Making Healthy Food Choices When Eating Out

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Eating out is easy, convenient, and a lot more fun than cooking at home. People often consider eating out a great way to socialize or to celebrate. If you’re looking to eat more healthy, eating out can be the big enemy, but it doesn’t have to be. When you cook at home, you know exactly what is going in your food; you lose that control when you eat something prepared in a restaurant kitchen.

Below are some easy tips for making good choices when eating out and some explanation of ways to never show up at the restaurant and not find something healthy and delicious.

5 Quick and Easy Tips

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  1. Plan ahead. This is one of the simplest and most useful tips. Before you show up at the restaurant, look up the menu online and choose what you want. This way, you won’t be tempted by the pasta and will order that fresh green salad.
  2. Have a snack. Arriving at the restaurant overly hungry can tempt you to order appetizers just to get something in your stomach.
  3. Consider your portion. Restaurants are notorious for serving too much food. Think about how much you want to eat before you start and stick to it. It takes time for your stomach to tell your brain that you’re full.
  4. Avoid dessert. If you’re craving something sweet, have something at home like sorbet. Skip the over-sized piece of chocolate cake with extra sugar and whipped cream on top.
  5. Make eating out special. Treat eating out as a treat and make it a celebration. Thinking of eating out as a special occasion will help you to eat out less often. This is a good choice for your health and your money.

If you enjoyed these quick and easy tips, be sure to keep reading. There’s much more great and helpful information below.

Ways to Plan Ahead

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One of the best ways to make healthy choices when eating out is to plan ahead and know what you’re doing before you arrive at the restaurant. Being forewarned is the first step towards preparedness. Know that when you eat out, you are not going to eat as healthy as you do when eating at home. Here are a few ways you can plan ahead before eating out and help yourself to make good, healthy choices at the restaurant.

Take a look at the menu online. If you’re meeting friends for dinner to catch up right after work, take a look at the menu online before you even arrive at the restaurant. When you look at the menu and are calm, under no pressure by friends or the waiter to make a hasty decision, you’re more likely to take the time to make a healthy choice. Once you’ve chosen what you want, be ready to stick to it.

Another issue that a lot of people face when going out to eat is arriving very hungry. Thinking about our scenario, meeting friends right after work for dinner, it’s possible that you may have had a light lunch or didn’t have time for lunch at all. If you arrive at the restaurant very hungry, you may be tempted to order an appetizer, a sugary drink which you drink too quickly, or to gorge on the bread basket just to contain your hunger. If this is the case, try to have a small snack before leaving for the restaurant. A great, high protein, low sugar snack is a handful of almonds and you have a built in measuring cup. Your correct serving size of almonds is a palmful, you’ll be surprised how filling just that little snack can be.

You’ve looked at the menu, decided what you wanted, and didn’t arrive to the restaurant hungry. There’s one more pitfall to try and avoid. Order first so you can’t change your mind when you hear what everyone else is ordering. If you’ve already ordered, it’s easier to keep the willpower up and stick to that healthy option that you picked out before even arriving at the restaurant.

One fun way to plan ahead before going out is to get dressed up. When you treat eating out like a special occasion and get dressed up, you’ll go out less often. Making it a special occasion and not just a ritualized habit helps you to treat eating out with care and think about it before arriving at the restaurant. Dressing up and treating eating out as special will likely help you to eat out less, which in turn will save you money and help you to eat healthier.

Portion Control

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Restaurants are notorious for serving up plates with two or three portions on them and yet, people often still eat everything on their plate. If you want to see how the portion sizes have changed over the last 20 years, check out this portion distortion quiz. This quiz is great for looking at portion size, but try not to get too stuck on the amount of calories in and calories out. New research is showing that the calorie counting argument doesn’t promote a truly healthy lifestyle. You will lose weight by reducing your caloric intake, but the type of calories and food you put in your body is just as important. Just think about eating a vegetable in comparison to a candy bar. You can eat the same amount of calories in both and you would get a different nutritional out take from the food. If you’d like to read more about this, here’s a link debunking this body myth.

