Healthy Tips When Eating Out


By Dr. Nina Radcliff

Eating out not only offers a welcomed break from cooking (and cleaning) – but also provides convenience and the opportunity to enjoy a certain ambiance as well as special treats for our taste buds. A record-breaking number of millions-upon-millions of us are dining out, regularly. According to the most recent report from the Commerce Department, for the first time ever, people in the U.S. are spending more money dining out than buying groceries. This represents a significant shift in our eating habits which can (and does) create challenges – as eating out can make it difficult to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

Often times, there is overload of salt, sugar, and fatty garnishes that are added to inject bursts of flavor and downright yumminess. Add to this, there are increased calories in larger portion sizes which have grown considerably over the last 40 years. The American Heart Association (AHA), has issued warnings that portions today are often double or triple the standard recommended serving sizes! Doing the math often reveals that a single meal out adds up to over 1,000 calories! Depending upon your specific caloric needs, you could be knocking out half of your recommended daily caloric intake with a single meal.

While these bursting-from-the-seams meals exist, there are a number of fast food chains and restaurants that provide their diners with healthier options. You don’t have to sabotage your healthy diet when eating out. It is up to us, the consumer, the diner, to know how we can select healthy and nutritious choices. Here are some tips along with ways to decipher the menu. With a little bit of effort, you can ensure that the meals you eat away from home are part of a healthy diet.


Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Healthy Choices When Eating-Out

Foundational Understanding:  You have the right to know what you are eating and to that end, the FDA has taken measures to support your right by issuing a statute that requires chain restaurants (20 or more locations) and similar retail food establishments to provide consumers with clear, accurate and consistent nutrition information. This includes posting calories on menus and menu boards and providing other nutrient information in writing so that we, the consumers, can make informed and healthful dietary choices.

When this information is available, The American Heart Association recommends that you look to see that

  • Calories have 700 calories or less for the entire meal including appetizers, drinks and dessert
  • Total fat is less than 26 grams (or 30% of entire meal); saturated fat less than 5 grams 
  • Sodium is less than 960 mg
  • Beneficial nutrients have more than 10% of the Daily Value of vitamin A, vitamin c, calcium, iron, dietary fiber or protein

Avoid “Landmines”  The way a meal is prepared, garnished, or flavored is critical. And while it may be obvious that fried, pan-fried, crispy, buttery, or creamy items can be filled with calories and fat, be on the lookout for these other not-so-obvious unhealthy descriptions: au gratin, scalloped, breaded, sauced, au fromage, sautéed, stuffed, or Newburg. 

When deciding what  to order, opt for steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached, or roasted menu items. If you are uncertain how something is prepared, ask your server. And, too, consider asking for the food to be prepared the way you want. For example, if your chicken entrée is fried or breaded, ask that it be simply grilled. Most restaurants will be happy to oblige.

When to supersize and when not to Supersize your veggies! Often, the vegetables that accompany a meal come in small portions. So when I dine out, I ask for a double portion of my veggie du jour so that it fills up half of the plate and helps me achieve the recommended 8 daily servings of fruit and veggies. 

Conversely, avoid super-sized portions of sugary beverages, fried foods, or not-so-healthy meals. While the larger size may seem economical and that you are getting a deal, they often come with a heavy price tag of calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. It’s just not “economically” worth it.

What to aim for If ordering a meat entree, aim for seafood, chicken or turkey, or lean cuts of beef (round, top sirloin, tenderloin). The leanest poultry is white meat from the breast. And, too, take note of the skin. In the past, it was mantra to “remove the skin” because it is high in fat and, hence, calories. However, we have come to learn that not all fat is bad fat and that our body does need healthy fats to function optimally. Chicken and turkey skin are good sources of heart-healthy monosaturated fats. However, remember to do it in moderation. 

Beverages When taking stock of what we eat and how we can do a better job at it, it is easy to forget that what we drink is part of what we consume—it is important. Sodas, alcoholic beverages, sweetened drinks (teas, coffees, juices), and milkshakes have plenty of calories in them from added sugar. Take for example a can of soda. On average, it has 140 calories and 39 grams of added sugar (almost 8 teaspoons)—two of them have 280 calories and 78 grams of sugar, and three of them have 420 calories and 117 grams of sugar. So when dining out, don’t forget that the calories from your drinks can get sky high and try to instead ask for water or unsweetened drinks—or, limit these drinks to just one.

Bread baskets I think I stand with many in saying that hot-from-the-oven bread is heavenly. And when that fresh basket of bread is placed on the table it can be near-impossible to resist gorging. Unfortunately, many bread baskets items are made from white refined carbohydrates (and also contain added sugar). What this equates to is lots of calories without much nutrition. Some tips to manage this include: asking the server to bring an order of raw vegies (cucumbers, cauliflower); requesting whole grain breads; or limiting the amount you consume (no refills).

Salads These tasty dishes are a great way to get in our veggies, and in some cases, fruit. And, too, because most salad items are fiber-filled, they fill our tummies up, making us feel full (tongue-twister alert!). In one study, researchers found that women who ate a “low calorie” salad, before their lunch main entrée, consumed 7% fewer calories during their meal. However, those who had a “high calorie” salad increased their total calorie intake during their meal by up to 17%!

So watch out for garnishments and dressings that can be laden with calories and unhealthy fats. When possible avoid or limit croutons, glazed nuts, bacon bits, and fried noodles or crunchy tortilla chips—or ask that they be served on the side along with the dressing.  And, too, ask for substitutes to creamy dressings such as olive oil and vinegar, creamy avocado, or a vinagraitte (e.g., mustard, tomato, lemon, mustard, or honey mustard).

Portion control Serving sizes at fast-food and sit-down restaurants have grown, as stated earlier. And as a consumer, we feel as though we are getting our money’s worth. However, you don’t have to eat everything that is placed in front of you. Ask your server to pack half of your meal to take home so you can enjoy later in the day or for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the near future. Alternatively, consider sharing a main dish or ordering a side dish or appetizer-sized portion instead of a regular entrée. 

And whether you are eating out regularly or just occasionally, eat “mindfully.” Eating mindfully is a great tool to actively make yourself aware of the food you are choosing to eat and, too, the company and environment you are in. Dining out can be such a pleasure– and it can be healthy!! Maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is key – know what you are consuming, be mindful, make good choices – remember, moderation and enjoy!

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.