You know that the best foods for overall health include whole foods like vegetables, fruits, lean protein and grains, and it can be easy to make sure you’re getting your fair share when you’re cooking for yourself at home. Unfortunately this feat is not easily achieved when you’re dining out. In addition to serving unnecessarily large portions of meat, poultry, fried foods and carb-heavy items like rice and pasta, most restaurants typically salt food with a heavy hand, and cook food in highly processed oils, such as canola, soy, corn or vegetable oil, which are not only often sprayed with glyphosate, but are also very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils, notes functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. “While this stuff isn’t acutely life-threatening, it isn’t healthy to eat that way all the time, especially for those with a chronic illness impacted by food,” she says.
If we’re being honest here, dining out is a fun and relaxing activity that should be enjoyed even if you’re someone who’s health conscious. The good news is that it is absolutely possible to dine at restaurants without sabotaging your eating regimen or making overly unhealthy decisions. Here, dietitians share their best-kept secrets for eating healthy while dining out.
1. Don’t skip meals throughout the day
While this may seem counter-intuitive, limiting your calorie intake prior to going to a restaurant can actually backfire. In fact, not only is it going to make you hungrier and more tempted to overeat, but it’s also going to create a surge of insulin, a hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar balance warns Volpe. It’s also hard on your gut, and can lead to an upset stomach later on.
2. Look up the nutrition info ahead of time
Any chain restaurant with 20 or more locations are required by law to list their nutrition information, which you can usually find online. Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N., Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Board Certified Sports Dietitian, recommends glancing at this information ahead of time to help you find the best option for your individual needs.
“It really depends on each person, what are their health goals, and nutrient needs—for example, a person with high blood pressure should look at the sodium content of a meal on the restaurants’ website,” she says. “Looking for the lowest meal in sodium would be important to that person while another person who might like to lose weight should look at lower calorie meals options the restaurant has available.”
3. Ask for dressings or sauces on the side
“When a chef is adding a sauce or dressing to a meal, they may be more likely to add lots more compared to when you add your own,” explains Volpe. For this reason, she recommends asking for dressings or sauces on the side, a simple tactic to help keep sodium intake under control. “This is especially important for people prone to high blood pressure,” she adds.
4. Don’t push yourself to finish your plate
Most restaurant servings are twice, if not three, times the size of a standard meal and serve far more “macros” (carbs, fats, and proteins) than you really need. “Not only does this help to stretch the food budget—it also helps to keep calorie intake within a healthier and more balanced range for most people,” says Volpe. “Unless the entree is a salad, I find there aren’t usually enough veggies for leftovers, so I’ll add my own veggies from home to the leftovers the following day.”
5. Opt for lower-sugar foods
Whether you’re keeping an eye on your sugar intake for weight management purposes or for blood sugar control, it’s smart to be conscientious of this metric, notes functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. Two main areas she recommends focusing on include drinks and desserts. “Skip the dessert as much as you can and, for the drinks, try to stick with water, unflavored teas (flavor with lemon), and non-sugary alcoholic beverages,” she says. “If you do want to have an alcoholic drink, opt for a liquor on the rocks.”
6. Add a protein to your order
No matter what cuisine or dish you’re ordering, be sure to add a protein, such as lean meat, a meat substitute like tofu or tempeh or legumes to make it well balanced. “The protein will promote fullness, the carbs will give you energy and some fiber and the color (fruit and vegetables) will help to increase the volume of food without adding extra calories, prevent overeating and give you more fiber for fullness,” explains Emily Tills, R.D.N., virtual nutrition coach in New York.