Eating out is a part of our busy modern lives. Even though you need to be careful to not eat too much, it is possible to go out and enjoy yourself while staying healthy.
If you know how to pick the right foods, and the right amount of foods, you can go to almost any type of restaurant.
Be aware that the portion sizes at many restaurants are very large. Stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets. The temptation for overeating can be hard to resist at these places. Think and plan ahead:
- If you know you are going out, check out the menu online so you can make healthy choices ahead of time.
- Get some extra exercise on the same day, perhaps a walk before or after you eat out.
- Avoid eating out when you are very hungry. Eat a small healthy snack, such as carrots or a small apple, shortly before going out.
When ordering, do not be afraid to ask to have something cooked in a healthier manner.
Basic Ground Rules for Eating Out
Look for and choose:
- Salads and other vegetable side dishes
- Foods that are broiled, grilled, steamed, poached, roasted, or baked
- Chicken, turkey, seafood, or lean meats
Treat yourself only once in a while to:
- Anything creamy, fried, crispy, breaded, battered, or au gratin
- Sauces or soups with lots of butter, cream, or cheese
- Thick or creamy salad dressings
- Most casserole dishes
A few easy tips to keep the calorie count down include:
- If you were serving yourself a healthy meal at home half of your plate would be covered in green vegetables; if your entrée does not come with a vegetable order one on the side so you can still make a healthy plate
- Choose carefully. Avoid eating foods such as rolls and bread just because they are on the table.
- Split a meal with someone, or ask for a take-out box and take half of your meal home.
- Order the "lunch size" of any food rather than the "dinner size."
- Order appetizers rather than an entrée.
- Start with a small salad or broth-based soup.
- Order the dressing for your salad on the side so you can control how much of it you use
- Drink water or low-fat milk. DO NOT waste calories on fluids that have no nutrition.
- Limit how much alcohol you have with meals. Wine is better than frozen drinks or mixed cocktails that have juice in them.
- Skip your dessert, or share it with someone.
Avoid fast food restaurants. If you must eat fast food, try these tips to limit calories:
- Choose a place that broils or grills hamburgers, fish, and chicken for their sandwiches.
- Order your sandwich without mayo or "special sauce."
- Order only a sandwich. Avoid ordering the value or combo meal unless the restaurant offers healthy sides such as apple slices or a side salad.
- Whether it is a sandwich, milkshake, or French fries, stay away from large sizes.
- Order a salad instead of French fries.
- Pizza is OK, but limit yourself to only one or two slices. Replace some of the cheese with extra sauce. Add a salad to your meal.
Healthy Eating at All Types of Restaurants
Sandwich restaurants or deli counters allow you to better manage what you eat:
- Choose low- fat turkey, chicken, or ham. Other cold cuts tend to have too much fat. Most cold-cuts are high in sodium.
- Avoid tuna and chicken salads which are often made with lots of mayonnaise.
- Replace extra meat and cheese with vegetables, such as peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spinach.
- Ask for an open-faced sandwich. Ask for whole-grain bread rather than white bread.
- Replace high calorie condiments like mayonnaise or creamy salad dressings with mustard or a small amount of olive oil and vinegar. Ask that your bread be grilled or toasted without added butter.
Chinese restaurants offer healthy choices if you are careful:
- Most deep fried options are high in calories. Instead, choose dishes that are steamed without added oil or sugar.
- Limit dishes made with sweet and sour, hoisin, gravy, or other heavy sauces.
- Choose low-fat dishes that are lightly stir-fried, such as brown rice and Chinese vegetables with seafood, chicken, or bean curd (tofu).
- Order a side of steamed vegetables to pair with your noodle or rice dish.
- Some healthy choices include wonton soup, chicken skewer, and moo goo gai pan.
- Select foods that have chickpeas or lentils, vegetables, and sauces made from yogurt.
- Good choices include mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, kebabs, whole-wheat naan bread, and lassi.
- Avoid fried foods, creamy curry sauces, cream sauces such as Korma or Makhani, and foods made with coconut milk (molee) or a clarified butter call ghee.
- Pasta dishes with a red or marinara sauce are healthier than sauces made with cream, butter, or cheese, or pesto.
- Look for the word primavera, which will not include creamy sauce. Order dishes with seafood, grilled meat, fish, chicken, or vegetables.
- Avoid lasagna, antipasto, alfredo sauce, and garlic bread.
- Avoid fried or breaded dishes like chicken and eggplant parmesan/paramiga.
- Watch out for large servings of pasta. Pair your pasta with a side salad so you're not tempted to overeat.
Mexican or Southwestern restaurants:
- Choose foods that are not fried and have only a small amount of cheese.
- Guacamole is a healthier choice than sour cream, but be careful to not eat too large of a portion.
- Good choices include gazpacho, chicken with rice, rice and black beans, soft tortillas, and items that are baked.
- Avoid nachos, chips, and quesadillas.
Family restaurants and pub food:
- Stick with grilled chicken and meats, or a pot roast or meatloaf.
- Stay away from foods, even vegetables, that are fried, breaded, au gratin, or creamy. Order a small or medium-sized baked potato with a touch of butter or low-fat sour cream rather than French fries or mashed potatoes.
- Salads are a great idea, but avoid creamy dressings, along with toppings such as cheese or bacon. Ask for your dressing on the side so you can control how much you eat.
- Clear broth soups are usually best. Avoid thicker soups with cream or cheese in them.
- Review the tips above in the section about sandwich restaurants and deli counters.
- Watch out for larger portion sizes.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010. Available at: www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/dietary_guidelines_for_americans/PolicyDoc.pdf. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Update Date 10/28/2014
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.