How To Make Healthy Decisions When Eating Out

Eating at a restaurant and eating for health are rarely complementary activities. In fact, eating out is often cited as the primary reason for an unhealthy lifestyle. But with a little knowledge and preparation, you can turn a restaurant meal from a death threat to a healthy choice.

Title image remixed from Yuri Arcus (Shutterstock).

We’re big proponents of the occasional culinary splurge, but whether you’re on a diet or you just don’t want to put on weight, eating healthy at a restaurant is as much about common sense as it is about preparing yourself (and your stomach) to make life easy.

We’ll cover the common sense rules you probably already know and should follow when eating out, but we’ll also try to tackle some of the less obvious ways to make a restaurant meal healthy. To help achieve this, I spoke with nutritionists and registered dieticians Allanah DiBona and Andy Bellatti.

Now, let’s get the common sense rules out of the way.

The Common Sense Rules You Probably Already Know

Just because eating healthily should be common sense doesn’t mean we actually abide by it. In fact, most of us probably throw our common sense out the window the second we plop down with a menu filled with spectacularly described food. Here are a few reminders for the simple ways you can keep a restaurant meal healthy.

  • Don’t leave portion control up to your willpower: We are all pretty terrible at self-control, and when you see a plate of tasty food in front of you, it’s easy to keep eating until you can’t eat anymore. According to Andy Bellatti, your best option is to order half portions whenever possible. If half portions aren’t an option, ask for a doggy bag before you even start eating. Allanah DiBona adds that you might try considering an entree as a meal.
  • Order dressing and sauces on the side: A restaurant can make something as healthy as a salad unhealthy by covering it in dressing. Ask for those sauces on the side so you can regulate — and easily understand — how much you’re using.
  • The sides are often the worst part of a meal: Most side dishes you get at a restaurant are fried or covered in some type of sauce. Choose wisely by going with the simplest option. This is often a side salad or mixed vegetables.
  • Not all healthy food is healthy at a restaurant: Bellatti points out that a number of foods we think of as healthy are actually not at certain restaurants. Sushi, for instance, is often supersized to twice the normal proportion and filled with mayo or fried fish.
  • Seriously, skip the soft drink: We all know soft drink isn’t healthy, but it’s worth repeating just to make sure we’re all on the same page. If you’re in need of caffeine, see our tasty and healthy alternatives to soft drinks.

The simple rule for eating out is this: If it sounds like it’s unhealthy, it probably is. With that in mind, let’s move on to some of the ways you can customise almost any meal to make it healthier. Photo by Alpha.

Eat Healthy at Any Sit-Down Restaurant

You can certainly try to hit up healthy restaurants, but you aren’t always in full control of the restaurant choice. Perhaps you’re on holidays with friends and you get roped into heading down to the Super Fatty Butter Palace for a meal. You can still make healthy choices — here’s how to do it.

Give Your Willpower a Break and Eat a Snack First

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do for yourself before eating out is to eat a little snack before you go. Bellatti explains:

Eating something an hour before you get to the restaurant is one of the best ways to avoid cravings and impulse decisions. Some ideas: half an apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter, vegetables and hummus, a small banana and a square of dark chocolate. The idea is not to get to the restaurant already full, but to avoid that famished feeling that leads to “eating with the eyeballs”.

Essentially, eating a snack gives your willpower a rest and makes a healthy decision easy. When you’re not starving, those two entrees followed by a burger the size of your head won’t be nearly as appealing. Photo by jrsnchzhrs. [clear]

Navigate Any Menu Like a Nutrition Pro

Finding a healthy meal on a menu is hard at a lot of restaurants, but all you need to know is where to start. DiBona offers a simple tip for this:

A good rule of thumb is to make protein and produce the basis of your meals. It’s easier to navigate a menu when you’re looking for large servings of protein (chicken, fish, beef) and any sort of produce that appeals (salad, veggie sides). If you’re aiming for health, most people find these parameters the easiest way to operate.

Once you’ve made your protein choice, start looking for the simplest-sounding food on the menu. Bellatti explains:

The idea is to eat simple food. Anything smothered in five types of cheese is not “simple”. An edamame entree? Simple. Nachos with sour cream, beef and cheese? Overload. Corn tortillas with black beans and sauteed vegetables? Simple.

