When you’ve committed to revamping your health and lifestyle, one of the most important things is overhauling the way you eat. And when you’re in the kitchen, it’s a lot easier to stick to your healthy diet principles, especially when you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget. But most of us don’t eat every single meal at home.
Dining out is a way of catching up with friends and celebrating a momentous event with loved ones — and, practically speaking, if you ever travel, are invited to business lunches colleagues or just get hungry when you’re not at home, it’s inevitable.
Is it really possible to eat out healthy?
Why It’s Difficult to Eat Healthfully When You Dine Out
Most of us know that we should avoid things like processed foods like deep-fried meals or dishes smothered in cheese when we dine out. But other choices can be tricky.
You might choose a salad believing it to be the healthy option, just to find out that it’s one of the unhealthiest salads loaded with calories and fat. Many restaurants don’t offer nutritional information. Your coworker might pick a restaurant for lunch with extremely limited healthy options for you to choose from.
And of course, there’s the social aspect and the pressure that comes along with it — no one wants to be that eater who everyone dislikes inviting out to dinner, and we’re often hesitant to order something different than everyone else for fear of being difficult or not going with the flow.
The way food is prepared is tough to know when you eat out, too. At most restaurants, the main mission for chefs is to make food that tastes good at the lowest cost possible. That often means low-quality cooking oils and excessive amounts of salt, along with ingredients that tend to add flavor to dishes cheaply, like cheese, dressings and breading.
But even if you’re eating on the town, it is possible to make healthy — or at least healthier — decisions. Read on to find out how to eat out healthy.
15 Tips for How to Eat Out Healthy
1. Look up the menu beforehand
If you know ahead of time where you’ll be dining out, check out the menu online before stepping anywhere near the restaurant. Healthy fast casual restaurants usually make nutritional information available, making it easier to pre-select a healthy option, and nearly every restaurant posts their menu online.
2. Call ahead with questions
If you can find a menu but not nutritional information online, call the restaurant ahead of time with questions or to make special requests.
Restaurants today are a lot more familiar with food allergies and dietary requests, and providing them with advance notice or knowing what they can accommodate will make the dining experience a lot more pleasant. It will also take the pressure off you when you’re ordering, and makes things easier for staff, who might feel flustered with a flurry of questions at the time they take your order.
3. Choose restaurants that are likely healthier
Restaurants that advertise local ingredients, farm-to-table dishes and organic food likelier use better-quality ingredients and will be more accommodating to special requests. (And here are 10 chain restaurants you should never eat at!)
4. Snack before you go
If you’re starving when you sit down at a restaurant, it’s a lot easier to make unhealthy choices. Instead, have a filling snack about an hour before heading out, like a hard-boiled egg, hummus and vegetables or dried fruit and nut mix. Having some food in your belly means you won’t be tempted to order everything off the menu.
5. Go Paleo when eating out
Adopting a Paleo diet when dining out can help you eliminate a lot of problematic ingredients, like refined carbohydrates in the form of pasta and rice, cheese and sugary ingredients. It means you’ll focus on tasty veggies and meats instead.
6. Check how food is prepared
Certain cooking methods are a better option than others. Look for meals that are baked, braised, broiled, grilled, poached, sautéed, smoked or steamed. Alarm bells should go off if the meal is crispy, deep-fried, battered, breaded or coated (hello, flour, deep frying and canola oil!).
7. Become friendly with your server
Because you hopefully checked out the menu beforehand, you’ll know what sort of sides and swaps are available but, when in doubt, ask. Most servers are happy to make sure that your requests (within reason, of course!) are accommodated. And be sure to tip well for the extra assistance.
8. Pass on the bread basket
The bread basket is one of the most evil things a restaurant can do. It’s a terrific way to fill up on empty calories before your meal has even arrived. Whenever possible, take a pass on the bread basket — or salted nuts or tortillas or the other temptations.
9. Fill up with salad
Starting your meal with a salad as an appetizer is a smart way to enjoy healthy ingredients — if you choose right, that is. Opt for salads with lots of greens, raw veggies and raw nuts or seeds. Opt for an oil and vinegar dressing, or ask for the dressing on the side.
Where people run into trouble is by choosing salads that are filled with deli-style sliced meats, crispy chicken or other meats, salted or roasted nuts and seeds (which are often cooked with unhealthy oils), croutons, bacon and dressings that are high in sugar, mayonnaise and calories.
