How to Eat Out Healthy

By Ali Luke
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One challenge that often crops up when trying to eat healthily is how to cope at a restaurant.

When you’re eating at home, you can check food labels and buy products that fit with your diet. You can cook without using oil or butter. You can pile your plate high with colorful vegetables.

When you’re at a restaurant, though, you might feel like you’re at the mercy of the menu – and the chef. Here are some tips on making sensible, healthy choices when you’re eating out:

Have a starter and entree, not an entree and dessert

If you’re having two courses, you’ll almost always find it’s healthier to have a starter and entree, rather than a starter and dessert. If portion sizes are large, why not just order two starters – or at least ask for a “doggy bag” to take part of your entree home in.
Good starters include salads (ask for dressings on the side), any fish options which aren’t fried or battered, and soups.

Order wine by the glass

Many of us will only have a glass of wine at home, but end up drinking half a bottle in a restaurant. A 175ml glass of wine is typically two units – and the government recommended maximum for women is two – three units per day. (It’s three – four units for men.) Unless you’re sharing a bottle around several people at a table, order by the glass: you’ll save on money, too.

Look for healthier menu options

Foods that are grilled, steamed or baked are usually best. Fried (sometimes called “sauteed”) is a no-no. Don’t be afraid to ask your waiter how something is cooked, if you’re unsure.

Don’t assume that a salad is automatically a healthy option: if it’s packed with fried, fatty bacon bits and croutons, and smothered with a creamy mayonnaise dressing, you’d be better off ordering a grilled steak with fries.

Ask for simple omissions or swaps to be made, where appropriate: a baked potato instead of chips, for instance, or just half the usual amount of cheese on your pizza. A few minor tweaks to your meal can make it a lot healthier.

If you must have dessert…

Sometimes, you find that you really want something sweet after your meal, and everyone else is ordering dessert. Should you just give in and have a giant slice of the chocolate fudge cake?

Well, you could, but you’ll probably regret it afterwards. How about choosing a fruit dessert instead – not one with pastry, like apple pie, but something which involves fruit in a light sauce?

Sorbets are low-calorie, though high in sugar. Ice cream, whilst certainly not the healthiest option around, is a much lighter choice than cheesecake.

A coffee or cappuccino makes a good alternative to a dessert (and will save you a few dollars too).

Healthier choices from different cuisines

Here are some quick tips on finding the healthy options amongst a few different cuisines:

Italian: Go for pasta, not pizza, with a tomato-based sauce. The more veggies, the better! Fish is often a good option, especially shrimp, for a low-fat but high-taste dish. Most Italian desserts are packed with fat and sugar; sorbet may be your best bet.

Indian: Avoid creamy curries (like “korma”) and pick tangy tomato ones (“jalfrezi”, “tikka” or “balti” are good). Go for chicken rather than lamb – and plenty of vegetables. Ask for poppadums instead of naan bread: they’re much lower in fat and calories.

Chinese: Have vegetable dishes, plain boiled rice (not egg fried!) and fish or chicken. Avoid pork balls and sweet and sour sauce. Although seaweed is good for you, Chinese restaurants usually serve it deep-fried – making it high in fat and calories.

Mexican: Avoid nachos – if you really crave them, have plain tortilla chips with salsa instead. Steer clear of the sour cream, and have a little guacamole (avocados are good for you, but high-calorie). Chilli (with its beans and tomatoes) is a good option, and chicken or prawn fajitas make a good entree if you split them with a friend. Don’t have burritos or anything else deep-fried.

What are your tips on eating out (and enjoying yourself!) while eating healthily? Share them with us in the comments…

21 Comments

  1. Deirdre

    Since when have burritos been deep fried? Every burrito I’ve ever made or eaten has been a non-fried wrap around non-fried fillings.

    Reply
  2. Laurie Beebe

    A great help is planning ahead. If you think it’s a pain, just remember how often you look forward to a certain dish at a restaurant: I always hear people planning an evening out by saying, “I’m going to have those ribs I love” or “I’m going to order their chocolate cheesecake”. It doesn’t take any more effort to read a menu on line before you go and find out what the healthiest options are so you go prepared. If you’re stuck, try http://www.healthydiningfinder.com. It’s a great site that lets you enter your zip code and then lists restaurants and dishes that fit into their ‘healthy’ criteria (which they also list for you).

    Reply
  3. e.

    I totally agree about the overdressing the salads thing, Spectra. Sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to turn the salad into a soup, they add so much dressing.

    What’s really gross is going out to eat with people who order EXTRA dressing for the salad. UGH. I’ve actually gagged watching someone slather their salad in ranch dressing.

    Reply
  4. e.

    I avoid restaurants like Applebees or Chilis. Their business model seems centered around gluttony and providing more (cheap, fatty, flavor intense) food than people need.

    Restaurants that are slightly more upscale give you smaller portions of higher quality food and I find that it is much easier to be smart about what you order. It’s also a nice way to treat yourself to exotic or even high calorie dishes in small portions. I also have trained myself to think of good Italian coffee as dessert. That’s my treat. I don’t use sugar and I order it low fat. A good alternative to tiramisu!

    Of course, you can’t always eat at expensive restaurants. If I’m out and about and starving and I can’t get home to make lunch, there’s always Panera (no desserts, never get dressings on the salad because they’re full of sweeteners) or chili from Wendy’s with a side salad (no dressing).

