Nutrition Articles

85 Tips & Strategies for Dining Out

Take the Challenge Out of Dining

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We spend more money and waste more calories by dining out than ever before. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that we eat 29% of our meals away from home. And the National Restaurant Association says that these meals take up 44% of our food budgets. This could grow to 53% in the next few years.

As if it’s not already, eating out is about to become a bigger and bigger dieting challenge. Sticking to your guns away from home is hard for many reasons. They all seem to boil down to this dilemma: How can you possibly have control of your diet when you don’t control your eating environment?

But here’s the surprise—you CAN control your environment, no matter where you eat! You are the customer and you are in charge. From the time you pick up the car keys to the time you pick up the check, only you can decide whether to take a simple step forward or allow yourself to be coaxed (and yes, sometimes even manipulated) into busting your calorie budget.

Here are some ideas and strategies that will help you take charge of your next culinary adventure, every step of the way:

1-  Choosing a Restaurant
2-  Before Leaving the House
3-  When You Sit Down
4-  Ordering Up
5-  Appetizers
6-  Soups & Salads
7-  Entrees
8-  Side Dishes
9-  When the Meal Arrives

Eating healthy while eating out is all about one word: preparation. If you go into a restaurant cold, without any thought, you’ll be more susceptible to the creamy, the fatty and the gooey before you can prepare your defenses. Give yourself a chance by giving yourself options.
  • Avoid “all-you-can-eat” places. More diets go here to die than any other type of restaurant.
  • Choose a healthy restaurant near me with a varied menu. It’ll make it easier to find something healthy and to your taste.
  • Don’t decide to eat out on the spur of the moment, if possible. It’s best to make plans and account for it during the rest of the day’s menu planning.
  • Fish restaurants and restaurants with extensive salad bars usually have healthy options available.
  • Try to avoid restaurants that promote “entertainment” eating, where the food is one of several attractions. This usually means the menu is choked full of fried, fatty and huge dishes.
  • Any restaurant with a mascot is probably bad news.
Sometimes, the battle is lost before we even open the door. Know what you’re getting yourself into so you’re not surprised later or forced to choose between two deep-fried evils. All it takes is a few minutes.
  • Go to the restaurant's website to find a menu (or have them fax one to you) and study it.
  • Decide what you want to eat before you leave the house. Is this a chicken night or are you craving pasta? If possible, choose a specific menu item so you’re not tempted by the menu at the restaurant.
  • Make reservations. This cuts down on waiting and hunger time at the restaurant, as well as the number of drinks you have at the bar.
  • While making reservations, check on preparation methods and their ability and willingness to accommodate your requests. Learn what options you have and what substitution choices are available.
  • Try to reserve a table away from the kitchen so piles of delectable dishes aren’t paraded by as you’re deciding what to eat.
  • Know what you can afford to spend out of your calorie budget – but don’t starve yourself, it’ll only court temptation.
  • Don’t leave the house hungry. About 1-2 hours before eating, have a small, healthy snack (apple, small salad) to avoid pre-meal munching later.
  • Bring along some whole wheat or rye crackers and packets of your favorite low-calories salad dressings. Don’t count on the restaurant to always have the ones you like.
This is a critical point that sets the tone for the rest of the evening. It’s when much of our mindless munching happens, we can see and smell the food all around us, and we’re usually at our hungriest. If there were ever a perfect time to take charge of your experience, this is it. Get off on the right foot.
  • Start by politely sending back those free munchies that show up right away. Bread baskets, rolls, tortilla chips or Chinese noodles can be bottomless pits of calories. Not to mention all of the butter that usually comes with them.
  • If you need to munch a little to ward off hunger, ask the server if something else is available. They might have rye or whole wheat bread or rolls, melba toast or whole wheat crackers instead.
  • Ask if there is a lower-fat alternative spread instead of the butter. If not, plain rolls aren’t so bad.
  • Choose salsa over con queso or other cheesy dips.
  • Order water right away and start sipping. Much of what we mistake as hunger is often merely thirst.
  • A glass of spicy tomato juice or vegetable drink can bridge the hunger gap.
  • Dessert menus, with huge, tasty close-ups of caloric landmines are on the table for a reason. Even if it’s a tabletop display, give it to your server.
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Member Comments

