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5 Tips for Eating Better at Restaurants

Posted by Lela D.

POPULAR CHEF "SECRETS"--like a stick of butter in your sauce--can sabotage a healthy diet, and are especially troublesome if you avoid animal products. So follow these new tips from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG):

1. Preview the Menu
A lot of restaurants now have entire menus on their websites. Plan what you'll have before you arrive.

2. Focus on Key Words and Numbers
Look for light, healthy, or Weight Watchers items on the menu. Ask for nutritional values and don't visit restaurants that don't provide it.

3. Special Order
Make sure you know how things are prepared and if there's nothing that quite fits what you want, order something special. They can do it.

4. Put Half Away
Ask for a box and as soon as your meal arrives, put half of it away. This is especially important if you're eating something higher in fat and calories, but you can overdo it on grilled chicken and veggies too!

5. Just Say No...
... to bread or chips. Same goes for fatty salad dressings. You do NOT need an entire meals worth of calories before your entree arrives.

Comments (46)
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Looking at the menu online is a great tip. We usually go with friends and everybody is talking. That's a bad time to try to pick out a healthy meal.
I agree with the tips. One of my suggestions is not to eat courses (such as many pieces of bread) that you would not eat at home. Also, try to be discreet about what saving half. Some people around you may be on a splurge and it hurts their feelings to have someone make a big production about not eating. Just quietly order what you like, save half for a normal portion, and enjoy yourself. Or, just join friends afterwards for "coffee and"!
I often avoid going out to dinner with friends becuase of the issues with ordering healthy. Meeting afterwards for "coffee" is so much easier. Nobody knows what you ate for dinner so there is no pressure to have anything other than a low/no calorie drink. The focus can then be on visiting, not ordering and potentially offending anyone.
I know it is said slightly tongue in cheek, but most eating establishments are not waiting for you, the innocent calorie counter, to walk in so they can throw butter and fats in your food. Usually the best things that make food taste really good are expensive! (Yes, and bad for you...Fat is Flavor after all) These pricey items are parsed out...not used liberally. But moderation is the key for any eating lifestyle.....If you eat out every night or even 2 or 3 nights a week...then first I thank you for my restaurant brethren, but about taking care of yourself? Putting someone else in charge of what you eat more than 2 nights a week is not moderation. Even when you are out for a treat, moderation is the key. You can share a Caesar salad instead of getting your own. Share Dessert....ask for smaller portions. No one is making you eat that stick of butter..........
Sounds like good advice! I try to avoid menu items that are labeled "fried" or "crispy". They tend to be soaked in oil (and not usually the 'good' kind). I also always ask for my salad dressing on the side since I only really need a little bit to get the flavor and restaurants tend to pit a ton of dressing on. I like the idea of putting half, or at least part of the meal away before eating. Portions have gotten so large and I tend to eat whatever's on my plate, even if I feel totally stuffed afterwards. Would much rather eat just enough and feel good.

Great suggestions, Lela. I've been looking at the published nutrition information from popular restaurants, and what you say is incredibly true. It is astonishing how many calories and grams of fat there are in some of the appetizers! I ate at PF Changs the other evening, and looked up the crispy green bean appetizer -- it had 958 calories and 76 grams of fat!
I ended up ordering the steamed shrimp dumpling appetizer with 289 calories and 8 grams of fat... It pays to look at the nutrition information before ordering!!!!

Eating out doesn't have to be that much different from eating in, 'cept someone else takes care of the cleaning up!

As Lela mentioned, it's not a problem to special order. Unless you're in some backwoods town where there's only one restaraunt, most places are happy to make your meal the way YOU want it. (presumably because they'd like you to come back again & again)

I'm a big fan of Dr. John Beradi's nutrition program (found at for many reasons, the main one being that his program isn't a pile of disconnected "tips" such as "green tea is good for THIS" and "dark chocolate is good for THAT". (It's the same program I use with my private coaching clients.)

JB's system is based on 10 nutritional habits; one of the biggies being that you only consume starchy carbs during the post workout period.

So if you're planning on going out for pasta (or want to have some bread/chips), just be sure to get a workout in BEFORE you head out. You'll be better able to tolerate those carbs without the tendency to store 'em as fat.

The great thing about having a system based on good HABITS is that once you develop those habits, you won't be as tempted to eat the kinds (or amounts) of foods that'll keep you from achieving your health/fitness goals.

Hopefully I don't come across as an "infomercial" for Dr. Berardi's program, but the point I really want to get across is that it's important to have a SYSTEMATIC approach to training AND nutrition - and stick to it!

I usually will not even consider eating at a restaurant that doesn't feature a spectacular choice in salads.

Greens and live, raw foods are natural appetite suppressants.

They'll literally stop hunger immediately. And I make sure that salad or raw veggies are consumed first and foremost, only using balsamic vinegar and a bit of olive oil for dressing.

Order a large water right away, and guzzle as much as you can get down BEFORE eating anything.

By the time I've eaten even a moderate amount of salad or the like, the main course comes and I'm satisfied and not likely to eat much at all. I can enjoy sharing an entree with someone...or getting a few tastes of what the rest of my family is eating. Then I don't feel like I've overdone it and enjoy the experience of dining out so much more.

restaurants are a tricky subject ! I think making the choice to eat out automatically eliminates the idea of eating clean. There is nothing wrong with eating out every once in awhile especially if it is for social activities but be aware that it is extremely difficult to eat healthy (depending on where you go).

