Eating Out

In This Chapter

  • How to eat out with healthfulness in mind
  • Navigating restaurant menus
  • Avoiding overindulgence at the bar
  • Identifying the best on-the-go food choices

Dining out can have many pitfalls when you’re following a healthy diet. Selecting the perfect restaurant can be a balance between what you’re craving and what you know you should select. It’s important to be prepared and conscious of how the experience appeals to your senses and emotions.

A few simple rules will help you be successful with a healthy diet when you dine out. Pass on the breadbasket or bottomless chips. Sip on your water and enjoy the atmosphere and company. When the food comes, eat slowly and savor the experience. Dining out isn’t just about the food. It’s about the environment, enjoying being waited on, and socializing.

Frequency of Meals Away from Home

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), eating one meal a week away from home contributes an additional 134 calories a week to your diet or about 2 pounds per year. That’s 10 pounds every 5 years. In addition to the additional calories, dining out increases your sodium, saturated fat, added sugar, and alcohol intake. On average, foods eaten away from home contribute to an overall decrease in the quality of the diet, including a decreased consumption of fruit, some vegetable groups, and whole grains by an average of 25 percent.

Whether you contribute to the increase or not, eating out is a social event and cultural phenomenon. Look back over the last month and ask yourself how many times you ate away from home at a restaurant. On the surface, it may seem you don’t eat out often, but when you start breaking it down to a morning latte a couple of times a week, lunch with co-workers twice a week, happy hour on Friday, brunch on Sunday, and a frequent takeout pizza night, it starts to add up.

Eating out on a regular basis and still maintaining a healthy diet can be difficult. Eating the majority of your meals and calories at home will be easier on your waistline and your wallet. Save dining out for special occasions and social events. If you think of eating out as “dining out,” the event becomes more meaningful.

If you regularly grab a meal on the run, it defintely will take time to curtail those urges and habits. Making good new habits will help change old ones. Instead of going out to lunch at work, gather a group of co-workers to go on a walk during lunchtime. Plan an after-work hike instead of happy hour. Think of social activities not centered around food.

Reducing your frequency of eating out is the goal; however, when the occasion arises you will still need to have tools to help make your dining experience healthy. Planning ahead can help you be successful. Choose your restaurant wisely, look at the menu before you arrive, and eat something small 1 to 2 hours before leaving so you won’t be starving when you are seated.

Selecting a Restaurant

Dining out can seem like you’re running through a field of landmines. Being unprepared can lead to consumption of high calories, fat, and sodium. With a little preparation ahead of time, you can eat out occasionally and not sabotage your diet.

Choosing the restaurant is the first step. Your goal is to find a place with a good selection of healthy options in normal-sized portions. Sounds easy enough, right? Depends on what restaurants are on your area. You will likely have to expand your horizons and try out some new places. However, dining out at a new place can actually help you order healthier.

Use apps listing local restaurants in your area. You can search using a keyword such as “healthy” to find options near you. Such apps will show reviews and pictures of the restaurant’s food along customer ratings. You may even be able to view their menu and possibly even the nutritional information.


The National Restaurant Association reports an increase in the use of smartphones and tablets by its consumers. Of those individuals owning this technology, 14% of millennials and 19% of baby boomers look up nutrition information on an app at least once a week. Many of these users are also receiving special deals and coupons and paying for their meals through the app.

Looking for the obvious healthier restaurants may make your ordering decision easier. Fish and seafood restaurants will have a large selection of fish and generally offer a wide variety of cooking methods to enhance the food’s flavor without heavy sauces.

Places with large salad bars can be a healthy diner’s paradise, but watch out for pitfalls. Bacon, cheese, croutons, olives, and heavy dressings can add fat, calories, and sodium to an otherwise healthy salad. Use caution when building your salad. Choose oil and vinegar in bottles for your salads in place of dressings. Don’t pour the dressing directly on your salad; instead, look for small cups to fill and use the “dip your fork” method when eating. If the salad is also your meal, add protein to it. If chicken isn’t available, choose to add beans and hard-boiled eggs.

