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.
  • ACS recommends that people limit their intake of red meat. If you do want to indulge in a steak dinner, make sure the portion size is reasonable-3 to 6 oz. Lean meat cuts can be served au jus, with fruit sauce or stir-fried 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, veggie chili, or salsa.
  • Sandwiches on whole wheat, pita, multi-grain breads; with lean proteins like grilled chicken, low-fat 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 better 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, including non-red meat options. 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. Better yet, skip the fast food place altogher and look for a restaurant with healthier options.

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:

  • Brown rice, no-fat black beans, and lower-fat cheese
  • Whole-wheat tortillas, corn tortillas, or soft tacos
  • Marinated vegetables
  • Grilled chicken, fish, or shrimp
  • Non-meat protein options, like tofu tacos
  • Fish tacos (grilled fish, coleslaw light on mayonnaise, chopped tomato, salsa)
  • Sour cream blended with non-fat yogurt
  • Salsa - 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.

  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Pasta e fagioli (flavorful entree with white beans)
  • Minestrone soup
  • Pizza - go for the thin crust and top it with vegetables
  • Salad, dressing on the side
  • Crusty bread, go light or skip the butter and olive oil
  • Pasta with marinara (red sauce)—skip the meat sauce or try red clam sauce instead
  • Pasta primavera if made without a cream sauce
  • Chicken cacciatore (tomato based sauce)
  • Chicken marsala, if made with wine and broth rather than butter or cream
  • Fruit 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,chicken, or tofu 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.

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

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Heart Association. Dining Out. Accessed at  www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Dining Out on August 25, 2017.

American Heart Association. Tips by Cuisine. Accessed at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/DiningOut/Tips-by-Cuisine_UCM_308333_Article.jsp on August  25, 2017.

Burger King. Menu & Nutrition. Accessed at www.bk.com/en/us/menu-nutrition/index.html on August 25, 2017.

McDonald’s. Full Menu Explorer. Accessed at www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/full_menu_explorer.html on August 25, 2017.

Wendy’s. Nutrition Facts. Accessed at www.wendys.com/en_US/categories on August 25, 2017.

Last Medical Review: August 25, 2017 Last Revised: August 25, 2017

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