You’re bound and determined to stick to your diet and eat healthy, but your family really, really wants to dine out at a restaurant. Perhaps you’re looking to find some balance between sticking to your diet while enjoying girl’s (or guy’s) night out.
It’s actually not that difficult to stay healthy while eating out. Trust me, I’ve actually been able to eat healthy at Olive Garden! Here are 25 tips to help you dine at a restaurant guilt free, and stick to your diet.
Before You Get There
1 – Check The Menu In Advance. The best thing you can do is check the restaurant’s menu and research their healthy options. Make a decision right now about what you will order. Your willpower is much stronger now than it will be when you walk in the door and smell the smells and see food pictures everywhere.
Choose something healthy, and delicious off the menu, and then get excited about ordering and eating it before you even walk in the door.
2 – Drink Water And Have A Snack Before You Go. Restaurants are notorious for dishing up large (sometimes huge) portions. So drink a full glass of water and/or have a satiating snack (nuts, hard boiled egg, avocado on toast) before you head out the door.
It’s a LOT easier to eat healthy when you are not hungry and tempted to indulge.
3 – Choose A Healthy Restaurant, Or One That Serves Healthy Options.
You don’t always have a choice about where you go out to eat. Sometimes you’re out-voted by your family, or your friends choose the venue. But if you do have a choice, then do your research and find a restaurant that serves up healthy food.
As for plant-based, whole foods options, I try to stick to restaurants that advertise lots of soup and salad options, or that have a salad bar. One of my favorite places is Chipotle, where I can get a brown rice, black bean bowl with tomatoes, lettuce, grilled peppers and onions, and avocado. YUM!
Asian (not Chinese takeout) and Mexican restaurants tend to be a little easier to manage when you’re sticking to a plant-based diet. Most Thai places will readily accommodate vegans, but you should ask them to leave out the fish sauce – as it’s used a lot in Thai cuisine and it’s rarely mentioned on the menu. Neither of these restaurant types are necessarily health food joints, but you have more options there than most places.
4 – Always Look At The Appetizer, Soup, and Salad Menu (Even If You Aren’t Ordering These Items). Ordering a (broth-based) soup and salad (get dressing on the side) is usually one of the healthiest menu options you can get. Sometimes, you can even build a meal by ordering a couple of the healthier appetizers.
But even if you don’t plan on ordering soup and salad, browse this section of the menu. This shows you all of the raw, whole food ingredients that the kitchen has on hand. Then you can ask for these items to be added to whatever meal you ordered.
You can turn a nutritionally inferior iceberg lettuce salad into a nutrient-packed meal by asking for all other veggies that they have on hand to be added to it.
5 – Pay Attention To How Your Meal Is Cooked. Grilled and baked are usually the healthiest choices, while fried is the least healthy option. However, grilled and baked items may have heavy sauces added. So be sure to ask for sauces on the side, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about how things are prepared.
You don’t want to order something you think is low-calorie only to find out that it is smothered in an oil-based sauce when the waiter brings your plate.
6 – Look For A “Healthy Option” Menu. Many restaurants are getting in on the trend toward offering healthy plates, or even having a healthy section on their menu. Don’t be afraid to ask for a low-calorie, low-fat, or even vegan/vegetarian menu. At the very least, you’re telling the restaurant that there is a demand for these types of meals.
7 – …But Don’t Get Suckered By Misleading Labels. A restaurant’s idea of “healthy” isn’t necessarily healthy. And labels can be misleading.
For example, low-calorie doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, whole foods, plant-based.
Gluten-free simply means that the meal is prepared without gluten. It says absolutely nothing about the overall healthiness of the dish. Gluten-free says nothing about calories, added sugars, fat, etc…
Labels like “low fat” and “low cholesterol” do not always mean low calorie, or healthy.
Vegetarian doesn’t always mean vegetable-based or healthy, either.
When You Order
8 – Look For Colorful Dishes – Especially Those That Have Lots Of Red And Green. When scanning a restaurant menu, look for pictures of dishes that have lots of color. Look for leafy greens, red tomatoes or peppers, yellow squash. Colorful usually means “lots of veggies”.
9 – Be The First To Order. Next time you are out at a restaurant, do a little social experiment. Order first, and order something healthy. Then sit back and watch your friends do the same.
