Eating out is a part of our busy modern lives. Even though you need to be careful to not overeat, it is possible to go out and enjoy yourself while staying healthy.
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.
- Avoid eating out when you are overly 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 such as baked or steamed instead of fried. You can also ask to have sauces served on the side.
Basic Ground Rules for Eating Out
Look for and choose:
- Salads with dressing on the side
- 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 cheesy
- 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.
- Avoid mindlessly eating foods such as rolls and bread just because they are on the table. You can ask the server to take these foods off 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 healthy appetizers rather than an entree.
- Start with a small salad or broth-based soup as an appetizer.
- Order the dressing for your salad on the side so you can control how much of it you use.
- Drink water, unsweetened tea, diet drinks, or low-fat milk. Limit fluids that have empty calories, such as sodas.
- Limit how much alcohol you have with meals. Wine is lower in calories than frozen drinks or mixed cocktails that have juice in them.
- Skip your dessert or share it with another person.
Try these tips to limit calories when eating in fast food restaurants:
- Choose a place that broils or grills hamburgers, fish, and chicken for their sandwiches.
- Order your sandwich without cheese, 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.
- Limit ketchup, barbeque sauce, and other condiments, as they often contain hidden sugars.
- Pizza is OK but limit yourself to only one or two slices. Choose vegetable toppings such as peppers or spinach instead of sausage or pepperoni. 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. Most cold-cuts are high in sodium.
- Be mindful of tuna and chicken salads which are often made with lots of high-calorie 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:
- 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, which are often high in calories.
- 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, lean protein, and sauces made from yogurt.
- Good choices include mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, kebabs, whole-wheat naan bread, and lassi.
- Limit fried foods, creamy curry sauces, cream sauces such as Korma or Makhani, and foods made with coconut milk or a clarified butter call ghee.
- Pasta dishes with a red or marinara sauce are lower in calories and saturated fat than sauces made with cream, butter, cheese, or pesto.
- Look for the word primavera, which means that the menu item contains vegetables and will not include creamy sauce. Order dishes with seafood, grilled meat, fish, chicken, or vegetables.
- Limit lasagna, antipasto, alfredo sauce, and garlic bread.
- Limit fried or breaded dishes like chicken and eggplant parmesan or parmigiana.
- Watch out for large servings of pasta. Pair your pasta with a side salad so your meal is more balanced.
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 brown rice, rice and black beans, and items that are baked or grilled.
- Limit nachos, chips, and quesadillas.
Family restaurants and pub food:
- Stick with grilled chicken and meats, or a pot roast or meatloaf.
- Limit foods, even vegetables, that are fried, breaded, au gratin (cheesy), 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 most often lower in calories. 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.
Weight-loss - eating out; Healthy diet - eating out; Obesity - eating out
American Heart Association website. Dining out doesn't mean ditch your diet. heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/dining-out-doesnt-mean-ditch-your-diet. Updated January 10, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Maratos-Filer E. Obesity. In Melmed S, Auchus RJ, Goldfine AB, Koenig RJ, Rosen CJ, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 14th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 40.
US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th ed. www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Updated December 2020. Accessed December 30, 2020.
Review Date 8/20/2020
Updated by: Meagan Bridges, RD, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.