Lifestyle Nutrition

10 Tips to Eat Healthy at Restaurants

restaurant diet tips

Most people looking to adopt a fit lifestyle and eat healthy respond in one of two ways when it comes to dining out.

Some abandon their healthy eating campaigns altogether and indulge every whim, leading to feelings of regret and defeat. And the rest completely avoid social situations for fear of making poor decisions.

Neither of these extremes is a pleasant way to live.

The reality is that you can be social, eat healthy, and truly enjoy your food.

10 Tips to eat healthy at restaurants

Humans are social creatures and we use food as an excuse to gather. Think how awkward it would be if someone got a group together around an empty table to swap stories.

Add food to that equation and you've got yourself a good time.

Now, if you're going out for an infrequent restaurant meal, feel free to use it as a planned high-calorie event.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a way to make regular outings work within an established eating plan, employ the tips below and don't ditch friends and family because you're stressing about your macros.

1. Plan ahead

If you know you're going to celebrate with a meal out, skip some carbs and fat at breakfast and lunch and you'll still end the day within your nutrient goals.

2. Say “no” to freebies

You go out to eat to enjoy things that you may not be able to prepare to the same degree of deliciousness at home, not to gorge on the free filler food that gets dropped off before you order.

And you know that once you eat that first chip with salsa or roll with butter, you'll likely demolish the whole basket.

To prevent yourself from mindless pre-meal snacking, request that the server remove any bread, crackers, chips, etc.

3. Skip the appetizers

I have a pretty big appetite, but I don't even enjoy the main course if I eat a bunch of bullshit mini-corn dogs, mozzarella sticks, or fried pickles at the beginning of the meal.

Instead, plan to enjoy the food that took 15 minutes of picking apart the menu to order.

4. Start with a salad

If you must have some kind of appetizer or your meal comes with a choice of soup or salad, opt for a salad.

When you're starving, a salad will taste amazing. The first food that's eaten in a meal will get all the credit for satisfying your hunger.

“Salad is delicious and satiating,” is definitely a great association to make.

5. Order an entree

Instead of going straight for the wings or a burger, check out the main entrees offered.

Chicken breast, steak, and fish are all great choices. You'll ditch the bun, sauces, and french fries and they'll likely be accompanied by expertly prepared veggies and a starch like potatoes or rice instead.

6. Make sure the meal has 30 – 50 grams of protein

Simply by doing this, you'll naturally have to avoid things like mac n' cheese, pizza, and nachos.

7. Avoid anything with a “glaze”

This is a restaurant term for what is essentially candy coating. You don't need to consume a bunch of sugar with your protein and weaken your attempt to eat healthy.

8. Don't drink your calories

You could easily tack on 500+ extra calories by ordering beer or regular soda. Remind yourself that you'd rather have a bigger steak.

Water is best, but I usually order Diet Coke when eating out. It's definitely not the best option, but given the infrequency of my soda consumption, I think I'll live.

If necessary, let a restaurant meal be the rare instance when you enjoy a diet soda (unless you're eating out numerous times a week). Alternately, squeeze lemon and lime into seltzer water as a soda substitute.

9. Eat your protein first

Then vegetables second and your starch last.

This ensures you'll get in all of your protein and veggies and then you're free to eat as much of your potatoes or rice as you can fit in.

Chances are, you won't be very hungry after the first two. And if you're eating an entree-sized portion, there certainly won't be room for dessert.

10. Not all condiments are evil

I've seen this mistake too often. People thinking that to eat healthy they have to eat plain. Then they pick at their terrible food and eat half a jar of organic almond butter when they go home.

No need to avoid seasonings, salsa, guacamole, hot sauce, or mustard as part of your meal. Especially if it means you'll eat more meat or vegetables.

Just go easy on the salad dressings, sour cream, BBQ sauce, and mayo.

Bonus Tip

If you're really prone to overeating, like I am, eat something before you go out.

Eat a cup of cottage cheese, can of tuna, or chicken breast paired with a serving of veggies before leaving the house.

It'll stop the “eyes bigger than your stomach” effect and can help steer you away from questionable menu items.

