Sometimes we dine out because our busy schedules leave us with no other option. And sometimes we dine out just for the enjoyment of trying something new or to celebrate a special occasion.
Either way, if you’re aiming to stick with healthier eating habits, all of the different options available on restaurant menus (many of which are decadent and tempting) can be a source of stress and confusion.
“Understand that the only healthy thing you can take with you to a restaurant—or the grocery store—is your consistent intention to make better choices,” said Lisa Nordquist, a self-care expert and an ACE certified personal trainer.
Maybe you’re not sure exactly which option is the healthiest choice, or maybe you do, but you often battle with the temptation to order something that you know isn’t so nutritious.
Of course, veering away from your healthy eating habits and indulging your cravings every once in a while is absolutely OK. But don’t forget that it’s what you do for the majority of time that matters when it comes to achieving your goals.
So for the times when you need to keep your nutrition on track, follow these expert tips for eating healthy when you’re dining out.
1. Make a game plan.
“Set yourself up to eat out as little as possible—ideally no more than two or three times a week,” said Lindsay Martin, a registered dietitian at Hilton Head Health. “When you do go out, look at the menu online beforehand and have a plan when it comes to alcohol, beverages, appetizers, bread baskets, your meal and potential dessert.”
2. “Spoil” your dinner.
“One frequent problem with restaurant dining is that it takes time to get seated, look over the menu and place your order, and by the time your meal arrives you’re starving,” explained Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., director of nutrition training at Herbalife. “That’s why many restaurants pop down a basket of bread and butter or some tortilla chips and salsa to tide you over.”
To avoid overeating before you even get your meal, Bowerman suggests “spoiling your dinner” by having a piece of fruit, a few bites of cottage cheese or yogurt, or a small handful of nuts before you go. “And turn down the bread and the chips which can add hundreds of calories to your meal before you’ve dug into your first course.”
3. Stick to Water
“Cocktails, wine, soda, and sweet beverages like lemonade don’t fill you up, but they can sure fill you out,” Bowerman said. “And, in the case of soda, free refills are often the norm in America—and that could mean hundreds of extra calories. Instead, ask for unsweetened iced tea, plain water or mineral water with a slice of lemon.”
4. Ask for salad dressings on the side.
“Starting your meal with a salad is a great habit to get into, as long as the salad isn’t loaded down with fatty ingredients and a heavy dressing,” Bowerman said. “Opt for plenty of greens with an oil and vinegar dressing served on the side and dip your fork in the dressing, then pick up some greens with your fork. You’ll get a little taste of dressing with each bite, but you’ll use far less.”
5. Look for key words.
“If the restaurant doesn’t provide any nutritional information, stay away from anything described as pan fried, deep friend, buttered, scalloped, au gratin, rich, creamed and loaded,” Martin said. “Instead, look for items that are grilled, broiled, baked, roasted, steamed and poached.”
6. Order first.
“If you’re dining with a group, try to order before everyone else does,” Bowerman suggests. “If you’ve planned ahead, and have a pretty good idea of what you want to eat, it’s a lot easier to stick with your agenda if you place your order first—before you get swayed by everyone else’s choices.”
And when dessert time rolls around, Bowerman says you should ask for fresh fruit or coffee before you even peek at the menu, and before everyone else orders any decadent sweet treats.
7. Split it up.
“It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating—restaurant portions can be huge,” Bowerman said. “Split an entrée with a dining companion and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you’ve eaten your portion. Those in the restaurant business know that customers want value, in other words, they want big portions at a reasonable price. And since it costs the restaurant much less to buy the food than it does to cook and serve it to you, most places are more than happy to super-size portions.”
8. Don’t be shy.
“Be open about trying to eat healthy, and don’t feel bad about ordering your meal exactly the way you want it cooked, like requesting grilled shrimp instead of fried,” said Martin. “There isn’t anything wrong with making healthy choices.”