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Healthy Eating When Dining Out: A Practical Guide for Everyone

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Healthy Eating When Dining Out: A Practical Guide for Everyone

Dining out offers convenience, deliciousness, and socialization, but navigating menus to select healthy options can be a challenge. Considering flavor, nutrition, and price can complicate restaurant food selections, but the good news is, healthful choices are possible.

By choosing balanced, nutrient-dense meals, we provide good fuel for our bodies, while enjoying the experience of dining out. This requires saying no to some indulgent dishes and oversized portions, which will not provide good quality fuel for our bodies.

By making smart choices and practicing portion control, we can enjoy all that dining out has to offer and care for our health at the same time. 


Navigating Restaurant Menus

Navigating restaurant menus for healthier options means considering several factors. Before you go, check for nutrition information online on the restaurant’s website or a third-party website. Oftentimes, you can find comprehensive nutrition information, which is immensely valuable in making healthier choices.

After you arrive at the restaurant, use the menu to find keywords describing how items are prepared, like grilled, steamed, sauteed, roasted, broiled, baked, and fried. Understanding that sauteing, roasting, and frying typically require fats will prompt you to look for options cooked in olive oil or grass-fed butter. Notice descriptions like fried, creamy, or crispy, which likely contain higher saturated fats, trans fats, and total calories. You can also look for leaner protein sources, like fish, seafood, white meat pork, and chicken, and plant-based protein like beans and other legumes. Additionally, some restaurants prioritize fresh, locally farmed foods, preferring quality for better health and taste, so seek those out. When in doubt about how a menu item is prepared or served, ask a server or restaurant employee to help make more informed healthy choices.

Tips for Portion Control

Studies suggest that larger portion sizes in restaurants contribute to overeating, which leads to weight gain. Restaurant portion sizes tend to be at least twice that of what is recommended. As a result, keeping portion sizes in check when dining out can be challenging. There are several strategies to employ to ensure appropriate portions in restaurant meals. First, evaluate the portions of protein, starches, and other vegetables. Consider the plate method. Lean protein should make up about 25% of your plate, non-starchy vegetables should take up at least 50%, and starchy foods should be no more than 25%. Consider boxing up amounts that are more than this before eating, so that you are not tempted to overeat. Another strategy is to ask if the restaurant serves half portions or appetizer-sized dishes. You can also share a dish with a dining partner or order a few dishes to share with a larger group of people. By exercising portion control, you can enjoy dining out while still focusing on your health.

Choosing Healthier Dishes

Choosing nutrient-dense meals is integral to overall healthy eating, whether preparing meals at home or dining out. Balanced meals that supply necessary nutrients and minimize empty calories and processed foods provide efficient fuel for our bodies. Yet, it can be tempting to indulge in the less-healthy calorie-laden, rich, processed ingredient-based dishes, which are designed to provide appealing taste and texture. Restaurant meals are especially notorious for prioritizing taste over nutrition and quality, to meet the expectations of many customers. However, it is possible and recommended to make healthier choices when dining out. 

When perusing menus, find dishes that offer lean proteins, vegetables, and whole grains. At the same time, choose options that limit added sugars, starchy refined carbohydrates, heavy cream, and those foods that are deep fried in inflammatory oils. This may look like individual foods, such as a serving of lean protein and individual vegetable, potato, and whole grain side dishes. Select a main dish that you can pair with simple, nutritious side dishes, which are not deep-fried or covered in rich cheeses or sauces.

On the other hand, pasta with cream sauces, casseroles and cheese-ladened bakes, and salads loaded with cheese, bacon, and creamy dressings are high-fat options that are not nutrient-dense, leaving you with fuel that does not provide the nutrition your body needs. Additionally, empty calories like sugar-sweetened beverages and sugary desserts contribute only empty calories, which promote weight gain, obesity, and other metabolic dysfunctions. Instead, opt for water and other non-sugary drinks and focus on fruits and other lighter desserts that provide sweetness, fiber, and other micronutrients.

Understanding Food Preparation Methods

The methods by which foods are prepared significantly impact their nutritional content. Baking, grilling, steaming, and roasting typically involve less fat, while frying or sautéing usually indicates the use of more fat. However, because fats are a necessary nutrient, the thought process should be more about the types of fat used. Search for items prepared in extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, other high-oleic oils, or grass-fed butter. Skip meals prepared with inflammatory seed oils, non-grass-fed butter, margarine, and other trans fats. Baking and roasting help retain vitamins and minerals in vegetables and proteins, as opposed to boiling, which tends to leach out excessive nutrients. Steaming is yet another way to prepare vegetables healthfully, preserving their color, texture, and nutrient content. Deep frying at high temperatures is known to form harmful reactive oxygen species, which promote inflammation in the body. Selecting healthier cooking techniques helps maximize nutrient density and promote balanced meals.

