Who doesn’t enjoy going out to eat every once and a while? Even health “nuts” like us like to indulge, but we try not to make a habit of it. Our rule is four to six times a month tops.
No matter what you’ve heard, restaurant food does NOT have to be synonymous with unhealthy, so there really is no reason to avoid dining out for all of eternity. There are ways—many ways, in fact—to still manage to eat healthy at most restaurants… even fast food joints like Burger King and Wendy’s!
These 17 tips below are things we’ve implemented ourselves hence the “tried and true” claim. Early on in my healthy eating journey, I felt guilty anytime I went to a restaurant. As an aspiring healthy foodie, I felt like I had some kind of deluded double standard. At the same time, maintaining a healthy social life was and is important to me. Truth is, there will come a time in your friendship where your friends or you will want to go out to eat. To avoid being the odd one out every time, I looked into it a bit more and soon realized it was possible to make healthier choices at even the most unpromising-seeming restaurants.
Here’s how you can manage without breaking down or getting strange looks in the process:
1 Track Down the Menu Online and Read It from Front to Back Beforehand.
Personally, this is my favorite tip which is why I chose to make it number one. Needless to say, doing your research is always important, especially when it comes to making healthy choices. Snap decisions are easier to make when you’re actually at the restaurant and the waiter/waitress keeps asking if you’re ready to order. Plus, you can’t forget about your friends who are starving and are waiting on you to make up your mind already. No pressure, right?
I’m well aware that some menus are quite vague which could make executing this tip successfully a challenge. I would know because I’ve read a ton of them. Chipotle seems to be the most impressive by far because they have a super-detailed nutrition calculator and detailed ingredients lists. They even let you select certain options (added-sugar free, lower sodium, gluten-free, vegan, etc.) to craft your perfect meal.
While it’s tough to avoid the large amount of salt that goes into virtually all restaurant meals, try selecting lean meat and veggie-based meals (with an emphasis on the vegetables). You’re better off avoiding belly-fat-feeding carbs like bread and pasta.
2 Don’t Arrive at the Restaurant on E.
If your stomach is grumbling fiercely on repeat, then you’re upping your chances of selecting anything that looks good without putting too much thought into it. You also may end up overeating. As a former I’ll-eat-what-I-want-until-I-can-no-longer-move restaurant goer, I’d eat an appetizer, lots of bread, barely touch the salad, and dive into the main course head first, proudly finishing the entire thing. And even if I felt like the food came up to my ears, I’d still squeeze in the sweetest dessert I could find on the menu. To top it off, I’d drink soda and utilized the free refill option whenever possible. This certainly isn’t anything to brag about, but I want you to know that I realize this isn’t a piece of cake (pardon the pun). BUT It isn’t impossible either because I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you about all this now would I? 🙂
Anyway, what you can do beforehand is eat something very light so you don’t dive face first the moment your heaping plate lands on the table. Think in terms of low-calorie and high-protein like carrot sticks with hummus.
3 Always, Always, Always Opt for Water.
I know that most restaurant water is tap water. I don’t know how opposed you are to drinking it, if at all, but you’re better off getting that with a wedge of lemon squeezed in it than sugar-dense soft drinks. You can just take a few sips, if you’re worried about what’s floating around in there. Unless of course you get a supremely spicy dish… Unsweetened tea works too.
[Related Article: The Next Time You’re Thirsty, Do This… (Ayurveda Drinking Tips)]
4 Whatever You Do, Avoid “Fried” or “Breaded.”
Fried or breaded implies high-calorie, high-bad-fat, and all-around unhealthy. Crispy or crunchy are also red-flag words. Instead, look for the following key words: steamed, roasted, or poached. Grilled would be okay too, but you know the black streaks on the meat? That’s a carcinogen. But you’ll be fine as long as you don’t eat grilled meat daily.
5 Take Small Bites and Chew Thoroughly.
This will allow you to eat slower and not shock your belly with tons of food at once. When one eats too fast, the stomach doesn’t register it’s full in time to relay that message to the brain. That’s how food comas happen. Slower eating normally leads to feeling full faster.
How can you achieve this? Count. 20-40 chews per bite shall suffice. More is needed for meat and raw vegetables, less is needed for cooked vegetables. Setting your fork down every once and a while help too. The main point is that you want to give yourself enough time to allow that “I’m full” signal to kick in.
6 It Doesn’t Hurt to Say “No Thank You” to Dessert.
This is a tough one, I know. But if you follow that previous tip, you’ll won’t have room for dessert. There really is no reason to push it.
You can always curb your sweet tooth with a fresh smoothie or some fruit later on. But be sure to wait a bit, because fruits have a short transit time in your digestive tract. What you just ate will probably have a longer transit time. Combining such foods in close proxmity to one another can cause digestive discomfort such as bloating and gas.
7 Fries Aren’t Your Only Side Dish.
French fries are extremely delicious, I won’t deny that, but potatoes are also good in their baked, roasted, or mashed form. (Remember what I said about fried foods earlier?) Luckily, most restaurants have alternative sides you can swap with like steamed vegetables, coleslaw, a side salad, applesauce, etc.
8 Get Your Sauce on the Side.
Or don’t get it at all. But if you do still want it, you’ll be able to control how much goes into your meal. Instead of dumping the entire container they give you, use half.
It also depends on the sauce and what restaurant you’re at. For example, you can ask for a healthy sauce like hot sauce, hummus, or honey mustard instead (that’s actually sweetened with honey).
9 Bread and Butter Begone!
You may not be able to send it away because everyone else you’re with may not follow your healthy eating plan. If that’s the case, keep on reminding yourself that your tasty dish is on its good old way and you’ll have enough room in your stomach to fit most of it.
If you must have some because the bread is iconic and they serve it warm, just eat half a roll and stop at that.
