Tips for Eating Healthier at Restaurants

These days, it seems unusual to eat out less than a few times a week. So if you are going to eat out, are you destined to down a greasy burger and fries?

Although it might take a little extra detective work, it is possible to find healthy options when dining out. One of the shrewdest strategies you can use is to plan ahead. Avoid "all you can eat" restaurants. More diets go here to die than any other type of restaurant. These days, many places offer their menus and nutritional information online. So if you know where you’re going, you can check out the website ahead of time to find something that won’t break the fat and cholesterol bank. If you don’t know where you are going, or happen to stop somewhere "spur of the moment," there are some general tips you can use to ensure your experience is a healthy one.

Before Leaving the House

Eating healthy while eating out requires preparation. If you know what you’re getting into, it’s much easier to avoid the deep-fried, creamy and buttery "monsters" jumping off of the menu.
  • Have a healthy snack about one or two hours before eating to avoid pre-meal munching later.
  • If possible, make reservations. This will cut down on waiting and hunger time at the restaurant, as well as the number of drinks you have at the bar. If you’re famished when you get to your table, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? Probably devour the bread basket and butter.
  • It’s also a good idea to bring along some whole wheat or rye crackers and your own low-cal salad dressing. This way, you won’t have to rely on the restaurant to have healthy options you like.

When You Sit Down

This is the point when your decisions will set the tone for the evening. Is this going to be a positive, healthy experience, or one you’ll regret as soon as you get up from the table? Now is your opportunity to make this meal a good one!
  • If it's not on the table, ask for a glass of water right away. Keep asking for refills to help fill you up a little before the meal starts.
  • Avoid alcohol. It’s loaded with calories and can lower your defenses against food, leaving you more likely to overeat.
  • Ask the server not to bring bread, chips or other pre-meal items. If you are eating with others who want them, ask that they keep them on their side of the table. It can be tempting to mindlessly "graze" when the basket is sitting right in front of you.
  • Have you ever noticed the dessert menu, already placed strategically on the table when you sit down? Pictures of ooey-gooey cakes, pies and ice creams are there for a reason. Give the menu to your server to avoid further temptation.

When It's Time to Order

If you haven’t had time to look over the menu and make a good choice, don’t be afraid to ask for more time. Split-second decisions can lead to poor choices. If you’re with a group, it’s a good idea to order first, so you won’t have time to be tempted by their selections.
  • Starting your meal with a cup of low-fat soup (broth or tomato-based) can cut down on your appetite. Bean or pea soups have more calories, but are so packed with fiber and nutrients, and are so filling, that it might be worth it.
  • Salads are also a good way to begin, just watch out for toppings like bacon, cheese, eggs and croutons; they can add unnecessary fat and calories.
  • Pick salads that have a lot of vegetables (or ask for extra) and get a simple, non-creamy dressing on the side. If you can’t find low-fat dressing options you’d like, try a squeeze of lemon or vinegar with a touch of oil.
  • When choosing your main course, sometimes an appetizer or a couple of side dishes can be a smaller alternative. Otherwise, request a small (lunch) or medium portion entrée. If sizes are not an option, share one with a friend.
  • Choose main dishes that include vegetables or substitute them in place of fries or chips as a healthy side dish.
  • Here’s a good goal to set for yourself: Every time you dine out, try to get at least one vegetable on your plate. Make sure they aren’t prepared in cheese or butter sauces; steamed or with lemon is best.
  • How an entrée is prepared will have a big impact on how healthy it is. Steamed, grilled or broiled are always better options than fried or sautéed.
  • When in doubt, opt for brighter color. Most high-calorie, high-fat menu items are brown, beige, white or pale yellow (other than some desserts, of course).
  • If it’s not clear how a dish is prepared or you want to make a special request, don’t be shy. Ask!

As the Meal Begins

Before you start eating, ask for a box and put at least half of your entrée in it. This way, you’ll be less likely to pick at the food after you’ve decided you’re finished. Eat slowly, taking your time -- this isn’t a race to see who can finish their meal first. It takes the stomach about 20 minutes to realize that it is full. Concentrate on the social aspect of the meal. Enjoy the company you are with as much as, or more than, the food. If you’re eating alone, make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy.
  • Eat your lowest calorie items first. Vegetables are always a great place to start.
  • When you’ve eaten about half of your food, stop a moment and ask yourself "Am I still hungry?" If the answer is "no", then why would you keep eating?
  • Once you’ve decided you’re finished, don’t continue to pick at your food. Cover your plate with a napkin, pour salt and pepper on it or put your utensils on your plate and push it away from you.
  • It also helps to chew a piece of gum or mint when you’re finished to keep your mouth occupied.

The Sweet Finale

The meal has gone well so far, so why blow it now? There are ways to satisfy your sweet tooth without breaking the calorie bank.
  • Go for fresh fruit or sorbet, as long as it’s not buried under syrup or whipped cream.
  • Lemon-meringue pie or other meringue pies are generally decent choices. If those are not available, or there is a dessert you just can’t resist, share it with others at your table.
The goal of a healthy lifestyle is not to deprive yourself of the foods you love, but to have those foods in moderation and learn to make better choices overall. If you love chocolate chip cookies and someone told you "You can never eat another chocolate chip cookie again," can you imagine how hard that would be? It’s important to enjoy yourself, while making choices that allow you to live a long and healthy life!