How to Order Healthy at Restaurants
On your journey to making healthy diet and lifestyle changes, the biggest challenge is often learning how to stay on track while also enjoying a meal out. For some, this might just be an occasional lunch or dinner with friends or family, but for others this includes weekly or daily lunches, regular work meetings that involve food, or companies that cater meals on a daily basis.
The good news is that eating out does not have to derail your weight loss goals. With these simple yet highly effective strategies and tools in your back pocket, you can feel confident to go out for a meal while not straying from your diet.
How to Pick a Healthy Restaurant
More and more restaurants are offering clean options, even fast food and fast casual chains. Before you head out, look up the menus online so you can make a smart choice. Also think about which types of cuisines are harder for you to resist. You can make healthier choices at just about any restaurant, but some may be more challenging than others for you.
For example, maybe you know that going to a Mexican restaurant works for you because you have no problem avoiding the chips and tortillas, and you’re happy ordering fajitas and a tequila on the rocks. For others, burritos and chips are a huge trigger for overeating, as are margaritas (which are full of sugar). If that sounds like you, it’s probably best to avoid eating Mexican regularly.
What to Order and What to Avoid
In terms of what to avoid, think about the common culprits of deep-fried foods, options high in refined grains (big portions of white rice, breads and pastas), and high-sugar desserts. Here are some tasty healthy eating options to consider instead:
THAI: Thai is actually one of the easiest cuisines to find healthy foods, as there are delicious lean meat and veggie dishes galore! Try a papaya salad with grilled chicken skewers, fresh (not fried) spring rolls with coconut-milk based tom kha gai soup, or one of the many sauteed veggie/meat dishes.
MEXICAN: While it may not be the lowest carbohydrate cuisine, you can find ways to keep the starches to a minimum. Opt for the “bowls” instead of the more caloric burrito or quesadilla options. Stick with meat, black beans, avocado and salsa, and request corn tortillas (which are whole grain) instead of flour (which is basically sugar in disguise!).
JAPANESE: This Asian cuisine offers some great healthy options. Seaweed salad, miso soup, and sashimi are at the top of the list, as well as most sushi options. Go heavier on sashimi than rolls, since sushi rice is not just white rice, but contains sugar and salt, and can set off cravings. Fish is also an excellent way to get a big boost of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are generally lacking in the SAD (standard American diet).
CHINESE: Chinese food is one of my family’s favorites, but unfortunately a lot of dishes are packed full of sugar and carbs, not to mention MSG. I love to order steamed moo shoo chicken and asking for lettuce wraps, then having hot and sour or egg drop soup on the side (though you’ll want to be careful if you need to watch your salt intake). Thankfully, more Chinese restaurants nowadays offer a “healthy” section that includes items like steamed chicken, shrimp, or tofu, and veggies. Keep in mind that the sauces are generally very high in carbs, so choose either sauce or 1/2 cup of rice, not both.
ITALIAN: Big plates of pasta won’t do you any favors on a weight loss plan, but Italian restaurants often have a surprising number of healthy options. Most Italian restaurants offer some excellent salad choices, along with grilled chicken, meats, and veggies. Make sure you avoid the bread basket when you arrive: although olive oil is healthy, dipping bread in oil means you can easily overdo what should be eaten in moderation. Order dressings on the side, so you can control how much you use. Also watch out for portion sizes. If they're large, ask if you can order a half-portion or do it yourself by bringing half the entree home, which you can have as another meal.
GENERAL MEAT + VEGGIE RULE: Stick to orders that are made up of real foods, such as meat and vegetables, whenever possible. The protein might be beef, lamb, chicken, fish, turkey, or a hamburger without the bun. The veggie option might be a salad, or roasted, steamed, or stir-fried vegetables (request they don’t use too much oil if stir-frying). Avoid potatoes in all their forms, whether it's french fries, baked potato, or mashed potatoes.
Now, let’s explore our top eight favorite strategies to ensure restaurant success!
8 Foolproof Strategies for Eating Out
1. Before You Go: To Snack or Not to Snack?
You might think that eating before you go out is a good way to avoid overeating, but this isn’t always true. Be honest with yourself and think about the times you’ve done this. Did you actually eat less at the restaurant, or was your overall intake that much more? Sometimes this strategy can have the opposite effect, and your pre-meal snack can increase your appetite and decrease your self-control.
2. Stay Hydrated
Shoot for eight glasses of water before 3pm to help your body stay full and deal with the potentially high-sodium content in restaurant dishes. Water helps flush out sodium, which can cause bloating and discomfort. Have a few more glasses if you can just before arriving, as excusing yourself to use the bathroom is a nice way to get up from the table and put your fork down for a moment. Have a few glasses of water during the meal as well, which can help keep you full.
3. Be Prepared with A,B,C
Researching the restaurant beforehand is great, but have two backup meal choices in case your first choice isn’t available. I’ve seen a lot of clients become discouraged when they can’t order what they had planned on, then end up making a choice they regret.
4. Pick Meals With Easy Substitutions
While there’s no shame in asking for substitutions, deep down, nobody wants to be that person asking for five changes to their order. Pick something that can easily be substituted. Say you're ordering a main dish that comes with spinach and potatoes; ask for double spinach instead of the potatoes or any other similar carb-for-veggie swap.
5. Order Last
If you’re with a group and feeling a little shy about ordering healthy, opt to order last. By that time, it’s likely that no one is paying attention anymore! They’ll have moved on to chatting among themselves, and you can make your substitution without causing a fuss.
6. Choose Foods That Take a While to Eat
Ordering something that can be wolfed down in two minutes is pretty much guaranteed to make the rest of the meal a struggle. Instead, go with things that take a longer time to chew, like a big side salad, mussels versus scallops, or a lean steak (like a small filet mignon that will require cutting) instead of pasta. In a similar vein, order according to your appetite. If you’re truly hungry, it’s ok to order a nice full meal instead of ordering something small, which means you’ll wind up picking off everyone else’s plates.
7. Have a Dessert Backup Plan
If everyone is ordering dessert, have a game plan. Take a bathroom break and pop a Sweet Defeat, which will stop your cravings so that you won’t be tempted to take a bite of others’ desserts. And if you want to have something to do while others have their last course, order peppermint tea, which naturally doesn’t go well with sweets.
8. Avoid the Kitchen at Home
When you get home, know that the kitchen is closed for business. Put your coat away and head upstairs for bedtime routines or relaxing. The same rule applies to the office; after lunch out, the snacks in the kitchen are off limits. If you are truly hungry, this might be a sign that you didn’t order the right foods or eat enough to feel satiated.
Ordering healthy at restaurants can be tricky at first, but practice makes perfect! Don’t feel as if you’ve “failed” if you overeat or make a less-than-healthy decision sometimes. See this as a learning opportunity to do better next time you’re eating out.