10. Skip the soup
While soups seem like a healthy option, most restaurant soups are loaded with cream, butter and cheese to give it that velvety smooth texture. Unless it’s a broth-based soup, like minestrone, you’re better off skipping the soup.
11. Make healthy swaps
Order a curry and ask for it over vegetables instead of rice. If you’re out for Mexican, skip the tortillas and chips, and focus on the meats, salsas and guacamole instead, or ask for a fajita served with extra veggies and no rice.
Having a burger? Swap the French fries for a side of veggies or salad instead. Focus on enjoying the main part of the meal, and exchange the unhealthier parts for something a little more waistline friendly.
12. Order veggies with that
Most of us aren’t getting enough vegetables on a daily basis. So when you’re out to eat, bulk up your meal with more veggies! Asking for double or even triple vegetables is an easy way to fill up on nutritious ingredients and a favorite trick of mine when I’m asked how to eat out healthy.
13. Skip sugary drinks and load up on water
Why drink your calories when you can eat them? Skip the soda and fruit juices and drink water throughout the meal instead. It’ll help you feel full and slow down your eating, making sure your brain gets the message that you’re full.
14. Choose alcohol wisely
If you’re drinking alcohol, choose a red wine or dark beer, since these alcohols can be good for you, or light-colored alcohols with mixers like soda water and fresh lime. Nix sugary mixers and cocktails, as those can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and contribute to that hangover feeling the next day.
No matter which alcohol you choose, remember to drink in moderation. Just a few glasses or pints can quickly add up to a full meal’s worth of calories before eating a thing.
15. Share a main dish or create your own
Portion sizes at restaurants can be massive and if it’s in front of you, you’re likelier to eat the whole thing. Instead, save some cash and cut out calories by sharing a dish with a friend.
If you’re not the food-sharing type, consider ordering two appetizers or creating your own main meal by selecting an appetizer and a side dish instead; most restaurants offer several veggie sides and when combined with an appetizer, are usually large enough to satisfy even the hungriest eaters.
So What Should You Order?
You might be wondering what I order so that I can eat out healthy. Here are my top picks:
What to Order at Burger Joints:
The options might not be too exciting, but you can still make healthier choices when you’re at a burger restaurant.
- Grilled, not deep fried chicken salad with oil and vinegar
- Grilled fish with tomato slices
- A bun-less burger or a burger with lettuce “bread.” I often skip the veggie patties unless I know what they’re made with, as they’re often packed with soy and lots of grain fillers.
What to Skip at Burger Joints:
- No condiments
- Soda: go for water instead!
- French fries
- Deep-fried food
What to Order at Chinese Restaurants:
If there’s no MSG in the food, Chinese restaurants can be reasonably healthy.
- Brown rice or brown rice noodles
- Steamed chicken
- Sautéed veggies with brown rice or brown rice noodles
- Stir-fried chicken or fish with veggies
What to Skip at Chinese Restaurants:
- All of the deep-fried foods, including spring rolls
- White rice
- Stir-fries in sweet and sour sauces, which are packed with sugar
What to Order at Mexican Restaurants:
Luckily, Mexican dishes are full of healthy options.
- Pinto or black beans, which are filling and full of fiber
- Grilled chicken, fish or beef
- Sautéed veggies
- Guacamole and avocado slices
- Brown rice
- Corn tortillas
What to Skip at Mexican Restaurants:
- White flour tortillas, tostadas and chips
- White rice
- Dishes smothered in cheese
- Meat-based gravies and sauces
At the end of the day, dining out should be a fun experience, especially if you do it infrequently. If you follow a healing foods diet and eat healthy at home 90 percent of the time, then going out for a meal on occasion isn’t going to throw you off track. You don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying a meal at a restaurant; use these as guidelines to respect your body but enjoy your food, too.
- How to eat healthy when ordering out can be challenging, but some prep work and smart choices can help.
- Research restaurants, menus and healthier options before arriving for your meal.
- Skip bread baskets and other food “freebies”; fill up on healthy salads and broth-based soups instead.
- Ask for extra veggies with everything!
- Don’t drink calories. If you’re going to have alcohol, choose red wine, dark beers and clear liquor; skip sugary mixers and cocktails.
- Consider sharing a meal with a friend or designing your own main dish.