Eating Healthy While Eating Out

If you are going out with friends you don’t have to leave your healthy habits at the door. Even if you happen to find yourself at a fast food restaurant. One problem I find myself having is that I go out too hungry and then everything fried and high in calories looks delicious! Life Hacker outlines little tips and tricks to help you stay on track with your healthy habits.

Is Eating Healthy While Eating Out Possible?

The Common Sense Rules You Probably Already Know

Just because eating healthy should be common sense doesn’t mean we actually abide by it. In fact, most of us probably throw our common sense out the window the second we plop down with a menu filled with spectacularly described food. Here are a few reminders for the simple ways you can keep a restaurant meal healthy.

  • Don’t leave portion control up to your willpower: We are all pretty terrible at self control, and when you see a plate of tasty food in front of you, it’s easy to keep eating until you can’t eat anymore. According to Andy Bellatti, your best option is to order half portions whenever possible. Allanah DiBona adds that you might try considering an appetizer as a meal.
  • Order dressing and sauces on the side: A restaurant can make something as healthy as a salad unhealthy by covering it in dressing. For dressing or other dippable sauces order it on the side so you can regulate—and easily understand—how much you’re using.
  • The sides are often the worst part of a meal: Most sides you get at a restaurant are fried or at least covered in some type of sauce or cheese. Choose them wisely by going with the simplest option. This is often a side salad or a mixed vegetables.
  • Not all healthy food is healthy at a restaurant: Bellatti points out that a number of foods we think of as healthy aren’t at certain restaurants. Sushi, for instance, is often supersized to twice the normal proportion and filled with mayo or fried fish.
  • Seriously, skip the soda: We’re all aware soda isn’t healthy, but it’s worth repeating just to make sure we’re all on the same page. If you’re in need of caffeine see our tasty and healthy alternatives to soda.

The simple rule for eating out is: If it sounds like it’s unhealthy, it probably is. With that in mind, let’s move on to some of the ways you can customize almost any meal to make it healthier.

Eat Healthy at Any Sit-Down Restaurant

You can certainly try to hit up healthy restaurants but you aren’t always in full control of the restaurant choice. Perhaps you’re on vacation with a large group of friends and you’re roped into heading down to the Super Fatty Butter Palace for a meal. You can still make healthy choices and here’s how to do it.

Give Your Willpower a Break and Eat a Snack First

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do for yourself before eating out is to eat a little snack before you go. Bellatti explains:

Eating something an hour before you get to the restaurant is one of the best ways to avoid cravings and impulse decisions. Some ideas: half an apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter, vegetables and hummus, a small banana and a square of dark chocolate. The idea is not to get to the restaurant already full, but to avoid that famished feeling that leads to “eating with the eyeballs.”

Essentially, eating a snack gives your willpower a rest and makes a healthy decision easy. When you’re not starving those two appetizers followed by a burger the size of your head won’t be nearly as appealing.

Navigate Any Menu Like a Nutrition Pro

Finding a healthy meal on a menu is hard at a lot restaurants, but all you need to know is where to start. DiBona offers a pretty simple tip for this:

A good rule of thumb is to make protein and produce the basis of your meals. It’s easier to navigate a menu when you’re looking for large servings of protein (chicken, fish, beef) and any sort of produce that appeals (salad, veggie sides, etc.). If you’re aiming for health, most people find these parameters the easiest way to operate.

Once you’ve made your protein choice start looking for the simplest sounding food on the menu. Bellatti explains:

The idea is to eat simple food. Anything smothered in five types of cheese is not “simple.” An edamame appetizer? Simple. Nachos with sour cream, beef, and cheese? Overload. Corn tortillas with black beans and sauteed vegetables? Simple.

With these choices you can usually find something on the menu that’s both appetizing and healthy. If you’re still stuck then it’s time to start asking your waiter questions.

The Questions You Should Ask

If you’re anything like me then you probably have no interest in asking questions about menu items and instead order blindly without worry for the repercussions. This is great for an adventurous night out, but if you want to keep the meal healthy you have to ask questions. DiBona offers this reasoning:

Shelve your pride and ask some questions. Often we avoid seeking information in restaurants in order to avoid being the high maintenance table. Servers memorize the menus for a reason, and you’re purchasing a product. [Asking a question] ensures you’re getting something you really want. You should always know precisely what you’re putting into your body.

Bellatti echoes those statements but adds a few concrete questions that are good to ask in nearly every circumstance:

  • What can I get instead of fries?
  • What vegetables can I get with that?
  • Do you offer half portions?

Asking questions will only get you so far. At some restaurants you might also need to make substitutions.

Tweak the Menu with Substitutions and Requests

Even with knowledge of a menu you still might not find a super healthy option. When that’s the case it’s time to make substitutions and requests. This is surprisingly easy and only requires a few tweaks:

  • Hold the butter: Restaurants often use more butter in your single meal than you probably do at home in an entire week. Asking them to hold off on it will cut the fat content.
  • Skip the extras: Cheeses, bacon, or mayonnaise are all pretty enticing when you’re ordering but most restaurants pack on more than a single serving which can add unneeded fat to your otherwise healthy meal.
  • Find the best dips: Bellatti recommends sticking with dips like guacamole or hummus when you have the option. If you’re not into stuffing up on bread he suggests asking for cucumbers in place of pita bread for dipping.

Bellatti adds that some menu change substitutions are pretty useless and you’re best bet is to concentrate on cooking methods:

You’re better off getting items that are cooked healthfully (i.e.: grilled, broiled, etc) and then substituting healthier sides than trying to get someone in the kitchen to use 1 teaspoon of oil to cook your dish instead of 2 tablespoons.

For the most part you can apply the same rules above to fast food joints, but fast food is more about research (which is easier because they’re all chains) than anything else.

Find the Best Options for Fast Food

Since fast food isn’t made to order (at least not entirely) it’s not always easy to ask for substitutions or different cooking ingredients. Instead, you have to know what your best options are and what to avoid.

Picking what food to order is as simple as knowing the facts. A Calorie Counter’s breakdown of the best and worst menu items at fast food joints is the easiest place to start.

One of the key tricks with any fast food restaurant is to avoid the sides and just order an entree. Most of the extra calories in typical fast food come from the nearly unlimited soda refills and the default order of fries.

For everything else you can heed the same advice as a sit-down restaurant: skip the extra sauces, look for healthily cooked foods, keep your order simple (for instance, a Bacon Sundae is not simple), and if your food is prepared right in front of you ask for lighter portions (restaurants like Chipotle, for example, pack on way too much rice for a normal human).

Most importantly do not beat yourself up if you overindulge! It’s ok to make a mistake, we are human – it’s what we do! Forgive yourself and move on, continue with your healthy habits!