With so many responsibilities and not enough time, sometimes eating out seems like the most reasonable option for fueling up. Unfortunately, restaurant dishes are often loaded with calories, as well as the saturated fat, sodium and sugar that make these meals taste so good. Indulging in these large, frequent meals can be costly in terms of time, money and nutrition. Even the seemingly “healthier” options are still generally higher in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat than a packed lunch or a meal eaten at home.
Still, eating out has become so normalized in our culture that many people dine out daily at lunchtime and 2-3 times per week for dinner, so it’s important to know how to be smart about it. Here are 14 strategies to try when eating out, as well as some of the healthier selections from eight of the most popular types of cuisine.
Learn more about how to apply these strategies as a nutrition professional with the PG-NASM course in nutrition.
14 STRATEGIES FOR HEALTHIER RESTAURANT DINING
- Look up the menu online beforehand to preselect a healthy meal.
- Try not to arrive starving, when your eyes are bigger than your stomach and everything sounds good! If you’re eating lunch or dinner later than usual, grab a piece of fruit or carrot sticks to eat on the way to stabilize blood sugar.
- Ask the server not to bring bread or chips, or avoid asking for a refill.
- Always order a water, even if ordering another beverage, especially if it’s alcohol.
- Start the meal with a salad or broth soup packed with veggies.
- Choose a side salad or fruit over chips or any type of fried potatoes.
- Ask if an entree can be halved, or order a lunch portion, if available.
- Choose grilled, baked or steamed dishes over fried.
- Choose leaner proteins such as chicken, fish or loin beef cuts.
- Request no added oil, butter, salt or sugar.
- Ask for dressings, sauces and condiments to be served on the side.
- Load up on veggies!
- Consume the lowest calorie foods first to feel more satisfied before eating higher calorie foods.
- Split dessert with the table and have just a bite or two, or enjoy seasonal fruit as dessert.
Smart Selection: Fast Food
- Vegetables without added fats, oils or salts
- A salad with no croutons or cheese; use vinegar or lemon juice as dressing
- Choose less often: chicken wings, dips and fried onion rings
- Broth-based vegetable soup without added cream or cheese; most will be high in sodium!
- Fresh fish, seafood or skinless white meat chicken; ask for steamed, baked, broiled or poached without added butter, oil, or salt
- Plain pasta with meatless red sauce for a good lower fat option
- An egg white omelet without added cheese or salt; great for breakfast, lunch or dinner!
Smart Selections: Chinese Food
- Cucumber salad
- Plain steamed brown rice
- Request vegetables stir-fried in defatted chicken broth, wine, or water; ask for no soy sauce or salt
- Moo Goo Gai Pan (fresh mushrooms with sliced chicken)
- Buddha’s Delight (savory vegetarian stew)
- Vegetable lo mein
- Vegetarian or chicken chop suey
- Bean or rice threads or noodle dishes with chicken or tofu
- Broccoli with scallops or chicken
- Whole steamed fish (no skin) with ginger and garlic
- Avoid almond and fortune cookies, which have saturated fat and egg yolk.
Smart Selections: French Food
- Vegetable vinaigrette: Grilled vegetables, fresh asparagus or steamed artichokes; for a tangy, delicious dipping sauce, mix some balsamic vinegar with Dijon mustard.
- Onion soup without cheese or lentil soup; however, all soups will be high in sodium and probably contain a little oil.
- Salads with steamed or marinated fresh vegetables.
- Roasted chicken, grilled chicken or fish
- Poached salmon
- Fish stew (bouillabaisse)
- Filet mignon
Smart Selections: Indian Food
- Papadum (baked lentil wafers, typically made with oil)
- Bread: Chapati (whole-wheat), Naan (poppy seed) or Kuicha (leavened baked bread); request bread directly from the oven before they are oiled.
- Samber (vegetarian)
- Mulligatawny (lentil and vegetables)
- Dahl Rasam (lentil and peppers)
- Chopped salad with onion, tomatoes and lettuce
- Chicken Tandoori
- Chicken Tikki (roasted with mild spices)
- Chicken Saag (spinach, hold the cream)
- Chicken Vindaloo (spicy dish with potato)
- Shrimp Bhuna (cooked with vegetables)
- Aloo-Gobi (cauliflower and potato)
- Pullao (basmati rice)
- Chana (anything with garbanzo beans)
Smart Selections: Italian Food
- Steamed mussels or clams
- Grilled vegetables with minimal or no oil
- Steamed artichokes
- Salad with no meat, cheese or olives; use vinegar or lemon juice as dressing
- Arugula with balsamic vinegar is a great choice too!
- Minestrone, although high in sodium!
- Whole-wheat pasta cooked in unsalted water
- Avoid stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini
- Choose meatless tomato sauce like marinara and pomodoro; use sauce with oil and salt sparingly
- Request fresh, chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic and a splash of balsamic vinegar as a good alternative to sauce
- Order a side of grilled or steamed vegetables to mix in with the pasta or order pasta primavera
- Grilled fish or chicken; avoid hidden fat like oil and butter
- Vegetables without butter or sauce
Smart Selections: Japanese Food
- Cucumber salad in vinaigrette
- Grilled vegetables
- Steamed soybeans (edamame), without salt on top
- Miso soup (high in sodium!)
- Steamed brown rice
- Seafood sunomono (with vegetables and vinegar)
- Sushi (request brown rice)
- Mizutaki (chicken and vegetables simmered in water)
- Steamed, grilled or roasted fish
Smart Selections: Mexican Food
- Salsa with steamed corn tortillas instead of fried chips
- Black bean or gazpacho soup; sodium will be high!
- Chicken fajitas, sautéed with no oil, with steamed corn tortillas
- Soft, steamed tostada with beans, salsa, lettuce, onion and shredded vegetables
- Chicken enchilada or soft chicken or fish taco with no breading or dressing
- Chicken or seafood taco salad without the taco shells
- Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice)
Smart Selections: Thai Food
- Satay (marinated grilled beef or chicken); avoid the peanut dipping sauce
- Steamed mussels
- Thai garden salad
- Steamed rice
- Seafood kabob
- Crystal noodle soup
- Talay Thong (seafood, beans, vegetables)
- Thai chicken (no cashews)
- Sweet and sour chicken
- Poy Siam (sautéed seafood)
- Scallops/bamboo/vegetable boat
- Pad Thai (vegetables, noodles, spices)