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Last updated: Oct 21, 2021
6 min read

How to eat healthy when eating out: 18 tips

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ashley Braun, RD, MPH

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

When you’re trying to reach and maintain a healthy weight, it’s important to make it fit into your life—making your experience as natural and even fun as possible boosts your chances of hitting your goals. 

Unfortunately, sticking to your healthy meal plan and dining out often feels like two things that just don’t mix. Some people might even start to avoid dining out with friends if they don’t know how to navigate a menu and stick to their meal plan. 

But with the right strategies, you can confidently meet your friends for dinner or even order takeout while trusting yourself to keep your weight loss journey on track. Here are 18 tips to get you started. 

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1. Avoid fried or heavy appetizers

It can be tempting to start off your meal with a fried appetizer—they look and sound so tasty!—but skipping the starter can help you save a huge number of extra calories. 

If you’re hungry for an appetizer, consider a side salad, roasted vegetable, or broth-based soup over things like onion rings, mozzarella sticks, or tempura. Alternatively, you could split a smaller appetizer with other people in order to keep your portion size down.

2. Ask how the food is prepared

Pay attention to how the food is prepared—ask your server if the menu doesn’t specify. Look for options that are steamed, grilled, roasted, baked, or broiled. Usually, these cooking methods add less oil, resulting in fewer calories. 

Menu items that say they’re fried, “crispy,” pan-fried, or sautéed are usually cooked in oil or fat. And while fat itself isn’t necessarily bad, these foods often contain more calories and are usually higher in less-healthy saturated fat. 

3. Choose veggies for your sides

Instead of going for deep-fried sides, like french fries, substitute them with whole grains, steamed veggies, or a side salad. Non-starchy vegetables and whole grains add extra fiber to your meal, which can help you feel fuller and more satisfied with fewer calories. 

4. Look up the menu before going

Researching the menu and nutrition information before getting to the restaurant will help you feel more prepared and confident when it comes time to order. Best of all, when you’re committed to your choice ahead of time, it’s easier to stick to making healthier choices. Last-minute decisions influenced by a stressful day or being super hungry could turn into indulging beyond what you were planning.  

Also, knowing your healthy choice ahead of time can help you plan what you eat throughout the day to prevent being overly hungry or beyond your calorie goals by the time you arrive at the restaurant. 

5. Choose lean meats

Opting for leaner cuts of protein, like white meats, can help reduce saturated fat and total calories. Baked fish and grilled chicken are generally considered great healthy options. 

If you prefer red meat, you could choose lean cuts like New York strip steak or tenderloin. 

6. Reduce portion sizes

Eating proper portion sizes helps with eating better and preventing overeating. Research shows that eating from smaller plates can help increase satisfaction with meals and decrease the amount of food consumed (Peng, 2017).

When eating out, ask for a to-go box right at the start when you receive your food. Restaurants often provide two or three times normal portion sizes. So, putting half or two thirds of your order into a box to take home—before you even start eating—helps reduce the amount of food you’ll end up consuming at the restaurant. 

Other options include ordering a half portion or splitting with someone else at the table. 

7. Limit alcoholic drinks

Many alcoholic drinks contain at least 100 calories, which add up quickly since many people tend to have more than one drink at a sitting. Not only that, alcohol lowers self-control and inhibition, so you may end up tempted to order extra or less-healthy foods that might bust your plan. Limiting or skipping alcoholic drinks altogether can be an unexpected way to stick to your calorie goals.

8. Opt for water or unsweetened beverages

Calories from other drinks can also add up quickly. Soda, juice, and lattes all contain extra calories from sugar or fat that may get in the way of your healthy eating goals. 

Calories aside, these types of drinks also offer limited value for vitamins or minerals. Instead, opt for water or low-calorie beverages to go with your meal. 

9. Order a side salad

A small salad to start your meal is one of the healthiest options you can choose, and it’s also a great way to add fiber and other nutrients to your meal. Starting your meal with fiber helps add volume to your stomach, which can help you feel full more quickly. 