Healthy Swaps and Substitutions

Making healthy swaps in your restaurant menu choices can greatly improve the overall nutrition of your meal. Instead of fries, select a side salad or other vegetables for added fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Even if a drink is included in your meal, choose water or unsweetened tea over sugary drinks to reduce your intake of added sugars and empty calories. Replace white bread with whole grain options like whole wheat bread or multigrain bread for higher fiber content. Exchange creamy dressings for either vinaigrettes or simply olive oil and vinegar for healthier fats. If you order pizza, choose a thin crust, add extra vegetables, and ask for a lighter amount of cheese. These small changes may seem small, but they add up to big health benefits over time.

Asking for Customizations

Don't hesitate to ask for meal customizations to suit your dietary needs, food preferences, or health goals. From requesting dressing on the side, not asking for no added salt, or opting for extra vegetables, restaurants will often accommodate your needs. Customizing your meal can help control portion sizes, lower sodium intake, increase vegetable consumption, and promote nutrient density, all of which contribute to a healthier diet.

Mindful Eating Practices

Mindful eating while dining out involves fully taking in all of the dining experience. Focus on your dining partners, the ambiance and setting, the flavors, and the social connections. If you pay close attention to your hunger cues and savor each bite, you will better appreciate your food using all senses. Slowing down not only allows for better digestion and appreciation of taste and texture but also leads to more satisfaction after eating. Mindful eating helps foster healthier relationships with food, improves digestion, and promotes overall well-being, reducing the temptation to overeat and enjoying food experiences. Practicing mindful eating while dining out not only enhances your experience, but is also key to promoting your overall health.

Beverage Choices

It is not only important to make healthy food choices, but it is also important to make healthy beverage choices. Many beverages are laden with proinflammatory added sugars and alcohol that rapidly derail attempts to make healthy choices when dining out. Limiting your intake of alcoholic and sugary drinks will both keep your calorie consumption in check and improve your hydration. Choosing healthier alternatives like water, unsweetened tea, or sparkling water promotes hydration and fullness without added sugars or empty calories. For additional flavor, ask for lemon or lime to add to your water. Studies suggest that excessive consumption of sugary beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity and other metabolic diseases. By prioritizing healthy beverage choices, you will stay on track with healthy eating while enjoying dining out.

Desserts and Treats

When it comes to sweets and desserts, moderation is a key focus. Don’t order dessert if you will be uncomfortably full after eating it. Listen to your body and hunger cues to follow mindful eating practices. Savor each bite slowly to enjoy the dessert you eat. Choose lighter options like fruit-based desserts or those with less sugar. Sharing a dessert with dining partners helps reduce portion sizes and overall calorie intake while still allowing you to enjoy dessert. You can also box up half of the dessert before you start eating and take it home for later. By practicing moderation and mindful eating, you can still enjoy dessert, avoiding depriving yourself, but still without derailing your healthy eating efforts.

Navigating Different Types of Cuisines

When navigating different cuisines, there are several ways to make healthier choices. If you are enjoying Italian cuisine, opt for grilled or roasted dishes that feature lean proteins, like grilled fish or chicken, and choose tomato-based sauces over creamy ones. When eating Mexican food, choose grilled chicken or shrimp fajitas with plenty of vegetables, and select salsa or guacamole instead of sour cream or cheese. If you are having Asian cuisine, focus on steamed or stir-fried dishes with lean proteins like tofu, white meat chicken, or seafood, and choose brown rice over white rice. Ask for sauces on the side, which are often laden with sodium and calories. By focusing on dishes rich in vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, you can learn to enjoy a variety of cuisines while eating healthfully.

Communicating Dietary Restrictions

When communicating dietary restrictions or allergies to restaurant staff, be clear and specific about your needs. Politely inform your server of your allergies or intolerances, including in detail which ingredients must be avoided, to eliminate any confusion. If the menu descriptions are not detailed, ask questions about how dishes are prepared to ensure they are within your dietary requirements. Don’t hesitate to respectfully request modifications or substitutions if they are necessary for you. Effective communication is vital for restaurant staff to accommodate your needs.


Key Takeaways

Dining out should be an enjoyable time of convenience, flavor, and socialization. While it can present challenges to follow a healthful diet, utilizing several strategies can help you avoid derailing your good intentions.

Learning how to navigate restaurant menus, make healthy swaps and substitutions, practice mindful eating, eat healthy within different cuisines, and communicate dietary needs will help you ensure your meals are both delicious and healthy when dining out.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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