With these choices, you can usually find something on the menu that’s both appetising and healthy. If you’re still stuck, then it’s time to start asking your waiter questions. Photo by Orin Zebest. [clear]

The Questions You Should Ask

If you’re anything like me, then you probably have no interest in asking questions about menu items and instead order blindly without worrying about the repercussions. This is great for an adventurous night out, but if you want to keep the meal healthy, you have to ask questions. DiBona offers this reasoning:

Shelve your pride and ask some questions. Often we avoid seeking information in restaurants in order to avoid being the high-maintenance table. Servers memorise the menus for a reason, and you’re purchasing a product. [Asking a question] ensures you’re getting something you really want. You should always know precisely what you’re putting into your body.

Bellatti echoes those statements but adds a few concrete questions that are good to ask in nearly every circumstance:

  • What can I get instead of fries?
  • What vegetables can I get with that?
  • Do you offer half portions?

Asking questions will only get you so far. At some restaurants you might also need to make substitutions. Photo by Jeffrey Beall.

Tweak the Menu with Substitutions and Requests

Even with knowledge of a menu, you still might not find a healthy option. When that’s the case, it’s time to make substitutions and requests. This is surprisingly easy and only requires a few tweaks:

  • Hold the butter: Restaurants often use more butter in your single meal than you probably do at home in an entire week. Asking them to hold off on it will cut the fat content.
  • Skip the extras: Cheeses, bacon or mayonnaise are all pretty enticing when you’re ordering, but most restaurants pack on more than a single serving, which can add unneeded fat to your otherwise healthy meal.
  • Find the best dips: Bellatti recommends sticking with dips like guacamole or hummus when you have the option. If you’re not into stuffing up on bread, he suggests asking for cucumbers in place of pita bread for dipping.

Bellatti adds that some menu change substitutions are pretty useless and your best bet is to concentrate on cooking methods:

You’re better off getting items that are cooked healthfully (such as grilled or broiled) and then substituting healthier sides than trying to get someone in the kitchen to use one teaspoon of oil to cook your dish instead of two tablespoons.

For the most part you can apply the same rules above to fast food joints, but fast food is more about research (which is easier because they’re all chains) than anything else.

Find the Best Options for Fast Food

Since fast food isn’t made to order (at least not entirely), it’s not always easy to ask for substitutions or different cooking ingredients. Instead, you have to know what your best options are and what to avoid.

Picking what food to order is as simple as knowing the facts. A Calorie Counter’s breakdown of the best and worst menu items at fast food joints is the easiest place to start.

One of the key tricks with any fast food restaurant is to avoid the sides and just order a main dish. Most of the extra calories in typical fast food come from soft drinks and the default order of fries.

For everything else, you can follow the same advice when its comes to eating at sit-down restaurants: skip the extra sauces, look for healthily cooked foods, keep your order simple, and if your food is prepared right in front of you, ask for lighter portions. Photo by William F. Yurasko. [clear]

Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over the Occasional Indulgence

Whether you’re eating out once a week or you’re on holidays and doing it every day, the key point both Andy Bellatti and Allanah DiBona stress is that you shouldn’t always beat yourself up for overindulging.

One way DiBona suggests dealing with this is to apply the 80-20 rule: focus your choices on nutrition 80 per cent of the time and use the other 20 per cent as wiggle room when you just need to indulge. She also suggests the best way to deal with shame is to walk it off after your meal. If nothing else, just let go a little when you’re eating out. Bellatti sums it up nicely:

They should stop turning every meal into a guilt-fest. Nothing is more irritating than a dinner companion who has to make some negative comment after every bite (“Ugh, there goes my diet!” after taking two bites of bread or “I shouldn’t have eaten that!” after having a few bites of dessert).

You can find healthy options on nearly every menu if you know what to look for. This is key when you’re on an extended holiday or if you eat out frequently. For everyone else, the real takeaway is to let yourself relax a little: find the good options on the menu, but don’t worry about any indulgences you might make. Just try not to eat yourself into a food coma. Photo by Alpha.

Have your own tips for eating healthy when you’re eating out? Share them in the comments.

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based nutritionist and author of nutrition blog Small Bites. You can follow him on Twitter at @andybellatti.

Alannah DiBona, MA, MS, is a Boston-based nutritionist, wellness counsellor and the woman behind

Both graciously volunteered their expertise for this story, and we thank them.

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