You have to look at each individual cirscumstance. If you are a healthy person that eats right and exercises right as a lifestyle, it really won't matter what you eat. I would say enjoy what you want and just have fun.

If you are someone who is in poor health and don't get as much exercise you should probably go for the protein dense food groups on the menu, those being, eggs, beef, chicken or fish. Depending on where you go they may prepare these dishes with heated oil and lots of salt. In this case your best bet will be to ONLY eat a salad which is not very nutritionally dense but better than eating poorly cooked food with trans fat loaded with salt.

I avoid eating out as much as possible. If I am forced to do it then I make the best of it, choosing items that are closest as possible to what I would eat at home (but I never compromise about eating meat, fish, eggs, and a few other items that are prohbited for yogis)

These are all great tips, Lela! I also encourage people to focus on plant-based entrees, and don't be afraid to ask how items are prepared! If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with great, local restaurants- go there! Chains tend to (in my opinion) use way too many processed ingredients and items that may not be as fresh or as healthy as I like.

I really like what Chef Jeff said about moderation and eating out- I completely agree! Balancing pleasure and moderation is a great skill!

Hey Gang, I actually interviewed Mike Roussell for my newsletter a while back and he provided some great tips (#3) on keeping things healthy when eating out:

Mike's really good at keeping things simple when teaching good nutritional habits. Have a look!

DAMAGE CONTROL, DAMAGE CONTROL! That's the name of the game when you eat out. The best way to avoid making bad food choices in a restaurant is to avoid eating in a restaurant. The Chef posted earlier not to eat out more than 2 times a week. That goes for takeout too. Control what you eat and pack your lunches for work, so you don't put yourself in a situation where you are tempted to make bad choices. But you gotta live life, and that means eating out with friends and family. I'll be honest with you, I don't put any restrictions on myself when I eat out. The whole point of eating out with friends and family should be to enjoy yourselves. Just make the experience a little more special by eating out only twice a week instead of everyday. You can still exercise damage control when you eat out though: 1) No drinks other than water. 2) When given this choice, choose salads over soups. 3) Never order an individual dessert. However, your friends will sabotage you by saying, "Hey you want to split a dessert?" That's OK, but never intitiate the dessert ordering.

Two more tips:

1) Step away from the all you can eat buffet
"All You Can Eat" buffets promote overeating. Not a good idea if you are unable to avoid the temptation to eat until you need to loosen your belt. However, if you do find yourself in one of these establishments, make good decisions (steamed rice instead of fried) and leave the elastic waistband pants at home.

2) Split an entree with a friend
"Portion Control" is a buzz word in healthy eating but most restaurants haven't caught on and will serve you enough food for at least two people. Next time you eat out with a friend, order one entree and ask for two plates. If you eat alone, or your friend won't share, ask for a 1/2 sized portion and then smile as your friend shovels 3 servings of cheese raviolis down his or her throat.

Bon Appetit.

Cord Courrege - On The Run Blog

For those of you who don't know me, I have a pretty blunt writing style. Here are my tips below.

1. Salad instead of starches, espically french fries people! Dressing on the side if any. I roll Balsamic.

2. Chicken, beef or fish as the entre. No pasta or other fattening fillers that are empty calories.

3. No booze, mineral water will do, thank you. Squeeze a lemon wedge in there and it tastes great!

4. Appetizer, umm, are you trying to get fat? They are always deep fried. Bust out a salad as one if you want.

5. Dessert, oh yeah, you deserve it, sure you do. Why can't you lose weight?

Good point about the buffets. Why do we, myself included, feel the need to gorge at these places. I just can't go to them because I know what will happen!
Lot's of good tips here, but the best one of all is to stay away from restaurants as much as you possibly can. My heaviest clients, those who exercise but can't lose a pound are those who choose not to cook for themselves and think they're making the right choices at restaurants. You really never know what is in your prepared food, no matter how many questions you ask. Let's face it, the best tasting meals have the most fat content. Then you have a drink, and all control goes out the window. It's best to make dining out a real treat, no more than once per month - then feel free to splurge.
So much good advice here! I'm with the group that says stay away from restaurants as much as possible. My husband and I go out about 2-3 times a month. At home, I have more control over the quality of food we make, but when we go out I usually order my favorites. One recent study found that you are always one meal away from better health (or worse health) depending on what your next meal is. So if you indulge a bit when you eat out, make sure you eat right the next time. It gets you right back on track. Of course, if your work leads you to eat out a lot on the road, then your best bet is to stick to lighter fare such as non-creamy soups and salads with vinegar and oil or any meal that's heavy on the veggies and low on the fatty sauces.

My husband and I like to eat out once a week but there are only four restaurants in town where we will dine, because these places offer healthy food choices. One of them even serves organic meat. This place does offer fries as a side dish with sandwiches and burgers, so my husband and I will choose the fruit for our side dish instead. This saves a lot of unnecessary calories.

Also, most restaurants have online websites with menus that you can look at before even driving to the restaurant. The calorie and fat content are usually posted under each menu item. So, check it out first before going there to eat. If you can find something healthy that is not loaded with fat and mega calories then choose this dish in your head beforehand. When you get to the restaurant you will already know what you are going to order and can feel good about your choice. Just stick with what you chose beforehand.

I think the best is avoidance. I just spent 3 weeks in India eating home cooked meails. So going out became an indulgence. Here is what I do:

1. Eat less and light. Small portions. Ask if they serve half orders

2. Ask if the dish is fattening?

3. Steam and grilled are the best choices

4. Tell them not to serve bread and chips

5. Drink water



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