Many restaurants are cognizant that consumers want healthier options and include healthy foods on their menu. You don’t have to limit yourself to dining only at health-focused restaurants. Learning how to order, using restraint, and making good choices will allow you to eat healthy at almost any restaurant.

Both small and large chain restaurants are appealing to health-focused consumers by listing nutritional information on their websites. Be prepared by looking at options before you arrive at the restaurant. Use caution when you look at nutritional information online. Read the description carefully and take note if condiments, salad dressings, and sides are included in the information. These may be listed separately, so you will need to add these to the final calorie count.

The Food Dialogue

The wait staff is the liaison between you and the kitchen. Don’t be shy about asking your server for help. Let your server know immediately that you’re looking for healthy options. Many will be well versed on options they can provide and help you with your selection. If they can’t answer questions, ask them (very nicely) to find out from the kitchen. Often the kitchen is happy to accommodate with a varied method of cooking, sauces on the side, and not salting vegetables. Even with recommendations from your server, continue to use your own judgment.

A Quick Guide to Meal Selection

Looking at menus online before you get to the restaurant will speed up the selection process. If menus are not available or you’re eating out on the spur of the moment, there are some tricks you can use to quickly select the healthiest option on the menu.

Look for the “light” section of the menu. Not all restaurants will have one, and sometimes the foods will be denoted with a symbol and mixed into their traditional subcategories. Finding these items on the menu, if available, at least guarantees the item you choose will be lighter than their average entrée. Many lighter menu selections are generally around 600 calories or less. Icons may depict a variety of health-conscious choices, which may include include healthy, low-sodium, vegetarian, or heart-healthy options.

The American Heart Association has a heart checkmark icon that restaurants can use to note if a menu selection meets certain nutritional standards. This red heart with a white checkmark inside indicates the menu items meet the AMA’s standards on calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, and contain a beneficial nutrient.

Words to Watch For

Descriptive words are used to paint a picture in the diner’s mind and tantalize the taste buds. These words can help lead you down the path to healthy choices. Not every menu item using these words will be a healthy option (baked mac-n-cheese, for example). Use them as a guide to look for healthier items:

  • 100% whole wheat
  • Baked
  • Blackened
  • Broiled
  • Grilled
  • Light
  • Marinara
  • Poached
  • Red sauce
  • Roasted
  • Seared
  • Seasoned (could have added salt)
  • Steamed
  • Stir-fried (ask for sauces on the side)
  • Vinaigrette
  • Whole wheat or whole grain

Avoiding fried foods is an easy way to make your choices healthier. However, it isn’t always easy to tell from the description. The following is a list of words to help uncover which foods are or may be fried:

  • Battered
  • Breaded
  • Crispy
  • Crunchy
  • Deep-fried
  • Pan-fried

Fat isn’t always a bad thing, as we’ve discussed—there are beneficial fats. Dining out and choosing the wrong menu item can cause you to surpass your daily cap of saturated fat without thinking. Cheese is healthy in moderation, but a serving is a 1-inch cube. Not many restaurant dishes containing cheese limit it to one serving. Added butter will also wreak havoc on your max of fat for the day. Check out the following list for keywords to clue you in to added fat from cream, cheese, and butter:

  • à la mode (served with ice cream)
  • au fromage (with cheese)
  • au gratin (topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, butter, and eggs)
  • au lait (prepared or served with milk)
  • Basted
  • Béarnaise
  • Buttery or buttered
  • Cheese sauce
  • Creamy
  • Creamy or creamed
  • Gooey
  • Hollandaise
  • Loaded
  • Melted
  • Newburg
  • Rich
  • Sautéed
  • Scalloped
  • Smothered
  • Stuffed
  • Thermidor
  • Velvety
  • White sauce

Added sugar can be just as detrimental to a healthy diet as added fat. Watch out for sweet sauces, toppers, and added sugar with the following words:

  • BBQ
  • Glazed
  • Honey
  • Honey mustard
  • Maple
  • Sticky
  • Sweet and sour
  • Sweetened
  • Teriyaki

Avoid portion distortion by skipping items including the phrases all you can eat, bottomless, giant, and super size.