Best (and worst) restaurant options

Steak House/American

  • Steak, roasted veggies, and baked potato
  • Grilled chicken sandwich and baked sweet potato
  • Salmon, steamed vegetables, and rice pilaf

SKIP:  Bacon double cheeseburger and fries

Diner/Breakfast

  • Veggie, seafood, or Denver omelette, wheat toast, and black coffee
  • Steak and eggs with black coffee

SKIP:  Pancakes, waffles, french toast, and mimosas

Japanese

  • Sushi (see SKIP note below)
  • Sashimi
  • Grilled chicken teriyaki with steamed vegetables and rice

SKIP: Anything with “tempura” (i.e., battered and deep fried) or rolls with lots of cream cheese or mayo

Italian

  • Pasta in a red sauce with ground beef or grilled chicken with a salad
  • Grilled salmon with asparagus

SKIP: Chicken, veal, or eggplant parmesan (all are breaded and fried), cream sauces, garlic bread, meatless dishes

Mexican

  • Chicken or steak fajitas (served with onions and peppers)
  • Beef, chicken, or pork tacos

SKIP:  Flautas, sopes, chimichangas, empanadas, or other fried dishes, cheese quesadillas, or lengua (beef tongue)

Pizza

  • Thin crust pizza with veggies (peppers, spinach, olives, onion) and chicken

SKIP:  Deep dish, extra cheese, buffalo wings

So, what's your favorite local restaurant that helps keep you on track?  I'd love suggestions to use when I travel. Let me know in the comments!

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Seb
    July 20, 2015 at 10:07 am

    No. 9 – this is good advice for any meal, in a restaurant or at home. I’d be interested to read your take on an ideal everyday diet for the average person. Great article as always.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 20, 2015 at 10:28 am

      It’s funny how delicious the carb portion of a meal is at the beginning, but it tastes like bland mush after you’ve had your fill of meat and veggies. I’ll put that idea on the list for future posts, thanks!

  • Reply
    Damian Pros
    July 20, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Great advice Nate,

    Eating a salad to cut your appetite is a smart move. But I think that not any salad will do they work.

    One with chicken will be a great choice. Ceasar’s for instance. Or maybe tuna salad if you like.

    PS: “Neither of these extremes are a pleasant way to live.”

    I think the correct is “is a pleasant way” because you have the “neither” in the beginning. Or not?

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 20, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      A chicken or tuna salad would be a good choice, but if you’re eating an entree afterwards, a meatless salad will do the job. Fixed.

  • Reply
    Jacob
    July 23, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    I find it hard to go to a restaurant and not over-consume. Everything is just so damn calorically dense nowadays. I have taken to completely removing the temptation of restaurants by either ordering a to-go order (thus eliminating the choice to add appetizers,beer, and/or dessert) or simply eating at home.

    The few times I do go out is a treat for me and I don’t feel nearly as bad for indulging, since it’s once every few weeks.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 24, 2015 at 12:31 am

      That’s probably the best approach. I’m not afraid to eat big by any means, but when I actually look at nutrition info for restaurant food I’m blown away. They somehow manage to cram 40g of fat and 50g of carbs into a chicken salad. It’s unbelievable.

  • Reply
    Eric
    July 26, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Obviously going bunless is a good move but I always order a side salad instead of fries with a sandwich or burger. It’s even better if you eat the salad first and then the sandwich.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 27, 2015 at 12:06 am

      Those are all great ideas. Eating low carb at restaurants can be a challenge, but it can be done, as you’ve demonstrated.

  • Reply
    Aussie_Jack
    August 3, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    Don’t you have pubs in America that serve meals? Steak and chips, sunday roast, bangers and mash. Bigger portions than a restaurant and cheaper too.

  • Reply
    Johnny Lionseed
    August 26, 2015 at 2:04 am

    SKIP: Anything with “tempura” (i.e., battered and deep fried) or rolls with lots of cream cheese or mayo

    Well that sucks. lol

    Great article. I’ve always thought going out to eat meant ‘cheat day’.

    • Reply
      Nate
      August 26, 2015 at 10:13 am

      Haha. If you’re intentionally eating a cheat meal then you can order whatever you want. This article is for those more frequent outings when you want to make healthier choices.

  • Reply
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