And maybe you won’t need to wait to eat until your main course…
10 Order a Salad First.
Again, you’re better off getting this with dressing on the side. Or you can ask for olive oil and lemon. That’s much healthier option than most conventional salad dressings like Thousand Island or Ranch, which were my personal favorites growing up. Oh, and no croutons.
11 Split Your Meal with Someone or Order Half-Portion.
Cutting back on calories, check. Avoiding overindulgence, check. You’ll also save some money. A win-win-win! Possibly a fourfold win because sharing is caring. 😀
12 Doggie Bag It!
Alternatively, you can plan to only eat half of your meal and take the rest home with you to eat the next day. I get that it’s hard to be extremely disciplined at a restaurant surrounded by tantalizing, mouth-watering scents and a majority of restaurant goers downing their entire meal within minutes. Think of it this way… left overs means you don’t need to cook tomorrow.
13 Ask for No Seasoning.
The amount of salt that’s found in a vast majority of restaurant food is undeniably crazy. More often than not, this notorious substance tends to be hidden in the various seasonings that are used.
I remember back when I wasn’t into the whole healthy eating thing and got some cheesy grilled chicken dish with creamy sauce. It was so immensely salty that it almost tasted bitter. I had to down two glasses of water and my thirst still wasn’t quenched. The next time I went, I told them to not add seasoning and to provide the sauce on the side. That time, I could actually taste the chicken and enjoy it without taking a sip of water every other bite.
With no seasoning, you have the option to add a tiny amount of salt and pepper yourself. If you fear that what you get will be too bland by following this tidbit of advice, then the next tip is VERY important…
[Related Article: Is Sodium Bad for You? How Much of It Can You Eat Per Day?]
14 Ignore Those Salt Shakers.
They really are trouble makers. (Hey, I purposely rhymed…)
Your table may have it, but it doesn’t mean you have to use it. As I previously mentioned, there probably is already more than enough—even if you’re getting your sauce on the side.
These claims might seem lofty, but here’s a great example of the salt levels in a healthy restaurant dish: For Denny’s Grilled Wild-Caught Alaska Salmon with roasted veggies and potatoes, you’re looking at a whopping 1,460mg of sodium. Nutrition labels tell us we should ingest no more than 2,300mg of that stuff in a single day. And that’s on the high end of the spectrum. You’re better off sticking to 1,500mg or so, according the American Heart Association.
15 Read the Labels whenever You’re Able.
That was my last purposeful rhyme. Promise.
There’s normally ketchup at the table. Before you use it, read the label. Most ketchup available at restaurants contains high fructose corn syrup. You don’t want that anywhere near your mouth. Do the same with any other sauces. Jam/jelly too. If there’s anything questionable like said sweetener, don’t use it. Mustard is usually safe-ish. Salty, but safe.
16 Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Your Server Questions.
The only silly question is the one not asked. Usually. However, there’s definitely no need to play 20 questions with them or interrogate the poor waitress/waiter to the point of tears.
For instance, if you want to know if what you’re getting is cooked in butter, just ask. That will give you the opportunity to swap out the butter with olive oil. If you’re not completely sure what a lower calorie option would be, you’re better off asking too.
As long as you’re polite and friendly (and not frantic/pushy) when asking your questions, the server should be understanding. With anything, there’s obviously a threshold. That’s why, in the beginning of this tips list, I emphasized doing your research prior to walking through those restaurant doors.
17 Support Local Restaurants.
But not just any local eatery. You want to find a place that prides themselves on providing locally and ethically sourced food that’s also organic and non-GMO. Depending on where you live, that may be a tricky find. And even if you do find it, organic doesn’t always mean healthy so just be careful no matter what a restaurant’s claims are.
Here in Northeast Ohio, I’ve found three local restaurants that are all organic and there honestly wasn’t one thing on their menu that screamed “junk food.” Although, too much salt tends to be an ongoing trend everywhere, it seems.
Healthier Options at Main Food Chains. (Swap This for That!)
Swap a Big Mac or any other greasy cheeseburger for a Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad. The dressing comes in a packet, which encourages portion control. And it looks like they no longer use fillers or preservatives in their meat.
Swap a burrito with virtually everything in it for a burrito bowl sans cheese. Avoid the chorizo because it’s highest in fat and salt (it is a type of sausage after all). Your best meat option is the grilled chicken or you can go veggie. The vegetable burrito bowl means you don’t get charged extra for guacamole, which is an extra $1.95 at any location I’ve been to.
Swap their typical sausage, home fries, and egg breakfasts with their grilled meat and vegetable skillets. No toast.
Swap their Fettuccini Alfredo or Cheese Ravioli with their Chicken Scampi with sauce on the side. You automatically get bread sticks and salad with your meal. Focus on the salad before your meal and if you’re way too tempted to eat a bread stick, only eat half of it or one tops. Depending on how others are feeling at your table, you can even opt out of bread sticks altogether.
So is eating 100% healthy a reality when it comes to dining out? I wouldn’t go so far as to say 100%, but it’s still possible to make healthy choices that you won’t regret later.
Even if you mean well, there are inevitable downfalls that you need to be aware about: excessive table salt, added sugar, added MSG (monosodium glutamate, which is an unhealthy flavor enhancer), hidden questionable, ingredients, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), pesticides, farm-raised fish, and factory-farmed meat. Of course, there are a few exceptions. However, keeping this knowledge in the forefront of your mind will remind you to not make eating out a daily or four-times-a-week occurrence. It will also enable you to be a little more selective and more conscious of your non-homemade dietary decisions.
[Related Article: Warning: “Healthy” Is Not Healthy.]
What’s your all-time favorite restaurant and what do you typically order there? If your choice doesn’t seem especially healthy after reading this article, what can you do to change that?