When you arrive at a restaurant, know that you’re going to have to find a way to fight their portions with your own control. There are lots of great options for portion control; one of the simplest being to split your entree with someone else. If you’re out with friends, see if someone in your party wants to split an entree with you, that way you end up eating only half of the dish.

Ask for a to go box at the start of your meal. When you wait until after you’re finished eating to order the to go box, you don’t have as much control over how much you eat. When you order the to go box to come with the meal, you can look at the portion and decide how much you’ll eat. Place the portion you’re not going to eat in the to go box and the temptation to overeat goes away. Be aware that food should not sit at room temperature for over two hours and leftovers should be labelled with the date and eaten within two to three days.

One of the biggest issues with portion distortion is that we’re not even aware that it’s happening. The majority of food and portion sizes that we see are oversized, leading consumers to believe that what they see is a normal portion to eat. Having a few pictures of correct portion sizes in your head can be a great step towards healthful eating. Here’s just a quick list of a few ideas:

  • 1 cup is about the size of a baseball and the serving size for fruits and veggies.
  • 3 ounces of meat is the size of a deck of cards.
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, salad dressing, or butter is about the size of a golf ball
  • 1 ½ ounce of cheese is the size of three dice.
  • A hamburger patty should be the size of a hockey puck.
  • ½ cup is the size of your fist and the correct portion for pasta.

These comparisons might come as a shock and seem like not enough food, that’s portion distortion. These serving sizes and portions are recommended for a healthy diet. If you’d like to learn more, check out this chart from WebMD.

Another great way to fight portion distortion is to just not order any entrees at the restaurant. When you look at the menu before your arrival, see if there is a section for smaller portions or just order an appetizer and a salad. Beware that not all lite and low-fat options on the menu are actually better for you.

What to Pick

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Not all foods are created equally. What you put in your body is just as important as how many calories you consume and how much you exercise. is a great resource for choosing healthy foods. One of the best visuals provided by that website is a dinner plate filled with all the right foods. The dinner plate is half filled with vegetables and greens (or fruits), a quarter filled with grains and a quarter filled with meat or other protein. Try to make at least half of your daily grain intake whole grains. This visual makes eating right so easy, even kids could do it!

Protein has become the go to health food in recent years with many diets promoting that the extra protein will help you to lose weight. Protein is an essential part of your healthy diet, but remember those comparisons in the previous section. The amount of protein you need to consume depends on your age, sex, activity level, and weight. You might be surprised how little is recommended when you check out this handy chart. On average, an adult needs between 5 and 6 ounces of protein a day. If you go back to that easy comparison, that’s only two decks of cards worth of lean meat. As with anything else, variety in your proteins is essential. If you want to eat meat, the best option is lean meats such as poultry or fish cooked by boiling, roasting, poaching, broiling, or grilling. (Anything but frying!) There are also lots of vegetarian options to get a variety of protein including; beans, peas, seeds, nuts, and soy products.

One of the easiest ways to know you’re getting enough variety and vitamins in your diet is to eat the rainbow. The darker, more vibrant, and more various the colors in your diet, the better. Even white vegetables, such as potatoes and cauliflower, have essential vitamins for your diet. Fruits and vegetables are also a great way to get enough fiber. Try to mix dark, leafy greens into the mix as much as possible.

When choosing a salad, remember that salads should not be fatty. Salad is a healthy option, but many restaurants put additional things on the salad that are high in fat and aren’t as healthy as you might think. Beware that adding meat and cheese to salad can make it a not so healthy option. If you’re worried about the salad dressing, try the fork dip. Ask for the dressing on the side, dip the fork into the salad dressing, and then stab a forkful of salad. You’ll be surprised how far a little bit of dressing goes. Research has found that people who eat a salad before their meal ate fewer calories during the rest of the meal than people who didn’t eat a salad.

In general, restaurant meals are lacking in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Look for dishes that include these things and you’re likely making a good choice. You might even want to ask for a double serving of fruits or veggies to get the proper serving size and fill yourself with good calories and fiber.

