The average American family spends 50 percent of its food budget eating out each year. Going out to eat has become a staple in our culture. And it’s not just Americans—people all across the world are eating out, despite it being difficult to find a completely “healthy restaurant.” As humans, we enjoy the thrill of trying new things and the convenience of having another person cook for us.
Not only do we enjoy it, but in many social and professional situations, it’s expected that we eat outside our homes at times. Visiting restaurants has become both a social event, where one can spend quality time with friends and family, as well as an opportunity to set up important business meetings with colleagues or clients.
Sometimes, we just can’t avoid it—and you shouldn’t necessarily have to. We are not about to recommend that you never go out to eat again and cook every single meal at home instead. Rather, we created a reference to guide you when you need (or want) to eat at a fast-food restaurant.
While it’s a good idea to try to limit these trips, there are still responsible, calculated choices you can make while you’re out that will help you maintain fairly healthy eating habits—even when you can’t control which ingredients are used in your food.
Tips on Healthy Restaurant Foods That Won’t Mess With Your Diet
If you want to make healthy restaurant food selections when you’re out, consider the following categories:
Sugar, Salt, and Fat—Oh My
The truth is that some menu options can be quite high in salt and include extra calories from fat. However, it’s no surprise that many of us enjoy these flavors and would like to be able to indulge in treats occasionally. If and when you decide to eat out, MyPlate offers a blueprint for choosing healthier options from the five main food groups and teaches you how to be mindful of portion sizes.
Keep an eye out for sources of added sugars including sodas, coffee drinks, yogurt, desserts, pastries, and more. Instead of adding white or brown sugar to oatmeal, try adding honey or fruit to receive added nutritional benefits. You can also replace mayonnaise with mustard, which can reduce calories and saturated fat. Ask for whole-grain buns instead of white bread for a healthier option. Keep in mind that the top and bottom halves of a bun each count as an ounce of grains—or more, depending on their size.
Notes on Proteins
As for protein, chicken and fish are versatile choices that are featured on many menus. Select a grilled fish, grilled chicken sandwich, or small order of chicken nuggets. Consider grilled chicken nuggets when available, as fried nuggets contain high amounts of grease and fat.
If you find that your body has no issue with dairy, choosing fat-free or low-fat milk can be a good source of protein when eating out. Adding nuts or seeds can also boost protein if meat and dairy aren’t a part of your diet. Plan to always leave space on your plate for some type of protein, as it is vital for your bodily functions and it helps keep you feeling satisfied following your meal.
Advice on Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes to fruits and veggies, you may want to include an order of some kind of fruit—such as apple slices or a banana—as a side to your entrée. To embrace healthier options at drive-thrus, try including a small green salad with light dressing.
To help you make healthy restaurant choices, you can usually check the menu in advance on a fast-food establishment's website before you visit to get an idea of what's available. Some menus will even break down calorie information. Review any provided nutrition information to help you figure out what you might want to order ahead of time.
Make intentional choices when ordering. Try to include healthier selections from all the different food groups for a well-balanced meal, including lean protein, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. For example, entrée salads with protein sources such as baked or grilled chicken, beans, or seafood perfectly complement the leafy greens and other vegetables, which offer fiber and other nutrients. Get your dressing on the side to control the portion size.
For sandwich toppings, go with veggie options like lettuce, tomato, peppers, avocado, pickles, and onion. If you are adding a condiment, choose ketchup, mustard, relish, or salsa over heavier condiments like mayonnaise or a "special sauce."
You can also round out your meal by ordering a healthier side dish like a side salad, baked potato, or fruit. Add extra nutrients to your baked potato by topping it with vegetables, salsa, or chili.
Perfect Your Strategy
Try to compensate for a larger meal with smaller meals throughout the day. If you went out for a big lunch, eat a light dinner at home. If you know ahead of time that you're going to eat dinner at a restaurant, plan to have smaller meals during the day.
Once you’re at the restaurant, make a commitment to eat slowly. This is a healthy restaurant tactic you can use to control your portion, regardless of what you’re eating. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message from your stomach that you are no longer hungry. Fast eaters are often overeaters, while slow eaters tend to eat less—but are still satisfied.
Remember, don’t go out too hungry. If you sit down starving, you’ll likely have scarfed down several pieces of buttered bread before your main meal even arrives and be far less likely to make mindful, healthy restaurant decisions. If you're feeling ravenous before you leave for the restaurant, nosh on a small snack—like a piece of fruit. Or, order a cup of broth-based soup or small salad as an appetizer at the restaurant to stave off hunger.
The way a dish is described on a menu can give you clues to how it's prepared. Look for words like "grilled," “broiled," or "steamed," which mean the food is cooked with less fat. Also, as tasty as it may sound, you should probably avoid dishes with descriptions such as "fried," "breaded," "smothered," “rich,” and “creamy.”
Making smart nutrition choices is better for your overall health regimen. And you can still have a great time at the restaurant eating healthier foods. A good establishment will be able to make healthy foods that have plenty of flavor and are just as enjoyable.
Finally, make physical activity a part of dining out—all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes. Pick a restaurant that's a 10–15-minute walk away. You'll get your meal, clock in about 30 minutes of physical activity, and avoid the parking hassles. Or, get moving as a group before or after eating. A brisk walk before a meal gives you time to chat while a stroll afterward helps with your digestion.
Keep These Suggestions in Mind for Healthy Restaurant Trips in the Future
As you have read, making even small changes to your order when eating out can help you build your healthy eating style. Follow the tips in this post and you won’t have to feel guilty about eating at fast-food places, cafes, or other types of restaurants. You’ve probably noticed that when we say, “healthy restaurant selections,” that doesn’t mean the restaurant itself serves all nutritious ingredients. It’s your job to make smart, responsible selections.
Even though you aren’t the chef, you can still take a good amount of your control back when ordering out. You have more power than you may think—what goes into your body is up to you and what you order.
And you have more power still, seeing as you can download this FREE sample report to get a sense of what a personalized nutrition report looks like. Your genes are different than those of others, so creating a plan for yourself that is specifically tailored to the needs of your body can be done before going out to eat.