Restaurant food tastes great, but many of the ingredients and cooking methods that enhance the flavor and texture of popular dishes add extra fat, calories, and sodium. Use these 10 tips to control how much you eat and make healthier choices when dining out.
1. Plan ahead before dining out
Many restaurants post menus with nutrition information online. Nutrition facts pamphlets are available at fast food restaurants, and some list calorie counts on the menu. Reviewing nutrition information ahead of time can help you choose restaurants that offer healthier, lower-calorie options. If you’re going out for dinner, eat lighter meals during the day—or plan to eat a lighter dinner.
Restaurant food tends to be high in sodium, and too much salt in your diet can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure. Try flavoring dishes with fresh lemon, lime, or vinegar.
Bonus tip: Snack on a piece of fruit or a small handful of nuts before you leave home. That way, you won’t be ravenous when you arrive at a restaurant and more likely to overeat.
2. Watch for empty calories in beverages
The calorie count of alcoholic beverages is higher than you may think, and beer, wine, and cocktails have little or no nutritional value. Soft drinks are high in added sugars, so your best option is to stick with water—plain or bubbly.
Bonus tip: Flavor a glass of water with fresh lemon, lime, or cucumber slices.
3. Choose healthier appetizers
Save calories by skipping the appetizer. If you order an appetizer, avoid deep-fried or breaded options (like a blooming onion or cream cheese wontons) and choose one made with fruit or vegetables (like edamame, fruit salad, or lettuce cups).
When dining in a Mexican restaurant, avoid the temptation of filling up on tortilla chips and salsa before your meal. In Italian restaurants, ask the server not to bring the breadbasket to the table. If you can’t resist, choose whole-grain breads.
Bonus tip: For a healthier appetizer, start your meal with a cup of broth-based soup, a small garden salad, or shrimp cocktail served with lemon.
4. Order lighter soups and side dishes
When ordering soup, avoid rich chowders made with heavy cream. Broth-based or tomato-based soups are healthier choices. If you’re going out for a burger, skip the fries or chips and opt for steamed vegetables or a side salad. It’s a great way to cut calories and fat, while sneaking in extra nutrition
5. Know the makings of a healthy salad
Salads are among the healthiest choices on restaurant menus, but they’re not all created equal. Salads are often garnished with unhealthy ingredients that add calories, like croutons, bacon bits, and cheese. A fresh green salad with grilled chicken or beans is a well-balanced meal, but ask for a low-fat dressing on the side so you can limit how much you eat. Opt for crunchy cucumbers or bell peppers instead of croutons. The more colorful veggies you add to a salad, the better.
Taco salads are usually high in fat and calories because of the ground beef, cheese, and deep-fried shell. Mayonnaise-based pasta, potato, and tuna salads are also higher in calories.
6. Read menu descriptions
The words restaurants use to describe dishes can help you make healthier choices. Stay away from deep-fried or breaded foods that are cooked with a lot of fat, and order dishes that are grilled, baked, roasted, steamed, poached, or broiled without added butter.
If you order pasta, choose a tomato-based sauce instead of a higher-calorie alfredo sauce. Tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been shown to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. Pesto is another healthier choice.
Bonus tip: If you use condiments, choose mustard instead of mayonnaise, and top your baked potato with salsa instead of butter or sour cream.
7. Control portion sizes
Restaurants often serve portions that are two to three times the recommended serving size. Limit your calorie intake by sharing an entrée or taking half (or more) of your meal home to eat the next day.
8. If it’s not on the menu, ask
Restaurants can often prepare vegetarian versions of some dishes or substitute ingredients. If fried chicken is on the menu, ask for grilled chicken. When you’re ordering pizza, request that the kitchen make it with half the amount of cheese. For pasta dishes with a creamy or buttery sauce, have the sauce served on the side.
Bonus tip: When ordering tacos, ask for lettuce leaves instead of tortillas to lower your carbohydrate intake.
9. Eat slowly to lose weight
Eating too fast can cause you to overeat, so slow down and chew each bite carefully. Enjoy the subtle flavors, colors, and textures of the meal. After you eat, it can take your brain up to 20 minutes to get the message from your stomach that you’re no longer hungry.
Bonus tip: If you live near restaurants, walk or bike instead of taking your car or public transportation. You’ll avoid parking hassles and get some physical activity, which can help you maintain a healthy weight. If you drive to a restaurant, a stroll after the meal promotes good digestion.
10. Enjoy a healthy dessert
Even when you’re trying to cut back on calories, you can still have dessert. Healthy options include fresh fruit drizzled with dark chocolate, angel food cake topped with sliced strawberries, sorbet, sherbet, and frozen yogurt.
Bonus tip: If you order something more decadent, split it with your dining companions.
Making healthy choices at restaurants is easier when follow a few simple principles. Fill your plate with colorful fruits and veggies, choose a variety of nutritious foods—including lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy—and limit added sugars and saturated fats.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 7 Tips for Healthy Dining Out
Mayo Clinic, Make Healthy Choices at Any Restaurant