Remember when you’re ordering at a restaurant, you’re ordering a meal for yourself, so make sure that you’ll enjoy it. Don’t be afraid to ask the server to replace a side option with something healthier. It never hurts to ask, the worst that can happen is the server tells you that they can’t accommodate your wishes. The waiter is also a good person to ask if you’re trying to pick a healthy option. The waiter can tell you if the fish comes out swimming in butter or if the pizza is extra greasy.

Think about what you drink. One of the easiest ways to cut down on sugar and empty calories at a restaurant is to choose water. If you miss the flavor of sodas or alcoholic drinks, try adding lemon or lime to your water. If you are going to drink alcohol, try to drink a glass of water first. It will help to fill you up a little and keep you hydrated later on. Many alcoholic drinks such as pina coladas and margaritas have sugary additives. Go for a glass of wine, light beer, or vodka and tonic water to reduce your sugar intake.

Make it simple on yourself by cutting back on added sugars, solid fats, and salt. Try to remove saturated and trans fats from your diet and add in unsaturated fats. Ask for high fat extras on the side; such as butter, mayonnaise, cheese, ham, bacon, or other flavor enhancing toppings. It can be especially hard to find light fat dishes at Italian restaurants. One quick tip is to choose dishes with light wine or tomato-based sauces. Also, look for words that indicate lighter options; such as cooked in its own juice, garden fresh, grilled, roasted, and steamed. If you’re looking to avoid high fat or sugary foods, avoid foods with descriptions including these words: buttery, fried, crisp, cream sauce, hollandaise, au gratin, basted, au fromage, pickled, au jus, breaded, and a la mode. It’s a little like reading between the lines.

If you’re concerned about what types of food have been used in your dish, don’t be shy to ask your waiter. Food quality is important. If you only want to eat organic vegetables or grass-fed meat, be sure to ask what the restaurant uses. Also, remember that the quality of calories is important. Consuming calories from chocolate cake is not as healthy as eating a serving of fruits and vegetables which contain nutrients, vitamins, and fiber. An easy rule to live by when trying to choose healthy foods is: the less processed and closer to straight-out-of-the-ground the food is, the healthier it is.

One of the most important aspects to eating out is looking for quality foods. Though it will be difficult to identify quality foods without looking at the label, you can always ask your server who can ask the chef. One easy way to know you’re eating quality food is to eat organic foods. If a food is labelled organic, it has been approved by the USDA using strict guidelines and regulations. The next level is 100% organic and that is saved for foods with a single ingredient; such as fruits, vegetables, and eggs, that’s known to be completely organic.

Organic refers to how a food (fruit, vegetable, dairy, grain, or meat) is grown and processed. Organic farming is designed to encourage water and soil conservation, reduce environmental pollution, and limit the use of synthetic materials in farming. Organic farmers use natural pesticides and crop rotation to keep the soil healthy and producing great food.

The term organic is not interchangeable with natural, free-range, or grass-fed. Only organic foods are subject to the strict guidelines set down by the USDA. The other claims must be truthful, but they are not regulated with as much scrutiny. If you want to learn more about how the USDA regulates organic foods, check out their website here.

Another way to make healthy choices while eating out is to avoid processed foods. When eating out, this is definitely easier said than done. To avoid processed food, you want to start looking at what foods are the closest to natural or how they came out of the ground.

A few easy ways to avoid these processed foods is to avoid white foods. Most healthy foods display a lot of natural color and so it’s easy to know to avoid foods devoid of color. White bread, flour, and rice are all processed by bleaching and enriching, which takes much of the nutrients out. Another easy way to avoid eating processed foods is to avoid cheap foods. Most cheap foods are simply cheap, meaning the ingredients are likely processed and are not of high quality.

Another great way to identify quality food is to ask how it was raised or produced. One of the easiest forms of healthy eating is to buy free-range chicken and chicken eggs and grass-fed beef. Animals thrive when they have space to roam and healthy foods to eat. Grass-fed cows are healthier because they aren’t fed growth-hormones or antibiotics. Meat from grass-fed cows is also high in omega-3s because the cow was allowed to eat naturally occurring, healthier foods. Omega-3s are an essential part of the human diet and are difficult to find in most naturally occurring foods. Grass-fed beef is a great way to boost your omega-3 intake.


