Welcome to the blog post for exploring the art of eating out while prioritizing your health and well-being. Dining out has become a common part of our lives, whether it’s a celebratory dinner, a casual lunch with colleagues, or a weekend brunch with friends. Dining out offers convenience and social enjoyment, yet the abundance of tempting menu options can sometimes make it challenging to stay true to our health goals.
I teamed up with my newest friend and peer dietitian, Colleen Wysocki-Woods, MS, RDN, CLC, and Owner of Zest Nutrition, to create this comprehensive guide of 10 areas to help you navigate restaurants with mindfulness, making informed choices that support your overall health. Join us as we delve into practical tips and strategies for making healthier decisions when eating out, from researching restaurants to swapping sides and practicing portion control.
Colleen says, “When eating out, first take into consideration how frequently you eat out. If you eat out as an occasional treat, enjoy what you’d like on the menu. Life is short and it’s nice to experiment with foods you don’t eat at home. However, if you enjoy take-out or dine-in once a week or more, the menu choices may have an impact on your health in the long-run. Choose with health in mind.”
Before heading out to eat, take some time to research restaurants in your area that prioritize healthy options. Check their websites or online menus for nutritional information or look for restaurants that emphasize fresh, whole ingredients and offer a variety of dishes. By selecting a restaurant that aligns more with your health goals, you’ll have more options to make healthier choices.
A large majority of food establishments have the calories listed by each dish, although some list more details. Use this information when deciding between dishes, since ordering one item that is over 1,000 calories likely won’t fit into your diet and lifestyle changes. Some restaurants have a specific section of the menu for lower calorie options, so be on the lookout for it.
Pay attention to how dishes are prepared when placing your order. Limit dishes with heavy cream-based sauces, as they can be high in saturated fats and calories. Instead, opt for tomato-based sauces like marinara.
“Ask for grilled foods instead of fried,” remarks Colleen. Choosing grilled, baked, roasted, or steamed options over fried or breaded items is a healthier route, as these cooking methods generally require less added fat. If you don’t see a grilled option listed, simply ask the server if can be grilled or baked instead. A lot of dine-in restaurants prepare foods when ordered so there should be more flexibility in how it is cooked versus a fast food establishment having pre-set and commercially made foods that are pre-packaged and, thus, have no ability to be prepared differently.
Look for dishes that include lean proteins such as chicken, fish, or tofu, and plenty of vegetables. These choices will provide essential nutrients while keeping the meal balanced and filling. “When making health-conscious choices at a restaurant, add vegetables to your order. The goal is to make half your plate vegetables. This may look like piling veggies on a sandwich, ordering a starter salad, or swapping potatoes or fries for the vegetable of the day,” notes the Owner of Zest Nutrition.
Be Cautious with Toppings
Condiments and dressings can significantly impact the nutritional profile of a meal. Many commercially prepared options are high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. To maintain control over your meal, ask for dressings on the side so you can control the amount and use them sparingly. One trick is to dip your fork into the dressing and then get a bite of salad. Choose vinaigrettes or oil-based dressings over creamy options, as they tend to be lighter and lower in saturated fats. If possible, flavor your food with herbs, spices, or a squeeze of lemon juice instead.
Other toppings or menu items like crispy onions, dried cranberries, croutons, tortilla strips, and cheese all taste great but can add extra calories quickly. Ask for them to be left off completely or placed on the side so you can have more control over the portion size.
Control Portion Sizes
One common challenge when eating out is the oversized portions served at restaurants. You may have heard the term “portion distortion,” which is defined as “the growing portion sizes that people call ‘normal‘ according to Diabetes UK. It is true; we call a very large portion of food a normal serving size because the size has been increased in restaurants and elsewhere. For example, many years ago a muffin was 1.5 oz and 210 calories but now one it is common to see one that is 4 oz and 500 calories. Food items today are much larger and much higher in calories, fat, and sodium, for instance.
To avoid overeating on these larger portions, consider sharing a meal with a friend or family member. Alternatively, if sharing isn’t an option, ask if the restaurant offers half-size portions or order an appetizer or side dish as your main meal. Dietitian Wysocki-Woods states, “If the restaurant offers large portions, ask for a to-go box when your meal arrives. Pack up half of the dish to finish for lunch the next day. This can help prevent overeating to the point of feeling uncomfortable, overloading the arteries with saturated fat, and spiking blood sugars too quickly.”
Starters and Appetizers
Who doesn’t love a good appetizer? Beginning your meal with a salad or a broth-based soup offers several benefits. Salads packed with leafy greens, vegetables, and lean proteins provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They can help you feel fuller, preventing overeating during the main course. Similarly, broth-based soups, like vegetable or chicken soup, can be both nutritious and satisfying, helping to curb your appetite before the main meal arrives.
