How to Eat Healthy When Dining Out

When you want to celebrate something or just need a night off from cooking, you may enjoy heading to a restaurant. Dining out is a nice treat, but if you’re watching your diet, you might worry about making healthy choices.

Fortunately, healthier options are available when eating out — if you know what to look for. These healthy dining-out tips can help you stay on track and stick to your diet.

What’s in Restaurant Food?

Most people would agree that restaurant food tastes better than most home-cooked meals, and there’s a good reason. Chefs have plenty of secrets to make food as delicious as possible, so you keep coming back. Many restaurants offer generous portions, highly seasoned foods, and special treats to temp your tastebuds.

As a result, compared to home-cooked meals, most restaurant menu items are:

  • Higher in calories. One study found restaurant meals from both chain and non-chain restaurants average about 1,200 calories. That’s a significant amount for many people. For example, adult women need between 1,600 and 2,000 calories per day, depending on their age.
  • High in sodium. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to 1,500 and 2,300 mg daily. Some restaurant meals, like Chinese food, may easily top this.
  • High in fat. Butter, cream, and oil add richness and flavor to restaurant meals. Unless it’s labeled as a low-fat dish, it’s unlikely that a restaurant will skimp on these.
  • High in added sugar. Everyone should aim to limit added sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories. That comes to 50 grams per day if you eat 2,000 calories. It’s easy to surpass that if you order a sweetened beverage with dinner and dessert.

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Have a Plan

This doesn’t mean you can never dine out, but it helps to have a plan when you do eat out. Planning makes it easier to make healthy choices and reduces temptation. Start by choosing the best restaurant to support your healthy eating goals.

If you’re trying to eat low-carb, skip the Italian restaurant that serves mainly pasta and try the seafood restaurant. And if you’re counting calories, the all-you-can-eat buffet probably isn’t an ideal choice. Instead, consider a restaurant that serves tapas or small plates that you can mix and match and share with the table.

If you do some homework and check menu options online, you’ll find plenty of restaurants that serve healthy meals. While checking the menu options, take it a step further and decide what you’ll order ahead of time.

Sometimes you’re so hungry by the time you get to a restaurant that it’s easy to forget your diet goals. Knowing what to order in advance limits temptation once you arrive. For the healthiest options, stick to the following:

  • Meals with a generous serving of vegetables, or those that you can have with vegetables or a salad.
  • Fish or chicken that’s roasted or grilled instead of fried.
  • Dishes that aren’t prepared with cheese or cream sauces.
  • Lean meats like pork or beef tenderloin, or sirloin.

Ask for Healthy Swaps

When dining out, read the menu carefully to make the healthiest choices. Ask questions about what’s in the dish and how it’s prepared. If you prefer to avoid certain ingredients or have more of others, many restaurants are happy to accommodate requests like:

  • Ordering a half portion. This might not work on all menu items, but it’s worth asking. You may also be able to split a portion with a dining partner.
  • Using olive oil instead of butter for grilled meats, fish, or vegetables.
  • Holding the salt. Ask if the chef can use extra herbs or a low-salt seasoning instead.
  • Serving salad dressings or sauces on the side instead of on the dish so you can control the amount you use.
  • Asking to use less cheese on items like pizza or Mexican food.
  • Asking for an extra serving of vegetables instead of fries, potatoes, rice, or other starch.
  • Ordering a burger or sandwich “open-faced” with only one piece of bread or served on lettuce.

Other Tips for Healthy Dining Out

Incorporating just one or two of these easy tips can help you trim calories or order healthier options from the menu.

  • Curb your appetite. It might sound counterintuitive, but eating a small healthy snack before leaving home can help rein in your appetite. About 30 minutes before heading to dinner, have some fruit or a few crackers with peanut butter, so you don’t arrive starved. That makes it easier to order a healthier restaurant meal.
  • Skip the sugary beverages or cocktails. Seltzer, herbal tea, or regular tea are great zero-sugar and calorie beverage options. If you want an alcoholic drink, order a small glass of wine or light beer, which are lower in calories.
  • Say “no thanks” to the bread basket. Instead, start your meal with a light, broth-based soup or a salad. Take a pass on creamy soups like chowder and choose a vinaigrette over a creamy salad dressing.
  • Eat mindfully. Remember to eat slowly and ask for the take-home box when you’re full. Gulping your food not only causes indigestion, but it’s also easier to eat more calories when you eat fast.
  • Think twice before ordering dessert. If you’re already full from your meal, it’s best to skip dessert. But, if you really want something sweet, split a portion with someone at the table.

It’s OK to Splurge Occasionally

Dining out is a nice way to relax and socialize. You should enjoy yourself, especially if it’s something you only do occasionally. Remember that a healthy diet is about your overall diet quality and the way you eat most days. A few occasional splurges won’t ruin all the healthy choices you make most of the time.

Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Energy Contents of Frequently Ordered Restaurant Meals and Comparison with Human Energy Requirements and US Department of Agriculture Database Information: A Multisite Randomized Study. LINK

U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. LINK

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