Do you struggle with healthy eating at restaurants? These dietitian approved tips will help you stay on track with your healthy eating goals when dining out!
Whether it’s date night, business travel, or dinner with friends, dining out is something we enjoy, and a big part of many people’s social lives. Healthy eating at restaurants is a common barrier many of my clients face when trying to reach a health or nutrition goal. They don’t want to give up the social aspect that comes with going out, but find it overwhelming to apply nutrition principles I teach them in this real world situation.
When eating at restaurants, we have less control over the ingredients, preparation method, and portion sizes in our meals. Restaurants are in the business of making food taste REALLY good. Because of this, they often add more fat and sodium to their recipes than we would at home. But, this is no reason to forgo dining out altogether!
As an RD, I firmly believe that you can work towards nutrition and health goals, while still enjoying foods and activities that make you feel fulfilled. Cooking at home is fun, therapeutic, and satisfying, but so is enjoying a nice meal out with your loved ones. If you’d like to learn how to choose healthier meals when dining out, follow these five tips.
Tips for Healthy Eating at Restaurants
The night before or the morning of, look at the restaurant’s online menu to scope out the options. Pick out a couple options that sound appealing and healthy to you.
Use the Plate Method to help guide your choices when scoping out the menu. The Plate Method is an easy way to ensure you’re getting a balanced meal. When using the Plate Method, half your plate filled is filled with non-starchy veggies, a quarter of your plate is filled with protein, and a quarter is filled with complex carbohydrates.
Some options that may mirror the Plate Method include:
Salmon with asparagus and roasted fingerling potatoes
Veggie and tofu curry with brown rice on the side
Taco salad with black beans, salsa, fajita veggies, and cheese
Whole wheat pasta primavera with shrimp
Pay attention to cooking methods.
The way a food is prepared greatly dictates how many calories and how much saturated fat and sodium are in the meal. These cooking methods can help guide your decision making process, because they require less added fat:
The following food preparations and buzzwords require more added fat, calories, and sometimes sodium:
Don’t skip meals that day.
If you have dinner plans out, don’t skip your regular meals during the day to “save up”. It’s never a good idea to go into a meal ravenous, because it leads to overeating. Also, you won’t enjoy the meal and your companions as much, because you won’t be fully present when your stomach is rumbling.
Stick to your regular eating schedule to avoid extreme hunger going into dinner. And if your plans are on the later side, have a small snack with fiber and protein in the late afternoon to help hold you over!
Don’t be afraid to ask.
Now more than ever, restaurants are willing to accommodate dietary restrictions and menu swaps/additions. Don’t be afraid to ask for a substitution to make your meal a little healthier. With the Plate Method in mind, you can make pretty much any menu item into a balanced meal! Here are some examples:
Burger and fries: Substitute a side salad for french fries
Breakfast omelet: Substitute fresh fruit for home fries
Chicken and broccoli pasta: Add a double (or triple) portion of broccoli
Sushi: Ask for brown rice instead of white
Chips and guacamole: Ask for crunchy veggies for dipping, in addition to, or instead of chips
Check in with yourself throughout the meal.
Believe it or not, YOU are your body’s biggest ally in reaching your health goals. The ball is always in your court to make healthier decisions that make you feel good inside and out.
When dining out, check in with yourself periodically throughout the meal to see how you are feeling. This helps you learn to trust that your internal cues are guiding you to the best food decisions for yourself in that moment.
First, check in with yourself when you sit down. How hungry are you? Did you have a stressful day? Are you celebrating something? Have you been craving a certain food all week?
These physical and mental cues all guide our food related decision making processes. When we are aware of our feelings and emotions, we can make better informed decisions regarding eating.
Perhaps you’ll be really satisfied with grilled salmon and veggies tonight. But maybe, you’ve been craving a burger all week, and the one on the menu sounds perfect. Know that either of these choices is fine, and neither should invoke food guilt. Can you make the burger a bit more balanced by adding a side of veggies?
Next, check in with yourself a few bites in. How does your food taste? Is it as delicious as you’d imagined?
Take time to really savor the first few bites of your meal. Chew slowly to appreciate all the flavors and textures.
By doing this, you’re bringing mindfulness into the meal, which allows you to keep in touch with your hunger cues more easily.
Continue to check in with yourself and your hunger/fullness level. As mentioned before, you are your biggest ally when sticking to health goals. Your body is really good at signalling hunger and satisfaction, so learn to listen to what that feels like.
The best way to make healthy eating at restaurants easier is to practice! Utilize these tips next time you go out and see how easily they can be applied. Most importantly, don’t forget to check in with yourself, regardless of what you chose to order. Your body will tell you, “thank you, I feel satisfied and I’ve had enough” with every meal. Learning to listen and honor that is one of the best ways make eating healthier simple, fun, and nonrestrictive.