13 Delicious Ways to Eat Out Healthy
Who doesn’t love eating out? I sure do. But healthy eating out can be tricky! Some of the problems: Restaurant portions are often enormous. It’s hard to know which foods are swimming in sugar, sodium and saturated fats. Plus what sounds like a wholesome wrap or salad may actually be a calorie bomb in disguise. Here are my 13 restaurant strategies to help you eat out healthy.
These strategies (in a bit more detail) plus specific foods to eat and avoid at various types of restaurants are in my book Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
13 Restaurant Strategies for Eating Out Healthy
Eating out doesn’t have to knock you off course. Whether your goal is to manage diabetes or prevent it, keep heart disease away, prevent cancer, manage your weight or all of the above, you can enjoy eating away from home without straying far from your healthy eating goals.
- Treat it like it’s a special occasion only if it’s a special occasion. What was once a treat is now commonplace. We eat out much more often than we did a few decades ago. But for many, the idea of splurging when dining out sticks with them even if they visit restaurants a few times each week. Even if they eat out every single day! Throwing caution to the wind daily or a few times a week in restaurants is really not moderation and will likely make it hard to meet your health goals. Unless it’s truly a special occasion—a wedding anniversary, a birthday, a celebration of a job promotion, or similar event—treat it like any other meal. Try to mimic the portions you eat at home and balance your plate with more nonstarchy vegetables than other types of food.
- Make a game plan and stick to it. Winging it rarely works, so set your plan before heading to the restaurant. Over the years, my most successful clients have previewed menus online and made their choices at home in a leisurely environment. They give themselves time to think through their options instead of being influenced by the orders of their dining companions or nudges from the waitstaff. Those last-minute choices can do us in and make healthy eating out pretty darn near impossible.
- Ask questions. It’s okay to ask questions about how the food is prepared. Ask about the oils or fats used, and stick to heart-healthy liquid oils like canola, olive, and vegetable oils. As much as possible, avoid butter, lard, coconut oil, and bacon grease. Choose leaner cuts of meat such as skinless poultry, baked and broiled fish, and top sirloin steak. Inquire about sauces as well. Find out if they’re rich in fat or added sugars?
- Kindly make requests. A lot of people are too inhibited to make special requests because they worry about being seen as difficult. There’s no reason to think that your plate has to come out a predetermined way. My experience is nearly always positive, so do feel comfortable making your own requests. If the answer is no, that’s okay too. It just means that you may need another few minutes to make your selections. Consider the following when making meal selections.
- Can the dish be made with fish instead of beef?
- Please don’t bring bread or chips to the table.
- Will you ask the chef to use a light hand with the salt?
- Will you bring the sauce (or salad dressing) on the side?
- May I have marinara sauce instead of Alfredo sauce?
- Keep your overall healthy eating plan in mind. If your plan to go out to dinner includes higher-calorie fare, be mindful earlier in the day to keep calories in check. This doesn’t mean that you should starve yourself all day to binge at night. But it is wise to eliminate the extras at other meals. You might eat your lunchtime sandwich without a slice of cheese to save about 100 calories. And you could leave the croutons and ham off of your salad. Also think about ways to get in enough fruits and vegetables, two food groups that are frequently lacking from restaurant menus. If you don’t think they’ll make it to your dinner plate, eat them at earlier meals and snacks.
- Manage your hunger. It’s common advice to eat a snack before heading out to a restaurant or a party. While this is good advice sometimes, it encourages overeating other times. Instead of following blanket advice, assess your unique situation. If your meal is likely to be delayed, a small snack is in order. But if you’ve eaten adequately throughout the day and your meal out is at an appropriate time, you likely don’t need to pre-eat, and it’s probably better not to. Once at the restaurant, be sure to order foods that are filling. Start your meal with a low-calorie salad or broth-based soup. Research studies show that this strategy helps to keep calories for the full meal lower.
- Be menu savvy. A few menu descriptors hint that the item isn’t prepared in a healthful way. When in doubt, ask your server. Be leery of menu choices with these words: Alfredo, au gratin, batter-dipped, béchamel, breaded, bisque, confit, creamy, crispy (usually means fried), crunchy, crusted, fried, fritters, gooey, golden, rich, roux, scalloped, smothered, sizzling, tempura, or white sauce.
- Be aware of health halos of ethnic restaurants. Don’t automatically assume that food in Chinese or Middle Eastern restaurants is light and healthful because these cuisines tend to be rich in vegetables. Often these health halos are undeserved. The food may be prepared in more “American” ways and include much more fat and a larger proportion of meat to vegetables. Besides every type of cuisine has indulgent foods.
- Be picky. Don’t eat it just because it’s in front of you. If you don’t love it, push it aside. I sure don’t want to use up my calorie budget on food that’s mediocre! If you’re dining at a buffet, give a good look to everything that’s served. Don’t just start loading up. Be more deliberate than that. After scrutinizing the full buffet, select the tastiest and most healthful foods.
- Slow down and pay attention. Focus on every sip and every bite. Taste it. Feel it. Notice the texture, temperature, appearance, flavor, and aroma. It’s easy to overeat or eat mindlessly when you’re distracted by conversation. Plus, research tells us that our dining companions influence how much and how rapidly we eat. We tend to eat more in large groups. And we tend to eat faster when our companions eat faster. Unfortunately, the faster we eat, the more we tend to eat. Really focus on your speed.
- Be portion savvy. These days, restaurants rarely serve small portions. Know that whatever is on your plate is typically more than you need. Sometimes you can request small portions or order from an appetizer or small plates menu. Ask if you can order a lunch portion at dinner or the appetizer portion instead of the entrée portion. Splitting menu items with a dining companion is a good idea, though there is often an additional charge of a few dollars. When your food comes, decide on a proper portion based on the amount you strive to eat at home. Draw an imaginary line through your food, and don’t cross that line. Alternatively, you can ask your server to box half your meal before it’s brought to the table.
- Don’t drink your calories. Sodas, lemonade, sweet teas, and alcoholic beverages can cost you quite a lot of calories—several hundred actually. Be clear on where you want to spend your calorie budget. If it’s on food—not drink—order water, unsweetened tea, and the like.
- Reconsider the meaning of value. Some diners let cost influence their purchases more than any other factor. Other diners feel that they have to get their money’s worth by eating everything put in front of them. But there are other, more important, ways to assess value than to consider only the amount of money something costs. Pay attention to health value, nutritional value, and satisfaction value, as these can affect the way you feel immediately after eating and long-term. If cost is a major driving factor, choose the least expensive healthful item or share something with a friend. Or take some home to eat again at another meal. Two meals for the price of one is an excellent way to save money and better your health.
I hope you’ll enjoy restaurant meals now and then. These tips should help you eat out healthy and still have a delicious, fun meal. For specific restaurant menu options, check out chapter 7 in Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.
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Like most of my patients and clients, I lead a busy life. You probably do too. Fortunately, you don’t need weeks, days or even hours to start living better and healthier. This blog offers timesaving strategies and bite-sized nutrition and health information. Come by often for tips and inspiration to healthy living – no matter how busy you are. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist offering credible, practical nutrition advice to keep busy people healthy. Yes indeed, we can be both busy and healthy.