order) that come in warmed (not fried) corn tortillas with your choice of meat (grilled chicken, carne asada, ground beef and potato) or vegetarian (beans and cheese). The meat tacos are served Baja-style with onions and cilantro, no cheese, and your choice of salsa on the side. You can also get a side of vegetarian black beans that is large enough to split between two people, but remember to ask for it without cheese.

One final portion-taming strategy is to order children's meals. Not all children's meals are chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. The children's menu entree selections at restaurants such as Redd Rockett's Pizza Port and Plaza Inn include smaller portions of the adult pasta entrees.

The children's pasta meal at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port gives you the flavor without the oversized portion of the adult entree, plus you get a reuseable souvenir box. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Customize Disney Menus

In addition to splitting a dish, consider customizing some of the dishes at the Disney resort restaurants. At Disneyland's Redd Rockett's Pizza Port in Tomorrowland, for example, you can request any salad without dressing. The restaurant offers low fat dressings for its sizeable and flavorful salads that you can use to dress the greens yourself.

At other food locations, request salad dressing on the side. Remember, creamy dressings have much higher fat content and calories than vinegar-based dressings. Dipping a salad fork in the dressing between bites instead of pouring the dressing over the salad greatly reduces the amount of dressing consumed, too.

If you have any other specific dietary needs, be sure to mention it to your servers. They will work with you to get your meal prepared the way you like it.

Don't Forget to Eat

Although you may be tempted to skip a meal in order to eat less, don't do it. Eating regularly throughout the day will keep hunger pangs at bay and ward off cravings. Skipping a meal can also lead to overindulgence later in the day.

If you know that you will be having a large meal later in the day, don't skip breakfast. Instead, focus on having something low calorie that will get you through the morning. Consider bringing your own breakfast items with you to eat in the room before you head to the park, and avoid the temptation of the bakery case. Some items that travel well include instant oatmeal packets and energy bars, such as Luna bars. Kashi cereal is also a good breakfast treat; it has a hint of sweetness to it and with its high fiber and protein content will last longer than an average bowl of corn flakes. It also adds nice crunch to yogurt, and can make a good snack for later in the day.

Snack to Stay Satisfied

Having snacks throughout the day is another way to avoid overeating, as long as you avoid the fat and empty calories of most theme-park snacks.

Disneyland fruit carts offer a variety of healthy snacks that also happen to taste good. The fresh vegetable tray has carrots, celery, broccoli and tomatoes, with ranch dressing available for dipping. The carts also offer seasonal fresh fruits including bananas, oranges, bags of grapes and apples. If you're not worried about sodium levels, you might consider a dill pickle, too.

The Main Street Fruit Cart is one of five fruit carts at Disneyland and there are two more at Disney's California Adventure. Photo by Alex Stroup.

Popcorn is a diet-friendly snack available all over the parks. Oil-popped popcorn only has 55 calories for 1 cup. On Weight Watchers, three cups of "movie style popcorn with no butter" is only 3 points; that's only one point per cup.

You might also bring along your own snacks to save money and avoid temptation. Disneyland allows guests to bring in their own snacks with a few limitations. If you pack your snacks in hard-sided plastic containers such as Rubbermaid or Tupperware, or if you bring more than would fit in a soft-sided six-pack cooler, security may turn you away at the check points and tell you to store your food in a picnic area locker.

Many snacks, whether sweet or salty, now come in individual 100-calorie packs that travel well in a backpack; on Weight Watchers, they usually count for about 2 points. You should be able to find them in your local grocery store from companies such as Nabisco and Kraft.

You can also pack your own snacks, like fat-free pretzels or Kashi cereal, in small plastic zipper bags. If you use a soft-sided cooler with an ice pack, you can bring some string cheese or low fat yogurt for a bit of a protein boost. Bring your own small bags of vegetables and some low fat dipping sauce if you prefer a bit of flavor; Carrots travel well in backpacks and provide a nice crunch, too. T. Marzetti's makes a tasty fat-free dill dip that is still flavorful without the fat and calories of ranch dressing.

Whether snacking or having a meal, however, take the time to sit down when you eat. Eating "on the run" can make it seem like you haven't really eaten at all, and you may even forget to log your calories or points. Sit down and enjoy what you're eating instead of wolfing down a Mickey pretzel as you rush to get on Space Mountain.

Drink Your Water

We frequently hear about the benefits of staying hydrated. Bringing water with you to the park will save you money and remind you to drink it! As an added bonus, the load in your backpack will lighten as you drink it throughout the day.

One efficient way to carry water is with a reservoir water pack such as a Camelback. Adrienne carries an insulated Camelbak reservoir (link) that she fills with ice and water in the morning; inside the insulated pouch the water stays cool for several hours, and possibly all day. The hose makes it easy to access the water without removing the backpack, while a locking mouthpiece keeps the water from leaking out.

If you prefer a little flavor with your water, consider bringing along some sugar-free powdered drink mix to add to bottled water. For example, Crystal Light makes single-serving packets of lemonade that can be added to a single half-liter water bottle for a lower-calorie alternative to the sugary lemonade sold at the park.

Exercise Extra Credit

Even though it may not seem like it, you'll be burning off calories during your vacation. Over the course of an average day at Disneyland, you can cover more ground than you think. During a trip to Walt Disney World, Stephanie walked an average of 7 miles per day.

It may not be vigorous exercise, but those miles add up. Consider wearing a pedometer to track your mileage and log it at the end of each day. Give yourself credit for the walking: 60 minutes of leisure walking equals 2 "activity points" for Weight Watchers people.

Plan Ahead for Indulgence

Even though we have the best of intentions, let's face it: many of us can't go to Disneyland without visiting a churro cart or snagging some English Toffee from the Candy Palace. That's why it helps to plan ahead. If you know you'll be indulging, try to plan out your calories or Points so that you can accommodate your indulgence.

Select one treat ahead of time and to plan when you will eat it, such as an after-dinner churro. Making a plan reduces impulse eating but won't make you feel deprived. [One churro is about 240 calories, with 14 grams of fat, or 6 Weight Watcher points.]

You might also consider splitting a dessert with a companion, so you get a taste of some of the wonderful treats around the resort and don't feel like you're missing out.

Ultimately, it's important not to forget that you are on vacation—a little indulgence is okay. Watch what you eat, follow these tips and you'll stay on track. Just think how wonderful you'll feel when everyone comments about how great you look in your cute, new Disney shirt.