When cooking at home, you control the ingredients. It’s up to you how much oil goes into the pan and how large the portion sizes are. But, it’s a different story when eating at restaurants. Because, while dining out is a fun, social break from eating at home — and one that doesn’t require you to do the dishes — you’re at the mercy of the chef. So, it pays to know a few things before sitting down and placing your order. With a few best practices at your disposal, you can parse the menu, identify common calorie-laden pitfalls and make better decisions for healthy eating.
Below, three registered dietitians share their top tips for ordering at restaurants. Follow their expert advice the next time you’re face-to-face with a menu, and you’ll leave feeling satisfied rather than overly full or deprived.
“Make sure you eat consistently throughout the day,” says Melissa Macher, RD, LD. “You’re much less likely to binge or overeat if you eat consistently and avoid going more than 4–5 hours without eating a meal or snack.”
“Review the menu online before you visit,” suggests Liz Wyosnick, MS, RD, the owner of Equilibriyum, a private practice in Seattle.“Reviewing the menu at your leisure prior to your visit can allow you to plan your order ahead of time, which tends to be more balanced than when you decide in the moment.”
“Learn to spot very high-calorie language,” adds Wyosnick. “Fried, deep-fried, battered, creamy, cream-based, crispy, gravy, bacon, buttery, mayo, aioli, rich, breaded, cheesy, au gratin and tempura denote higher calorie preparation.”
“Consider skipping sugary drinks, like sodas and sugary cocktails,” says nutrition and wellness expert Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, and co-author of ”Sugar Shock.” “If a sugary drink is an occasional thing, it’s not a big deal, but if sugary beverages are part of your routine, they can contribute to health problems.” Too much sugar is associated with health issues like heart disease, memory problems, vision disorders and skin concerns, so she stressed that one of the best things you can do for yourself is to stay within the healthy added sugar limits. “One sugary drink or cocktail will put you outside of that range.”
“Restaurant portions tend to be huge, so check in with your hunger during your meal,” adds Cassetty. “Your hunger is a better cue than how much food is on your plate, and staying in communication with yourself about your hunger can help you eat a satisfying amount instead of overeating.” Don’t forget to ask for a to-go container, so you can take home half of your meal to enjoy as leftovers.
“Aim to construct a balanced plate,” says Wyosnick. A good goal is to make 1/2 your plate vegetables, 1/4 complex carbohydrates, and 1/4 protein. She suggests mixing and matching from different sections of the menu if that helps to meet the goal. For example, you can order an appetizer, salad and side dish, or you could share an entree and an entree salad with your dinner companion.
Ask for what you want. “Feel empowered to request omissions like no butter, no oil, sauces on the side, smaller portions or for healthier substitutions such as a side salad instead of french fries,” says Wyosnick.
“It’s well-known that restaurant fare is low in veggies and whole grains, so seek these ingredients on a menu when you can,” advises Cassetty. “For example, look for an entree salad or order a salad or another veggie on the side. And look for whole-grain side dishes, such as brown rice, quinoa or farro.”
Make appropriate concessions. “Eating out tends to turn into a marathon eating session from breadbasket, appetizers, cocktails, main entrees to dessert,” warns Wyosnick. “Make concessions that are supportive and in line with what you truly want.” Aim for an appetizer or dessert, but not both. Choose between alcohol or a breadbasket. You don’t have to go all-in just because you’re at a restaurant.
“If something from the dessert menu sounds special, have it and stay present while enjoying it,” says Cassetty. “But if the dessert menu sounds ordinary, you don’t have to order anything just because you’re eating out. We get into a treat mentality when we’re out to eat, but you can treat yourself any time, so be selective about which treats will be most delicious to you.”
“Eat mindfully and pay attention to your food: the presentation, the smell, the flavors, and the textures,” says Wyosnick. “Pace yourself when you eat by pausing and placing down your utensil between bites.” This not only slows down your eating, allowing your body to recognize when it becomes full, but it also helps you savor all facets of dining out, including the atmosphere and conversation.
Enlist the above tips when you sit down at a restaurant, and see how they impact your decision-making. But remember: While healthy eating is the goal, it’s OK to splurge on occasion.
“Order what you want,” says Macher. “Ask yourself what textures or flavors sound good to you. It’s OK to order a cheeseburger and fries or a dish full of veggies or some combination of both.” If you force yourself to eat something that you don’t really want, it can backfire, and you’ll wind up making worse decisions later to satisfy those cravings.