Trying to Eat Healthy? Here’s How to (Successfully!) Navigate Any Restaurant

Just because you're dining out doesn't mean you can't eat healthily. Read on to discover easy ways you can still eat smart even when someone else is in the kitchen.

Woman in a black tank top looking over a menu as she sits at a table with a white tablecloth

When you’re on a diet, eating out and remaining conscious of calories can be difficult. We can always emulate healthy versions of our favorite restaurant recipes when cooking from home, but it’s not that easy when you’re dining out. Whether you’re planning a night out with friends or grabbing a quick bite on a lunch break, here are 10 hard-and-fast rules for sticking to your healthy diet while at a restaurant.

1. “Visit” the Restaurant Before You Ever Walk In the Door

Knowing what’s on the menu at your favorite eatery is easier than ever. Many restaurants list their complete menu online, along with nutritional information needed to maintain dietary restrictions. If you have the luxury of knowing where you’ll be eating out or you’re deciding where you’ll stop for takeout on the way home from work, take the time to peruse the menu and eye up healthy options before you order.

2. Download Smartphone Apps

In addition to restaurants listing their menu items online, many have a corresponding smartphone app with nutritional information and menu choices, too. This helps customers leave notes about their order or make alterations to the meal. Look to see what low-calorie customizations you can make, like switching from fried to grilled or swapping out white bread for whole wheat on your sandwich. (Hot tip: You just might find coupons and other money-saving alternatives on the app, too!)

3. Read Carefully

Don’t just skim the menu when it comes to ordering. Make sure you read carefully and look for red flag words that can point to unhealthy items. Be wary of menu items that are described as fried, buttered, creamed, escalloped or served au gratin. Also, try to avoid anything served in gravy or butter sauce. If possible, look for the healthy or low-calorie section on a menu-or ask your waiter for advice.

4. Skip the Soda

It’s tempting to wash down your meal with an ice-cold glass of your favorite soda, but loading up on sugary drinks at mealtime is a definite no-no if you’re on a diet. Soda, even the diet versions, can cause us to pack on the pounds and has also been found to rot our teeth, increase blood sugar levels and heighten the risk of stroke. We’ve got more truths about caffeinated beverages, here.

5. Be Careful What You Munch On

Bread baskets and appetizer platters are a delicious way to hold you over until the main dish, but low-calorie diners may want to skip this course in the meal. The white bread in bread baskets can entice you to overeat-adding extra calories in before you start your actual meal. Instead, ask the waiter if you can skip the bread basket or look for a healthy app option like fresh-cut veggies. When you’re craving snacks back at home, reach for these low-calorie recipes.

6. Choose Smaller Portion Sizes

Whether deciding to super-size a fast-food item or choosing between a lunch and dinner offering, the variations in sizes at restaurants can pose a problem for healthy eating. Instead of sizing up, try sizing down. Choose a lunch-sized portion for dinner, or if you’re heading through the drive-thru, choose the smallest combination size available. If only one size is offered, portion off your food at the beginning of the meal in a to-go container. Remember: Leftovers can make some pretty phenomenal meals, too.

7. Select Fish for Your Main Course

Skip the red meat, chicken or pasta and instead select fish for your main course. Fish is often packed with protein, and unlike its other main-course counterparts, is not high in saturated fats. Fish like salmon, tuna, herring and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy choice that lays claim to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.

8. Have a Side of Veggies

When selecting a side dish, it’s tempting to choose an item like french fries or homestyle mac and cheese, like mom used to make, but if you’re looking for low-calorie options, go for healthier alternatives instead. Choose a side of steamed veggies or a salad, and if options are limited, ask the restaurant if you can double up on a healthy side.

9. Watch Your Condiment Use

From dressing up your side salad to seasoning the ketchup on your fries, the calories in condiments can go a long way when dieting. Instead, look for healthier alternatives, such as choosing olive oil and vinegar for your salad dressing, or replacing ketchup with hot sauce and salsa. If you’re someone who just can’t live without your condiments, keep moderation in mind and use a limited amount. Anyway, we know that homemade condiments are where it’s at.

10. Skip the Dessert

Chocolate cake and sugary sweets are always tempting, but the deserts offered at restaurants are likely not as healthy as you’d like for a low-calorie diet. Instead of ordering something sweet off the menu, wait until you get home and make a healthy version of your own.

With these 10 tips in mind, you’re now ready to dine at your favorite restaurant and enjoy a low-calorie, healthy dish. When you get home, you can reward yourself for a job well done. Keep up the good work with hundreds of our healthy (and delicious!) recipes, here.

Go One Step Further and Make Your Favorite Takeout Treats at Home
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Lauren Rearick
Lauren Rearick is a freelance writer/editor based out Pittsburgh, specalizing in arts, entertainment, music, health and wellness as well as lifestyle writing. Her work has appeared in CNN Opinions, The Huffington Post, Reader's Digest, Teen Vogue, Travel + Leisure, the Pittsburgh City Paper, Vinyl Me Please, Hello Giggles and more.

She founded the music blog, The Grey Estates, which was selected as one of the top 100 indie music blogs by Style of Sound. In 2016, she was recognized with a Keystone State Press Award for a personality profile.