Words that sound too good to be true may be just that. You should use caution when you see descriptions including “free” (fat-free, sugar-free, carb-free) on a menu. In these meals, the calories come either from fat, carbohydrate, or protein. If one energy group is lacking, it’s made up for in the other groups.


According to PBS, the low-fat craze hit America in the 1990s following reports that Americans were ingesting too much fat. There was not a differentiation between heart-healthy fats, trans fats, and saturated fats at that time. Consumers responded by switching to low-fat and fat-free items, believing these were better for them. Consumers falsely believed that as long as a food did not have fat, it was healthy. The problem with removing fat from items is it has to be replaced with another ingredient to make it palatable. This ingredient was often sugar or processed carbohydrate, neither of which is healthy in large quantities.

Navigating the Menu for Good Health

Learning how to choose a restaurant, watching out for unhealthy description words, and looking for healthy food symbols on a menu will help you enjoy the dining-out experience without sacrificing your new lifestyle. Now you need to learn how to navigate the menu.


The original role of the appetizer was to stimulate the appetite. Only a few small bites were eaten prior to the first course. Currently, appetizers now are generally very high in calories and fat, and if entire portions are eaten, they often quench your appetite rather than stimulate it.

If you must order an appetizer, choose wisely. Look for items made with vegetables close to their natural state. Select ones with healthy fats, high nutrient content, and good sources of lean protein.


Portion distortion is one of the biggest problems you may be faced with when you eat out. The gigantic plates are filled with enough food for at least two meals. Consider sharing an entrée with your dining companion, or ask for a to-go box right away and take home half your meal. If they’re available, order half-size or lunch-size servings.

Look for the lighter entrées. Most dining establishments offer a “lighter” section on their menu. Read the small print and don’t take this as permission to eat your entire entrée. Sometimes these entrées are still 600 calories. Share an entrée with your dining companion and ask wait staff to split it onto two plates.

Here are some guidelines for selecting the better options on menus. Entrées should be:

  • 600 calories or less (you can still share or take part home)
  • 6g of saturated fat or less
  • 900mg of sodium or less

Be sure to read descriptions for items thoroughly, and ask for clarification on words you’re unsure of. Request that items be brought without high-calorie options like sauces and toppings. You can also ask for items such as cheese, olives, and nuts on the side. Using these items in moderation is perfectly okay; however, entrées and salads generally have more than a serving of these items on them.

Not all calories are equal. Calories from avocado, cheese, and nuts are not the same as calories from bacon, dressing, and sauces. When you look at nutritional information, consider what is the source of calories in the dish. If your choice is a nutrient-packed food, then moderation is fine. A grilled salmon sandwich may seem high in calories and fat, but the fat is the healthy omega-3.


Sides can add calories, fat, and sodium very quickly to your otherwise healthy entrée. Most servers will happily substitute fresh fruit or a small side salad for fries or other unhealthy sides. Request double vegetables instead of rice or another starch on the side. Look for additional vegetable sides you can order.


Getting out of the habit of ordering dessert every time you go out is the best rule. Reserve dessert for special occasions. Many restaurants offer mini portions of famous desserts served in shot-size glasses. This is a great alternative to ordering a giant piece of cake. Pass a couple around to your table and have a bite of two or three different ones.

If you can’t get past the craving, look for healthier options. Other options are available and may not be listed on the dessert menu. Look for:

  • Fresh fruit plate with cheese
  • A small scoop of sorbet, gelato, sherbet, or ice cream
  • Poached fruit or baked apples
  • Fruit tarts and pies (skip the crust and ice cream on the side)
  • Coffee or cappuccino

The bottom line is the serving size. A couple of bites are not going to derail your success.


Ordering cocktails is a slippery slope when you’re trying to maintain a healthy diet. You have options when you’re faced with the inevitable social situation. If your companions are drinking and you feel the need to join them, consider ordering a nonalcoholic beverage such as seltzer with lime.

