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Restaurant Eating Tips

Enjoy the foods you love without a calorie overload

You’ll find dozens of ideas here for eating delicious restaurant foods and still eating healthy—but most importantly, remember these 2 tips:

  • If you are going to eat out, think about what you are eating the rest of the day so you can plan well and not blow your “calorie budget.”
  • Have it your way. Restaurants are in the business of serving customers. Don’t be afraid to ask for items prepared the way you want them.

The plan

When you know you’re going to eat out, think about what foods you’ll choose over the whole day. For instance, plan on a light lunch if you’ll eat out at dinnertime. Try not to skip meals, which may make you overindulge later. And most importantly, don’t show up at the restaurant famished! If you’d like to splurge on a higher calorie entrée, plan to skip dessert, and commit to sticking to your plan once you’re in the restaurant. And try to avoid all-you-can-eat buffets, which can really test your self-control!

Ordering tips

Eating out doesn’t have to wreak havoc with a healthy diet. Try some of the following tactics to help make restaurant foods fit into your own eating plan.

  • Order regular portion sizes instead of the jumbo or super sizes that are so common.
  • Try an appetizer, half an entrée, or share a meal with a friend and order an extra side salad.
  • Ask for half your entrée to be wrapped up to go before the food is brought to the table.
  • Order each item separately (a la carte) to get exactly what you want. For example, one chicken enchilada easy-on-the-sauce, side salad, and fruit dessert instead of the #8 enchilada plate with rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole, etc.
  • Learn to spot which dishes are made with lower calorie cooking methods.
  • Ask your server what ingredients are used.
  • Ask how dishes are prepared and can they can do it your way: grill the chicken, steam the vegetables, bring sauces and salad dressings on the side, put just a dollop of cream sauce on the pasta primavera and order extra grilled vegetables.
  • Ask if you can make healthy substitutions, for instance, a baked potato instead of fries, or a salad or fresh fruit instead of coleslaw.
  • Don’t tempt yourself! Have the waiter remove the bowl of chips or peanuts, or the basket of bread, after you’ve had a small portion. Calories from mindless nibbling can add up before you know it.
  • Don’t sit near the dessert cart!
  • Limit alcohol. It’s high calorie, has few nutrients, and can weaken your will power.

Good menu choices

The following foods and methods of preparation are likely your best choices to help you stay within your healthy eating plan.

  • Clear broth-based soups like Chinese wonton or hot and sour soup, consommé, tortilla soup, or minestrone.
  • Lettuce or spinach salads with vegetables and dressing on the side. Go easy on the bacon bits, croutons, cheese, and mayonnaise-based items like macaroni salad or tuna salad.
  • Raw vegetables (crudités) with a small amount of low-calorie dip.
  • Steamed vegetables with a slice of lemon; grilled veggies if not drenched in oil.
  • Meats that are grilled, broiled, roasted, or baked without added fat. Choose seafood that is broiled, baked, steamed, blackened, or poached—think tender sole poached in parchment with broth, savory vegetables and herbs.
  • A reasonable portion of steak—3 to 6 oz.; other lean meat cuts served au jus, with a flavorful fruit sauce, or stir-fried with vegetables. Again, go easy on the rich sauces.
  • A baked potato with a pat of butter or small amount of sour cream. Top with broccoli, low-fat chili, or salsa.
  • Sandwiches on whole wheat, pita, multi-grain breads; with low-fat deli meats and cheeses; mustard, relish, ketchup, or low-fat mayonnaise. Add flavor and vitamins with roasted sweet peppers, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, and chopped olives (small amount).
  • Fresh fruit, sherbet, and angel food cake are good choices for dessert.

Hidden calories: Look for the following descriptions to uncover higher calorie menu choices: pan-fried, sautéed, battered, breaded, au gratin, cheesy, creamy, buttered, deep-fried, béarnaise, or crispy—as in the “crispy,” deep-fried tortilla bowl holding the salad.

Fast food

It’s fast! It’s easy! It tastes good! And many times it’s the cheapest way to eat out. There are lots of reasons why people cruise through fast food restaurants. “I’m trying to eat healthy,” is not usually one of them. While the occasional burger and fries won’t ruin your diet or your waistline, eating at fast food restaurants regularly might.

Visit the fast-food chains’ Web sites to find out the nutritional content of their food. Try to figure out the healthiest choices before you go. And skip the super-size, double meat, extra “special sauce” offerings—they only pack in more fat and calories.

Check out the average calorie counts for some of your favorite fast foods—and think about how you can make choices that can easily trim calories, but still give you that fast, easy, cheap, tasty fix you’re looking for. You still want to check your favorite fast food items for their actual calorie counts, but this will give you a rough idea.