    Reply
  5. Ellie

    Great article on the hassles of eating out when you are on a diet. I tend to agree with a lot of this article. The problem with me is though I am a very fussy eater. When I go out I usually end up with salad or a pasta dish. I have started spreading my wings to some fish but only certain kinds. It is good to know that I am not the only one out there.

    Ellie

    Reply
  6. J.

    great list! thanks for posting

    Reply
  7. SueK24

    These are great suggestions and very much the same as what I do when eating out. Another tip is to ask to have 1/2 of the protein portion of your meal wrapped to go as soon as the meal is brought to the table. Many times the protein served is a very large amount, enough for two meals. Having it wrapped up right away means no temptation later in the meal.

    Reply
  8. Spectra

    I rarely eat out because I hate, hate, HATE the idea of not knowing exactly what I’m eating. But when I do eat out, I’m always pretty careful about what I order. If I’m getting an entree salad, I tell the waitstaff to hold any cheese/croutons/bacon that comes on top of it. And I order the dressing on the side because it seems like they always overdress the salads. And I never really order dessert at a restaurant because they’re so expensive. I usually just get coffee and drink it with cream and a little sugar and have it as a dessert.

    Reply
  9. Cenegenics Atlanta

    My basic functional non-exciting rules for eating out are: don’t let them bring the bread, order lean protein (fish, chicken, beef), substitute steamed green vegetables for the potatoes, and get a tossed salad with olive oil, then skip desert.

    This can provide a good balance of lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat.

    If they bring too much food do your portion control before you start eating.

    I also find looking online ahead of time at the menu makes it easier when it is time to order.

    Reply
  10. Lucy

    I eat chinese a lot and I switched to steamed chicken and brown rice this has helped my calorie intake a lot.

    Reply
  11. Heather

    I’ve found places very accomodating

    Order things dry- esp veggies to get them with no butter

    fish/chicken

    look at the method of preparation

    At Red Lobster, for example, I order the lunch portion of trout broiled dry with a double serving of broccoli, dry

    Reply
  12. Never teh Bride

    One thing jumped out at me: Fried seaweed? The seaweed I get at Asian restaurants is typically in salad form, i.e., a bed of seaweed that has oil and vinegar, or wrapped around a sushi roll. In what fried dishes does seaweed typically appear?

    Reply
  13. Lala

    I think it is absolutely unnecessary to have desserts for meals. After the main course, I always feel too full for anything else but perhaps a coffee. Why would we need ice cream and such? Is it a cultural thing? (FYI, I’m Asian and while we do have our own type of desserts, we don’t seem to think so much of it..)

    Reply
  14. Mandy Fit

    Wonderful tips to keep in mind while eating out. Also, if you become familiar with green light foods, you can always try to find them somewhere on the menu. 🙂

    Reply
  15. kitfisk

    “Go for chicken rather than lamb…” – Why on earth would I do that?

    Reply
  16. Cari from ditch diets

    Did you see the recent controvery with Applebees and their weight watcher menus? The calories advertised on their menus were way lower (sometimes as much as 3 times lower) than the actual food dishes tested. Restuarants rely on you coming back because of the flavour of their food – and often add fats, salt and sugar to ensure taste.

    So even if something ‘looks’ like grilled chicken or steamed brocolli doesn’t mean it doesn’t have butter added to make it more flavourful.

    Reply
  17. Tina

    I have recently decided to change the way I eat at a restaurant. My family travels a great deal for school functions and sporting events, so eating out is a necessity. I have decided not to order anything. That may sound a little crazy, but I have an 11 year old that won’t order from the kids menu anymore, so inevitably, there are a few leftovers on his plate. I also make him order a side salad to go with it. I usually end up eating all of that. With what he leaves and the side salad, I am quite full and don’t feel deprived.

    We went to the Cheesecake Factory the other night and I really wanted a piece of cheesecake, so again, I just ate a side salad and 1/2 of a piece of cheesecake. I took the other 1/2 home and had a nice dessert the following evening.

    While eating out, we just need to make better choices, and this is how I make mine without feeling deprived. It saves on calories as well as money.

    Reply
  18. Bonnie MA, MPH, CNS, LDN

    One easy way to limit your total calorie load at a restaurant is to tell the server right as you sit down that you do not want any rolls, crackers, or other bread products brought to the table. Stick with water or club soda as your drink.

    Reply
  19. Mary

    Buy a copy of Eat This Not That. It is a real eye-opener to how many calories are in casual sit down restaurant meals. I try to avoid Macaroni Grill at all costs now.

    Reply
  20. O.

    I should of also said that if you are in a more frequent situation, like lunchtime at work, and you can’t do the skinless, oiless, sweetfree thing try smaller portions of your favorites mixed in with some healthier items.

    Reply
  21. O.

    Well I must renounce parts of this article for people who are like me because I don’t want anyone to suffer years of yo yo dieting because they can’t turn themselves into a “nutritionist”.

    How about living a little a couple of times a year and having what you want?

    I am a firm believer that people who make smart food choices ( within their tolerance level) on a daily basis can splurge a little once in a while. And if you know an event is coming up start budgeting. Eat your salad without any dressing or whatever it takes to shave off some calories in the days prior so you can enjoy that night out.

    Reply