Another reason to start with a side salad is that it takes time for your brain to register when you feel full. Starting by eating a salad before your entree arrives essentially spreads out your meal over time and may make it easier to recognize when you feel full. 

10. Choose options cooked with healthy fats

Food cooked with butter can add extra saturated fat to your diet. Too much saturated fat can increase your risk for heart disease, let alone extra calories (Gershuni, 2018). Instead, aim for most of your fat to come from unsaturated sources. Unsaturated oils, like olive oil, are a good alternative to saturated fat. 

Don’t be afraid to ask what kind of oil they use at the restaurant. Knowing what type of oil they use and how they prepare food can be useful when making your food choices. 

11. Choose whole grains over simple carbs

Whole grain options contain more nutrients and fiber. When possible, swap simple carbs—like white rice or bread—for brown rice, black beans, or other options that are naturally packed with lots of fiber and nutrients. 

12. Don’t save your calories for dining out

Sometimes it may seem like a good idea to skip a meal earlier in the day to save your calories for dinner. But doing so means you’ll be more likely to end up feeling extra hungry when you arrive at the restaurant, making it easier to overeat or choose less-healthy options. 

Instead, eat your normal meals throughout the day, plus a healthy snack before arriving to help keep your appetite and hunger steady.

13. Drink water before and during your meal

One of the ways your brain registers you’re full is the total volume in your stomach. So, drinking water, both before and during your meal, helps add to that volume, helping you feel full sooner. 

14. Eat your meals mindfully

Try practicing mindful eating techniques to help you slow down and enjoy your meals. Mindful eating is a type of meditation where you focus your full attention on your food. 

When at home, turn off all distractions (we’re looking at you, cellphone!) and put your full attention on the taste, texture, and smell of your meals. 

When dining out, you could try a modified version of a mindful eating exercise—especially useful because conversation and enjoying time with others can add some challenges to mindful eating. Try mini mindfulness sessions by taking a second or two to focus on each bite of food between talking. 

15. Order your meal first

Sometimes it’s easy to be influenced by other people’s meal choices. So speak up and be the first to order your main dish before others at the table order theirs. Stepping up to be first to order can help ensure there isn’t peer pressure to change your mind at the last moment.

16. Ask for sauces and dressing on the side

Salad dressing and sauces add extra calories and fat to meals. More often than not, restaurants put large amounts of these onto foods. So, asking for sauces on the side puts you in control of how much goes onto your meal and can help you save calories.

17. Skip the bread basket

Filling up on the breadsticks or chips on the table before the meal arrives adds extra calories with minimal vitamins, minerals, or fiber. Instead, skip the bread or chips—you can even ask for them to be removed from the table altogether to remove temptation. 

18. Limit fast food

Many fast-food menu items tend to be higher in fat and less nutritious. If you’re in a pinch and fast food is the only option, try to choose healthier items on the menu, like unbreaded chicken or salads. 

Balance your whole diet

We know that when you’re rocking a weight loss journey like you are right now, it can be hard not to feel like you’ve got to be perfectly healthy at every meal. But it’s equally important to take some of the pressure off of yourself and recognize that the way to make your journey a new, permanent lifestyle you can happily live with is to aim for balance. 

One meal won’t make or break your healthy eating plan. If your occasional meal out ends up being less healthy than you’d like, balance things out by making healthy choices elsewhere in your day or week. Taken all together, your wise choices will add up to a healthier, happier you.

References

  1. Gershuni, V. M. (2018). Saturated fat: part of a healthy diet. Current Nutrition Reports, 7(3), 85–96. doi: 10.1007/s13668-018-0238-x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30084105/ 
  2. Peng, M. (2017). How does plate size affect estimated satiation and intake for individuals in normal-weight and overweight groups?. Obesity Science & Practice, 3(3), 282–288. doi: 10.1002/osp4.119. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598018/