Whether you're fully committed to preparing your own healthy meals for the week or letting fit-flavors do some of the work for you to make sure you stay on track, things are always going to come up. Your best friend is having her birthday dinner this weekend at the new steakhouse that just opened, or you have a couple lunch meetings next week at the cafe down the street.
Eating out at a restaurant should be a fun treat, but can often be scary or frustrating if you’re worried about what to eat in unfamiliar territory. What do I order? Do I eat before so I don't eat too much? Should I just order a drink? Should I even go?
No need to fear! With these helpful tips you’ll be able to dine out like a pro without the guilt or fear of sabotaging your healthy lifestyle.
6 Tips for Eating Healthy at a Restaurant
- Be prepared
- Ask questions
- Understand wording on the menu
- Know your portion sizes
- Watch out for extra fat and sodium in “healthier” options
- Be mindful with multiple courses
1. Be prepared
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” -Benjamin Franklin
Being prepared is one of the most important steps to eating healthy at a restaurant. Most menus can be found online with nutrition information, which gives you a head start on what to expect. You’re more likely to make unhealthy choices when you’re hungry or distracted. Choosing your food before you get to the restaurant can make it easier for you to avoid bad decisions made out of spontaneity or hunger.
More importantly, being prepared means knowing what “healthy” means to you and being aware of your own personal dietary needs. Are you trying to stick to a low carb diet? Look for meals that have veggies as a side instead of something starchy like rice or pasta. Do you usually eat 5-6 ounces of protein per meal? Opt for the 6 oz sirloin vs the 8 oz that’s advertised with the mouthwatering picture.
Being prepared and having an idea of what you’re in for is half the battle and a sure way to ease the uncertainty and concern that is associated with eating healthy at a restaurant.
2. Ask questions
I know...no one wants to be “that person” who orders off the menu with special requests and a million questions. But when you’re committed to your goals and healthy lifestyle, nothing should stand in the way. Servers do more than just bring you your food—they should know the restaurant, the food, how it’s prepared, etc. Talk it up with your server! Don’t be afraid to ask if the side of fries can be swapped for a side salad instead, or if you could have the dressing/sauce on the side.
I bet you didn’t know that you could order “off-menu” at quite a few restaurants. Ask if the chef is able to prepare you a vegetarian dish or if it’s possible for you to just get grilled chicken and veggies. Often times off-menu items are easily prepared with only some minor tweaks. How do you know if the restaurant you’re going to will accommodate your special requests? Ask! You can even be prepared and give the restaurant a call before you arrive.
3. Understand wording on the menu
As you’re reading through the menu and descriptions of meals, pay close attention to the wording that is used. The description of a meal usually gives you clues as to how the meal is prepared.
Look for words such as “steamed,” “grilled” or “broiled.” These mean that the food is more than likely prepared with less fat. Avoid dishes with descriptions like “fried,” “breaded,” “smothered,” and “creamy.” This could mean that there is extra fat from oil or cheeses that you normally would avoid.
4. Know your portion sizes
Often times the meals you order at restaurants are 2-3 times the recommended amount of food you should eat per meal. This is why knowing appropriate portion sizes and portion control are important. Your plate should be approximately ¼ complex carbohydrates, ¼ lean protein, and ½ fresh fruits and vegetables along with 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fat. But how do you measure this without pulling out measuring cups or a scale at the table? Easy—use your hand!
The Hand Portions Guide makes it easy for you to identify appropriate serving sizes for different foods. Your hand reflects the proper portion for you and can be used as a measuring tool to determine how much to eat at a restaurant. Measure out how much you should eat for one meal then ask the server for a to-go box to take the rest home for another meal. (The Hand Portions Guide is also a great reference when measuring out food you’ve prepped at home and fit-flavors bulk items).
You can always share with a friend, but sometimes even half of a meal served at a restaurant is way more than enough. So just stick to your portions and you’ll be A-okay.
5. Watch out for extra fat and sodium in “healthier” options
In an effort to get with the times and cater to healthy eaters, may restaurants will over a “lighter” or “fit” section of the menu that you can order from...which is great! But make sure you’re taking into consideration more than just the amount of calories in the meal. While the calories may be low, saturated fat and sodium could be high.
For example, Shrimp Stir Fry is an option offered on a popular restaurant's “Lighter” menu. It’s low in fat and calories but packs 2,460mg of sodium. Yikes! That’s more than the daily recommended intake of 2300mg for healthy adults in just one meal. This is likely from the stir fry sauce, so request your sauces on the side to take control of your sodium intake.
This is often the case with sandwiches and burgers as well. That club sandwich may seem like a healthy choice based on the calories but the cheese, bacon, and mayo hike up the fat and sodium. Toppings are another thing to request on the side, so again, you control your portions. Or simply request for these fatty and high sodium toppings or sides to be left off of your meal completely so you’re not tempted.
6. Be mindful with multiple courses
Eating at a restaurant makes it easy to overeat due to the social norm of multi-course meals. So in addition to an entree, you also might have bread, an appetizer, salad, and dessert. That’s a lot of food! That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, though. Just be mindful when ordering these extras in the following ways:
- Appetizers - Choose appetizers that contain primarily vegetables, fruit, or fish (lettuce wraps, edamame, shrimp cocktail, fresh fruit compote).
- Soup - Opt for broth based or tomato based soups. Creamed soups and chowders can contain extra fat from cream.
- Bread - Ask if whole grain bread is available or just skip the temptation completely by asking the server not to bring bread to the table.
- Salad - Try to limit the high calorie add ons that can come on salads—cheese, croutons, bacon, other meats. Ask for dressing options on the side.
- Dessert - Finish your main meal before ordering dessert. Consider sharing dessert with a friend or ordering a healthier option if it is offered, such as fresh fruit or sorbet.
Don’t Stress, Enjoy Your Meal
Whether you’re with family, friends, coworkers, or complete strangers, eating out at a restaurant should be an enjoyable experience! You shouldn’t feel nervous or guilty for getting out of the house to enjoy a meal. Instead of focusing on foods that you can’t eat, focus on healthier options and all of the foods that you CAN eat. With practicing these tips you’re sure to build the confidence to enjoy your next meal at a restaurant while still staying committed to your healthy lifestyle. Bon Appetit!