Menu item

Calories

    Hamburger

    260

    Cheeseburger

    300

    Double cheeseburger

    445

    Cheeseburger with bacon

    380

    Fish sandwich with sauce

    500

    Breaded chicken sandwich

    610

    Grilled chicken sandwich

    420

    Chicken nuggets (4 pieces)

    190

    Baked potato, with sour cream

    320

    Baked potato with bacon & cheese

    520

    Chili, small (8 oz)

    210

    Chili, large (12 oz)

    310

    Fries, small

    230

    Fries, large

    530

    Soda, small (16 oz)

    150

    Soda, medium (21 oz)

    240

    Soda, large (32 oz)

    320

    Chocolate milkshake, small

    580

    Vanilla milkshake, small

    400

    Hot fudge sundae

    330

    Fruit pie

    250

Skip this/ try instead

Calories Saved

    Double cheeseburger/cheeseburger

    145

    Large fries/small fries

    300

    Breaded chicken sandwich/grilled version

    190

Consider your options carefully so you can make the best fast food choices possible.

Tips by type of cuisine

No matter what type of restaurant you choose, choose wisely once inside!

Mexican food

You can eat light at a Mexican restaurant…with the right choices. Steer yourself toward burritos, soft tacos or fajitas, rather than hard shell tacos and crispy tortillas that are fried in lard and high in fat. Ask that your server not bring the bowl of fried tortilla chips to your table, and stay away from con queso dips and nacho cheese. If you have a choice of beans, go for the pinto or black beans, rather than their high-fat counterpart – refried beans. And add some fresh salsa to your dishes – tastes great, contributes to your vegetable count for the day, and is better for you than cream or cheese sauces!

A few restaurants do make their Mexican dishes with health in mind. Look for:

  • rice, no-fat black beans, and lower-fat cheese
  • tortillas, corn tortillas, or soft tacos
  • vegetables
  • chicken, fish, or shrimp
  • tacos (grilled fish, coleslaw light on mayonnaise, chopped tomato, salsa)
  • cream blended with non-fat yogurt
  • low in calories you can use it on everything
  • Italian food

    Italian dishes can fit nicely in a healthy diet. Italians traditionally eat mostly pasta, bread, beans, vegetables, fruit, and olive oil. This Mediterranean diet has been described as a one way to avoid heart disease. But watch out for those dishes that use more meats, cheeses, cream sauces, and breaded items! And be careful with the garlic bread, cheese sticks, or cheese bread, too. Look for these menu items and try to keep portion size reasonable.

  • pasta
  • e fagioli (flavorful entree with white beans)
  • soup
  • for the thin crust and top it with vegetables
  • dressing on the side
  • bread, go light or skip the butter and olive oil
  • with marinara (red sauce)—skip the meat sauce or try red clam sauce instead
  • primavera if made without a cream sauce
  • or veal cacciatore (tomato based sauce)
  • marsala, if made with wine and broth rather than butter or cream
  • or Italian ices for dessert
  • Chinese food

    One of America’s most popular and healthy ethnic cuisines, Chinese food can contain a lot of salt. Remember that steamed rice is a healthier choice than fried rice, and portions are often quite large, so try sharing! Choose seafood and chicken over beef and pork, and stay away from breaded and fried meats. You might want to try using those chopsticks, too! They’ll slow you down and help you eat less.

  • for dishes with lots of vegetables
  • steamed brown rice over white rice
  • sauces which tend to be high in sugar and salt, or ask for them on the side
  • steamed dumplings instead of fried wontons or egg rolls
  • the crispy fried noodles
  • that stir-fried dishes be prepared with minimum amounts of oil and without the soy sauce, MSG, and salt
  • References

    American Heart Association. Talking with Your Server. Accessed at www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/DiningOut/Talking-with-Your-Server_UCM_301466_Article.jsp on March 16, 2012.

    American Heart Association. Tips by Cuisine. Accessed at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/DiningOut/Tips-by-Cuisine_UCM_308333_Article.jsp on March 19, 2012.

    Burger King. Menu & Nutrition. Accessed at www.bk.com/en/us/menu-nutrition/index.html on March 16, 2012.

    McDonald’s. Full Menu Explorer. Accessed at www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/full_menu_explorer.html on March 16, 2012.

    Wendy’s. Nutrition Facts. Accessed at www.wendys.com/food/Nutrition.jsp on March 16, 2012.

    Last Medical Review: 06/30/2014
    Last Revised: 06/30/2014