  • We have boughten into the lie that lower fat is good, while eating higher carb stuff, whereas the newest studies have proven just the opposite. So, cut the carbs,,,, except for veggies and your meal can be perfect.
    Butter .... it's proven that it's better than any substitute.
    I have been out lately and one of the advantages of a buffet is that one can pick and choose exactly what to eat, and the quantity, but then the person has to be in control of what they put on their plate!
    At a Vietnames restaurant, while ordering a vermicelli bowl, I was able to avoid certain things I can't eat by leaving out some things, but I didn't ask for special things to be added...
    Just some thoughts...... - 3/18/2016 12:42:38 PM
  • I appreciate the thought put into this article. Hubby and I ate out about three times a week. Since he is in Health Care, I don't go out much. - 2/10/2016 12:11:45 AM
  • I found this somewhat helpful, but I rarely eat out (mostly special occasions), so I don't feel that bad splurging on a nice meal and I just adjust my intake at other meals those days...Also, most times I pick one of the "healthier" options, the lack of flavor isn't worth it. I used to work at a restaurant so I despise the people who want to make a bunch of substitutions. The most I do is get the dressing on the side. - 2/5/2016 12:12:45 PM
  • I found the article very helpful and detailed. I already do some of these things. I see no problem with asking for substitutions and omissions in the meal that I'm paying for... If they can't do it they will let you know. An extra tip for the server if they go the extra mile. I went out to eat 3 times this week which is unusual but if I "splurged" each time my diet would be shot and I'm eating for health reasons even more than weight loss. Thanks for all the tips. - 1/23/2016 11:29:10 AM
  • Reading the comments tells me that this advice didn't work for everyone but I have a lunch date coming up and really don't want to break the healthy streak I have going (19 days - WooHoo) so I have been preparing. The choice of restaurant was left up to me, so I looked up menus on line and even checked nutritional content of some dishes. So I know where I am going and what I will order and there will be no angst or guilt. And I'll make sure I'm not overly hungry and I'll suggest a table away from the kitchen. By taking these steps ahead of time I think I'll enjoy my companion's company even more. Win win. - 1/21/2016 11:47:41 AM
  • or you could just go out and enjoy yourself for once... once a month or every couple of months isn't going to hurt anything. if you're eating out daily or weekly, you're doing it wrong! you need to figure out why you're spending so much money and not cooking for yourself. - 1/18/2016 6:34:30 PM
  • I always take half home - at Olive Garden & the like, I take 2/3 home. Instead of overwhelming the wait staff, I ask for minimum changes, then take home whatever is outside my range. For some reason, wait staff wants you to have more, so the changes I ask for are all sauces on the side, including butter - that is easier on the wait staff than saying no sauces, etc. Then I either leave it there or take it home, but I won't eat it. For salads, I ask for lemon slices instead of dressing. I tip a little better when the changes are right-on. 8-) - 1/18/2016 12:58:11 AM
  • I know this article is a couple years old, but I truly found some of the suggestions here to be a little over the top:

    Going online to check the menu? Yes
    Calling ahead, requesting a specific table away from the kitchen, having the menu faxed or emailed to you at home, and giving them a list of your requirements (other than sever allergies of course) prior to going? Not likely.

    Yes most restaurants are able to accommodate special requests, but getting them to totally re-design dishes is not what they're there for - not your usual run-of-the-mill restaurant or pub, anyway.
    Asking for extra veggies on your salad, dressing on the side, or your protein to be grilled/baked/bro
    iled etc without any extra breading/oil/butt
    er is one thing.
    But having them re-design (and re-PRICE) an entirely new meal is very challenging, as most restaurants operate as the culinary version of an assembly line.

    If for instance you wanted to order the chicken picata, (a breaded chicken in butter lemon sauce over noodles), and you tell your server you want the chicken picata.
    BUT, you want the chicken grilled, not pan fried, you want it seasoned with herbs, not breading, you want the lemon butter sauce to be replaced with a tomato based sauce with veggies added to it, and you want your side dish to be something not even on the menu.....How do they price that for you?

    Asking a waiter to come up with melba toast when it's not something offered by the restaurant is a little over the top
    Ordering fresh fruit as an appy is a great idea - IF the restaurant has a fruit and cheese plate on their menu (even on their dessert menu), otherwise it's very unlikely that they'll be able to accommodate.

    Many of these tips are so difficult for your typical restaurants to accommodate, it's going to lead to a very frustrating and exhausting dining experience for you, your poor server, and the kitchen staff. - 7/8/2015 1:58:48 PM
  • AREED78
    My husband loves to go out, but I'm trying to lose some weight. I want to indulge when we go out, but still try to eat what's good. Skipping the bread is probably the best advice, those empty carbs taste great, but are not good for you. I usually get a steak when we go out, which is better than some things I could order. http://www.prime8
    2restaurantan - 3/16/2015 3:02:10 PM
  • ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    ^^Linaspark! - 2/17/2015 7:46:50 PM
  • Some of the tips were helpful, but I was rather disappointed at the vagueness of the article. There are a lot of things that are not address: Individuals with plant-based eating lifestyles and individuals with food allergies are not addressed. - 9/18/2014 12:19:29 PM
  • I find it very frustrating as a vegetarian that non of these article even touch on the difficulties of attempting to eat out "veggie" style. They even say don't look I the vegetarian options as they are loaded on extra calories. Sooo am I supposed to just eat vegetables? I don't have the option to eat skinless chicken or fish as an entree and most broth based soups are beef or chicken. Can't lose for winning :( - 9/6/2013 8:05:15 AM
  • Great article. I don't eat out like that. I think I can cook at home and be better off than going spending money. - 8/10/2013 6:05:20 PM
  • taking half home for another meal = no cooking. - 7/9/2013 6:39:31 PM
  • LINASPARK: I absolutely agree with you!!! Thanks for not holding any punches! - 9/3/2012 12:14:43 AM

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