This works better in smaller groups. Think about it. If you are at a restaurant with a friend and they order a burger and fries, it’s much easier for you to do the same. Plus, you’re tempted by what they ordered. But if they ordered a grilled chicken salad, you’re more likely to have the willpower to also order something healthy.
10 – Don’t Be Shy About Making Requests. I know, you don’t want to be a royal pain. You don’t want to be the customer that causes the entire kitchen to roll their eyes because you’re venturing way off the menu. You don’t want to feel like you’re insulting the chef.
So if you’re feeling a little shy about making major substitution requests, then tell a little white lie. Tell them you have a food allergy. You’ll feel like much less of a pain and the restaurant will bend over backwards to accommodate your requests.
Depending on the restaurant, you may be able to ask for a special meal for vegans or vegetarians. A few years ago when I was 100% vegan, I ate out at this restaurant (it was a business meeting). Luckily, there was one other vegan there, who was not the least bit shy about asking for a vegan dish since there wasn’t a single option for us on the menu. The chef made us both a custom vegan meal that was super delicious!
11 – Get Salad Dressing On The Side. Nothing will kill the healthfulness of a salad like the four cups of oil-based salad dressing they dump over it. (By the way – a Caesar salad is one of the least healthy menu items in most restaurants!)
12 – In Fact, Get ALL Sauces And Dressings On The Side. If you left it up to the kitchen, they’ll put lots of dressing and sauce on and in your food to enhance the flavor. But you can (and should) ask for sauce on the side so that you can control how much is used.
13 – Split Your Meal. Don’t for a second feel cheap by splitting an entree with a friend. Not only will you save money, you’ll save a ton of calories, too. If you’re not sure that the meal will be enough, you can always order an appetizer.
14 – Skip The Fancy Beverages. 20-30% of restaurant calories come from the beverages that you get with the meal. So skip the soda, iced tea, and even the cocktail. You don’t want all that extra sugar. Stick to water. Your body will thank you.
15 – Skip The Bread Basket. In fact, tell your waiter not to bring bread before you even sit down. It’s easier to refuse it before it’s placed in front of you.
16 – Start With A Soup Or Salad. You don’t have to order your entire meal all at once. Just order a broth-based soup or salad, and then order something else if you are still hungry. You might find that the salad filled you up. Maybe a smaller dish, or an appetizer is all you need.
17 – Ask For Extra Vegetables. Skip the fries and ask for extra vegetables. In fact, just ask for extra veggies regardless. I’ve heard that most restaurants won’t charge for extra veggies, though I’ve never tested this myself.
18 – Order Fish. If you are not strictly plant-based, then fish is generally the healthiest, low-calorie option on the menu. Of course, you’ll want to make sure it’s baked or grilled and not fried. And ask about the sauce.
19 – Ask Your Server For A To-Go Box Before They Bring Your Meal. When the waiter brings your meal (and to-go box), pack up half of your entree for later. You’ll get to enjoy the leftovers later, without going off your diet at lunch (or dinner).
While You Eat
20 – Use The “Fork Dipping” Method. Instead of dumping salad dressing on your salad, simply dip your fork into the cup of dressing, then spear some salad. You’ll get full flavor, but you’ll use much less dressing.
Try this with any other sauce, too.
21 – Drink Water Throughout Your Meal. Dehydration often manifests as hunger. Never eat when you are thirsty.
22 – Take Your Time (Put Your Fork Down Between Bites). You will eat faster, and eat more, if you keep your fork in your hand. So slow down. Set your fork down between each bite. Enjoy the conversation. Don’t rush through dinner. Give your body time to tell you that it is full. You don’t have to finish your entire plate.
After You Eat
23 – Skip Dessert. A dessert at a restaurant will probably double (or more) the calorie content of your meal. Except for the rare occasion (see #25), I’ll skip dessert and have something healthy and sweet at home.
Bring a mint or gum to curb any after-meal dessert cravings.
24 – Plan A Light Activity After Your Meal.
Don’t just eat out. Plan an evening that includes some type of light physical activity. This will help you burn off some of the calories you ate, and will give you something to look forward to after the meal. You’re less likely to stuff yourself if dinner isn’t the main event.
25 – It’s Okay To Indulge Once In A While.
Occasional indulgences, especially when they are planned, help you stick to your diet over the long term without feeling like you’re missing out.