Check out my tips for eating out so you can enjoy dinner out with friends AND maintain a healthy diet!
While I do my best to make homecooked food as much as possible, I love to eat out with friends and family from time to time. Eating out is one of the most common ways we socialize and in my opinion, it's one of the great pleasures of life to break bread with those you care about!
That said, eating out at restaurants can be challenging when trying to maintain a healthy diet. But choosing healthy options when eating out is not impossible, and doesn't have to be complicated. Here are some tips that help me make eating out a bit healthier:
Tip #1 - Eat before you get there!
This may sound counter intuitive but it's important to eat on days when you plan to go out. If you know you're going to go out for dinner in the evening, don't avoid eating during the day so you can "save your calories" for dinner. This almost always backfires! What is more likely to happen is that you will overeat on foods that are less nutritious at the restaurant when you could have eaten a more balanced diet throughout your day. For example, eating a healthy salad with lean protein for lunch or a healthy snack later in the day will almost always help you make better decisions at the restaurant. If you're starving when you get to the restaurant, you're much more likely to indulge in the breadbasket or want order dessert after dinner. Your best bet is to maintain healthy eating throughout the day. If you're watching your calorie intake, you can still opt for lighter meals and snacks to offset what might be a higher calorie dinner.
The only caveat here is if you're an intermittent faster and your fasting schedule is to skip the first two meals of the day and eat dinner only (my husband does this fairly often). In that case, you're probably pretty disciplined with eating reasonably sized dinner portions so this will be less of an issue.
Tip #2 - Don't drink your calories
Dinner almost always starts with drinks! As a general rule, not just for eating out, it's always best to avoid drinking your calories. While on special occasions, I might opt for a glass of wine, I almost always like to save my calorie intake for the main event...dinner! Just drinking a zero calorie drink like water or sparkling water can save a ton of unnecessary calories and sugar. Avoiding alcohol, soda and other sweet drinks is key here.
Tip #3 - Read the menu descriptions carefully
Read the menu carefully to ensure you're choosing the best option, paying specific attention to the way dishes are prepared. Avoid dishes with heavy sauces, breading or anything that is deep fried. Look for dishes that are grilled, roasted, steamed, braised or poached. In general, these dishes will be healthier than those that are fried or deep fried.
Tip #4 - Look for nutrient dense options and prioritize protein
Nutrient-dense foods are those that provide a high amount of nutrients per calorie. When eating out, look for dishes that include a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. These foods will provide you with the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that your body needs to function optimally. Examples of nutrient-dense dishes include salads with grilled chicken or fish, veggie-based soups, grilled or roasted lean meats with roasted vegetables or whole-grain options such as quinoa or brown rice.
In general, I focus on finding a higher protein dish. For example, I might go for a baked chicken filet which will almost always have a side of veggies and some kind of starch, like rice or potatoes on the side. Since the starch portion is usually excessive, I often ask to have the starch replaced with veggies and most places are accommodating.
Tip #5 - Skip the breadbasket and appetizers
Anytime you can skip the breadbasket or chips or other snack that restaurants provide before you get your food, do it. These are often empty calories - they're very high in calories and low in nutritional value. They're actually designed to make you more hungry and thirsty so that you'll eat and drink more than you would otherwise. The best strategy here is asking your server not to bring it over at all, because having it sit on the table staring at you will make it even more difficult to say no!
I'll usually skip appetizers as well if I'm planning to have an entrée because meal sizes at restaurants are often huge. Or sometimes, I'll get an appetizer instead of an entrée if I'm not very hungry and if there are some healthy options like a tuna tartare or a grilled calamari (yum...seafood! 😋)
Tip #6 - Ask for modifications
Don't be afraid to ask for modifications to your dish - most restaurants are happy to accommodate your request (although some might charge for substitutions).
Here are some of the small modifications you can make for a healthier meal:
substitute a side of fries for a side salad
If having a salad, ask for dressing on the side (I always do this - sometimes the restaurant will drench your salad in dressing and it's gross!). Also, look for items that you might want to have removed from your salad like wonton crisps, tortilla strips, candied walnuts, candied dried fruit - all of these are basically low quality calories
ask to have sauces and cheese removed - for example, if you're having potatoes with gravy or sour cream on top, ask to have your potatoes plain instead
Tip #7 - Take half your meal home with you
This tip is all about portion control. Restaurants almost always have portions that are waaay too big and not even close to what I would eat at home. So I almost always end up taking half of my meal home with me. It's perfect for a quick lunch the next day! If you're going out after your meal and don't want to take a doggy bag with you, consider sharing with someone else. Sometimes my husband and I will share a large entrée and a smaller appetizer if we know the portions will be too much for us and we're not planning to take anything home. This is a great way to avoid overeating with too much food in front of you and to avoid wasting food.
Tip #8 - If you indulge in dessert, share it!
I usually skip dessert but from time to time, I do indulge, especially if it's a special occasion. But one rule of thumb that I abide by is always sharing dessert! I don't remember the last time I ate an entire dessert at a restaurant. I will always share with my husband or a friend. This is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth but not overeat. And it's always fun to share a delectable treat with a loved one!
Final tip - don't overthink it!
Eating out doesn't have to be super complicated. These tips are simple ways to make eating out more healthy and to limit low nutrient foods but it's also important not to worry or overthink eating out. It's not a big deal if you forgot to forgo the breadbasket or ask for dressing on the side. One meal won't throw you off if you maintain a healthy diet on a day-to-day basis. And remember to enjoy the company of your family and friends....it's the best part of dining out!