For many people, eating healthy when dining out can be challenging, simply because they aren’t comfortable with how to navigate the process. Here are some tips that will hopefully help you feel prepared and educated to stay on track, even in the most difficult of situations.
1/ Check the menu before you go and decide in advance what you were going to order. Most restaurants have online menus available with detailed nutrition, allergen, and ingredient information. This makes it much less difficult to navigate if you have specific dietary needs. Some restaurants even have a feature where you can customize and build your meal with exact nutrient information for your specifications. Do understand that there is a human factor involved when the food is prepared, so what you get may not be perfectly aligned with what the nutrition information states. Yes, restaurants are supposed to have a standard template to follow when they are building the menu item, but I have definitely ordered the same thing on different occasions with much different portion sizes. Things like salad toppings or sauces can make a big difference here. For someone who is just trying to eat healthy, a double serving of nuts on their salad may not be the end of the world, but for someone who is actively trying to lose weight, frequency of additional toppings can have a large impact. Deciding what you are going to have an advance is also helpful if you are dining out with someone who is not as health conscious about their food choices. Research has shown that we tend to eat more when those who we dine with eat more, and that we tend to make poorer food choices when those who we dine with also make poor food choices.
2/ Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you want to know more about a specific menu item or how it’s prepared. It is very common these days for people to have very particular dietary needs because of food allergens. Restaurant staff also recognize that more and more people are trying to make healthier choices and they are used to being asked questions more often now. Any reasonable server will gladly answer questions about menu options for you. For some restaurants, grilled may mean cooked on an open flame, for others it may mean grilled on an industrial skillet with added cooking fats. Some restaurants cook “grilled veggies” or “steamed veggies” with added butter or oil, others do not. If you want to know what something means, ask!
3/ Ask for substitutions. Be polite, and be aware that some restaurants may require an up charge for modifications, but again this is more common than you might think. Worst case scenario, you ask and they say no.
4/ Understand the basics about of food preparation terms. Grilled, broiled, sautéed, steamed, roasted, fried, scampi, poached, etc. Some cooking terms are dead giveaway for calorie-laden sauces or excess cooking fat.
5/ Soups often seem like a healthy option, but can be misleading. Make sure you know which are cream or roux-based and which are broth-based. If they have ground meat, bacon, or sausage, they are likely higher in calories than lean seafood or chicken. Some soups are loaded with veggies, which makes them a great option.
6/ Don’t forget the option of à la carte! Many restaurants will let you order a veggie plate and add a lean meat on for the same charge as you would for adding it to a salad.
7/ Ask for sauces and dressings on the side. Opt for lower calorie options like mustard, vinaigrettes, or herb-based seasonings. I’ve even brought my own dressing and a small container when I knew there wasn’t a healthy option that I would like available at a specific restaurant. This only works if you know you will be dining out in advance of course. I also don’t necessarily advocate that you are this strict with your food choices, but again I want to provide all kinds of options for those who are at various stages of their health journey.
8/ Be mindful of portions. If you were familiar with the basic portion guidelines, you will know when one meal could easily be two. Ask for a box and save half for later. If you’re still hungry, you can always have more.
9/ Skip high calorie beverages. Not only will drinking water save money on the bill, it will also save you a large amount of calories for your meal. When the server tops off your soda, sweet tea, or lemonade multiple times, it becomes very difficult to tell how much you actually consumed. Also, if you are consuming alcohol, you will be more likely to eat more than you planned or order something you would not otherwise consume. You would be amazed at how many calories are in specialty drinks… Sometimes even more than what’s in your meal!
10/ If you dine at a buffet, try to limit yourself to a reasonable number of different foods. Studies show that the more different options we have, the more likely we are to overeat. On the flip side, you may do just fine with taking small amounts (2-3 bites) of several things and not lean towards over-eating. Again, everyone is different. In the rare times I find myself at a buffet-style restaurant, I will usually make one trip and try several things in small amounts to see what I like most, and then if I am still hungry, I go back for a bit more of the favorites from my sampling. When at the buffet, I am looking for things that are grilled, steamed, loaded with veggies, and some form of lean meat option. I generally avoid heavy sauces, things drowning in butter, anything fried, and fatty cuts of meat/ground meat.
11/ Skip the bread. Seriously. Very few times will what comes in the bread basket beat what other options are available. I don’t ever want to fill up on something that isn’t as satisfying at the expense of healthier and more nutrient-dense food!
12/ If you want to splurge, by all means do so. I realize that not everyone eats out on a routine basis. What matters most with healthy living is consistency, not perfection. If you’re at a restaurant that you don’t usually get to go to which has a menu item you’ve always wanted to try, do so. However, if you’re dining at a place that has your favorite ‘fill in the blank’ item that you can only get there, and if it is available anytime you want it, don’t cave to food FOMO and order it if you don’t really want it. Another option that works well for a lot of people is to order a higher calorie appetizer or dessert and split it. I even know some people who implement a mandatory “three bite rule” in which, regardless of where or when they are dining out, they allow themselves to order a dessert and have three bites. For some people this may be too much for their willpower, and I realize it is not the most financially prudent approach to things, but it keeps them from ever feeling deprived. #DoWhatWorksForYou
To sum things up…generally speaking, what are some of your best options?
- Choose a cooking method that keeps things lower in fat/calories (grilled, baked, roasted, steamed, sautéed, etc).
- Choose a lean protein and veggies.
- Choose fresh fruit for dessert.
- Choose a salad with protein (add protein if it does not come with one by default) and specify dressing on the side.
- Choose broth-based soups with lots of veggies and lean protein.
- Sub bread for veggies or fresh fruit when picking a side item.
- Choose nutrient-dense and flavorful toppings for meat and veggies, like fresh fruit/veggie salsas and/or herb and vinegar-based marinades and avoid sugar-sweetened or cream-based sauces, butter, sour cream, etc.
1/ Do you have a go-to meal that you order when dining out?
2/ Do you tend to allow yourself to splurge when dining out?
3/ What other tips do you implement that I didn’t mention?