If you do order an appetizer or one is provided for free such as chips and salsa, share it with your dinner party and be sure to stop when you are satisfied. If it is a big temptation, ask that it be placed as far away from you on the table as possible or allow yourself a set number of chips and then stop when they’re gone, for example.
Swap Unhealthy Sides
Many restaurant meals come with sides that are often high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium. To make your meal healthier, consider swapping out unhealthy sides with healthier alternatives. Instead of french fries or onion rings, choose steamed or roasted vegetables, a piece of fruit, a side salad, or a serving of whole grains like quinoa or brown rice. If the restaurant offers the option, substitute regular fries for sweet potato fries, which are higher in fiber and nutrients. Choose a baked potato with only butter on the side and eat the skin that is packed with nutrients. Go a step further and stuff the potato with steamed broccolli. By making simple swaps, you can increase the nutritional value of your meal and reduce unnecessary calories.
Other swaps to consider would be instead of a bread bowl, order the soup in a dish or container with a whole wheat roll on the side, order half a sandwich with a small side salad instead of just the whole sandwich, or picking spaghetti and meatballs with a garden salad instead of fettuccine alfredo with a meat. All these swaps can save you from too much calories, sodium, and saturated fat while increasing the nutritional value from veggies and whole grains.
Think About Your Drink
Beverages can contribute a substantial amount of added sugars and empty calories to your meal. Opt for water, unsweetened tea, soda or club water, or sparkling water to stay hydrated without the extra calories. If you prefer a flavored drink, choose options without added sugars. Drinking water or unsweetened beverages can help reduce your overall calorie intake while quenching thirst and enjoying something yummy. As Colleen says, “Order water instead of a soft drink. It has no negative health effects and saves money on the bill!”
I remember always ordering water at a restaurant when I was growing up, so it became a habit that I’ve continued into adulthood. Now as an adult, I do splurge, on a rare occasion, and order an alcoholic beverage. If you do the same, stick to having one drink. Not only does the bill add up quickly but the amount of extra calories can add up quickly with multiple drinks, too. Plus, alcohol isn’t going to help you reach your health goals, either.
If you have a sweet tooth like me and crave dessert after your meal, consider healthier alternatives. Fresh fruit is a nutritious choice, offering natural sweetness and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Another option is a small serving of sorbet, which is lower in fat and calories compared to creamy desserts. Alternatively, enjoy a piece of dark chocolate, which contains antioxidants and is often lower in added sugars.
Even if you do order dessert at the eating establishment, enjoy it with someone. This cuts the serving size down and brings joy to someone else, too. You can also cut it in at least half since portions are large and save it for a day later in the week when your sweet tooth calls again. Yet another option is to order the smallest size available, even if that is a “mini” or kid’s size. I just enjoyed an Italian ice the other day and purchased the “small” and it was more than enough for me.
Practice Mindful Eating
Eating out often involves a more social and relaxed atmosphere, which can lead to mindless eating. To combat this, practice mindful eating by taking your time to savor each bite, chew each bite thoroughly, and pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Eating slowly and mindfully allows you to enjoy the flavors and textures of your meal while helping you recognize when you’re satisfied, reducing the likelihood of overeating.
Food brings people together, so enjoy one another’s company by conversing. In a similar fashion to mindful eating, take a break from eating your meal to chat by putting down your fork. Be intentional both with conversation and listening and with pausing your eating.
Navigate Buffets or All-You-Can-Eat Options
When dining at buffets or restaurants that offer all-you-can-eat options, it can be challenging to make healthy choices. To better navigate these situations, start by surveying all the food options before loading your plate. Focus on filling half your plate with vegetables, choosing a variety of colorful options. Look for lean protein sources such as grilled chicken or fish. Opt for whole grains if available, and be mindful of your portion sizes. Again, try to avoid fried or heavily sauced dishes and remember to eat slowly and listen to your body’s cues of fullness to prevent overeating.
You don’t have to go back for seconds, thirds, or fourths to “get your money’s worth” or for any other reason. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable the rest of the day or feel like you’ve completely gotten “off the wagon” of your healthy eating journey.
As we conclude our guide to eating out with health in mind, we hope you feel empowered to make informed choices that align with your wellness goals. Remember, dining out doesn’t have to be synonymous with abandoning your healthy habits. By planning ahead, controlling portion sizes, and opting for nutrient-rich options, you can savor delicious meals while nourishing your body. And when it comes to indulgences, choose them consciously and enjoy them in moderation. By adopting these strategies, you can maintain a balanced and enjoyable experience eating away from home without compromising your health or goals.