If you choose to order alcohol, think about the drink before you order. There are some beverages with fewer calories than others. Look for light versions of cocktails, such as skinny margaritas. You may also consider ordering a drink you would only sip slowly, such as a martini or a glass of red wine. Light beers are also lower in calories and fill you up more than a martini.


Here’s an easy way to precisely determine the number of calories in your drink: the proof of alcohol multiplied by 0.8 multiplied by the number of ounces in a drink.

For example, if you have 1.5 ounces of 80 proof vodka:

80 × .8 × 1.5 = 96 calories

Don’t forget to add the number of calories in your mixer.

If you consume alcoholic beverages, always do so in moderation (no more than one per day for women and two per day for men). At the end of the day, having one of your favorite cocktails or beers occasionally won’t derail your healthy lifestyle.

Food on the Go

As Americans, we’re constantly eating on the go—it’s part of our culture. Learning to be mindful throughout our day is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. Being mindful when eating on the road can be very difficult.

Do you stop every morning at your favorite coffee shop for your morning latte? A large latte with whole milk and flavored syrup can run upwards of 500 calories. If eliminating it isn’t an option, you’ll need to rethink your drink. Start by ordering one size smaller. Next, switch out the milk. By moving down to 1% milk, you’ll save calories and saturated fat. Consider reducing the amount of syrup in your drink or switch to sugar-free.

Smoothies are a fine meal substitute, but be cautious of calories. Try light versions without added sherbet. Often smoothies satisfy you for a few hours, but not as much as a meal would.

Fast food isn’t always the best option, but it can be unavoidable. Here are some guidelines:

  • Order a small hamburger
  • Have a grilled chicken sandwich
  • Skip the mayonnaise and use mustard instead
  • Order a sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes
  • Eat a side salad instead of fries
  • Order chili without cheese

Submarine sandwiches can be a great option for eating on the go. Choose lean meats such as turkey and grilled chicken. Load up on vegetables and choose your condiments wisely. Mustard and vinegar (without the oil) are better choices than mayonnaise and dressings. Choose cheese in moderation. Order 100 percent whole wheat bread if it’s offered and consider removing the top half of the bun.

Breakfast on the go also has some great options. Many fast-food outlets and coffee shops offer oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, and healthy breakfast wraps or sandwiches. Look for yogurt parfaits made with Greek yogurt and nuts as the topping. When choosing breakfast sandwiches, there’s no need to forgo the whole egg and order only egg whites. However, often egg-white wraps or sandwiches are offered in conjunction with healthier options such as a whole-grain muffin. Skip the fatty breakfast meats. A slice of cheese is a better option than ham or bacon.

Meals at the Grocery Store

Shopping at the grocery store isn’t just for raw foods anymore. The grocery store is packed full of ready-to-eat items. Grocery store chains have gone out of their way to appeal to the harried consumer wanting to grab a meal and go.

The deli section is an obvious first place to start. Fruit salad, tomato caprese, roasted vegetables, and tabbouleh salad are all available by the pound. Many full-service deli counters offer pre-cooked salmon, grilled chicken breasts, and whole roasted chickens. These are generally higher in sodium than you would make at home, but they’re great alternatives to takeout or restaurant foods.

Frozen foods are another option. Read labels to determine what fits your lifestyle and diet. There are a wide variety of options available. Look for light versions of frozen pizza, precooked chicken, and vegetables without sauces.

If you want to do a little more of the cooking yourself but want foods already prepped, shop around the outer aisles of the store for great options. The produce section has prepackaged salads, precut vegetables and fruit, and ready-to-roast vegetable mixes. The butcher’s counter has premade kabobs and premarinated chicken breasts ready to throw on the grill.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Dining out can be a wonderful experience if you plan ahead and research sensible choices.
  • Good communication skills can help restaurant servers understand your dietary needs.
  • Ordering from the appetizer and sides sections of the menu can mean smaller portion sizes, which typically equal fewer calories.
  • Meals on the go can be healthier if you take the time to seek out better options.
  • Check out the healthy food selections offered at your neighborhood grocery store for ready-to-eat meals and snacks.
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