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One of the most contentious, talked about, and confusing issues within the food industry today is genetically modified organisms. But there’s a simple way to avoid eating GMO foods, just eat organic. This will limit your option of places to eat out, but you’ll know that you’re getting a healthy meal. Foods that are labelled USDA organic have been through a rigorous process to meet the strict rules and regulations. These foods are guaranteed, by the USDA, to not contain GMO foods.

Before jumping to the conclusion that all GMOs must be avoided, here’s a short definition. GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms. Some foods are genetically modified in the laboratory to make foods need less herbicide and pesticide during growth and increase production. Plants are also modified to make them need less water to grow or to grow without seeds; such as grapes and watermelons. A genetically engineered food is defined as one that has foreign DNA inserted into its own DNA.

The four major genetically engineered crops in the US include corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed. Most processed foods and restaurant foods use at least one of these oils that’s created with GMO foods. This makes GMOs difficult to completely avoid and remove from your diet.

There are potential benefits to using GMOs, such as increased production, but the science that back GMOs falls suspect to many people. The scientists performing the research on GMOs are often paid by the large companies that run the food industry, making it difficult for consumers to know how factual the information they are receiving is.

That being said, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association all say that GMOs are safe and sometimes safer than foods modified the old fashioned way, with interbreeding. Though long-term testing by the government to decide whether GMOs are safe for consumption or not may be lacking, there are three governmental agencies in the US that oversee GMO foods and their production. The EPA looks at how GMO plants affect the environment, the USDA makes sure that the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA decides whether the plan will make people sick after eating it.

Most of the studies cited by anti-GMO agency are dramaticized to sound scary. You’ve probably heard about the study that showed GMO plant DNA was found in humans. What you probably didn’t know though is that plant DNA from GMO and non-GMO foods can often be found in humans. It doesn’t mean that we’ve integrated the DNA into our own, just that it exists in the body between the cells, which is not harmful. GMO and non-GMO plant DNA act the same within the human body. You can read about other similar studies here.

One of the only ways to find out if GMOs are safe or harmful to your health is to keep researching about them, educating ourselves from both sides, and to keep talking. There are two sides to this story, make sure to look at both and always continue assessing your opinion.


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One of the most difficult parts of eating out to resist is dessert. One way to resist dessert at a restaurant is to know that you have something decently healthy or homemade at home. Many of the desserts that are available in restaurants are high in added sugar, have huge portion sizes, and include extras such as ice cream, whipped cream, or other unnecessary extras. Skip the dessert at the restaurant to eat a sorbet or homemade dessert at home where you know exactly what is in it and how much sugar you’re consuming. If you do want to get a dessert at the restaurant, ask for extra plates and silverware and share with the rest of the table.

Beware of the health halo effect. Researchers have found that when people eat at a restaurant and make a healthy choice; such as a whole-grain sandwich with lots of vegetables at a sub shop, they reward themselves and indulge in chips, cookies, or sodas. With this health halo effect, people end up consuming more calories than someone who ate at a fast food burger restaurant.

When You Travel

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Traveling often forces us to eat out at every meal, but it doesn’t have to. If you’re staying in a hotel, there are often healthy breakfast options that come with the room. If you can plan ahead before your travel, try to pack healthy foods that don’t need refrigeration or much care. Dried fruits, nuts, seeds; such as pumpkin seeds, and pretzels are all good options that won’t melt and can just be stored in a small plastic container or zipper bag. Packed snacks are great for flying or road trips. When you’re prepared with snacks, you will be less tempted to stop for sugary or salty snacks when hunger strikes.

If you don’t have time to pack snacks before leaving, stop at a grocery store when you arrive and stock up on small, transportable snacks. If you’re traveling for fun, with family or with kids, stop at the grocery store to get some fruits and sandwich fixings to have a picnic in one of the parks. You’ll be saving money in the end, having more fun, and will eat better.

When traveling, especially by plane, beware of your alcohol consumption. Flying can trigger dehydration, which is only exacerbated by alcohol, so be sure to drink lots of water when flying. On road trips, try not to be tempted by the rows and rows of coolers containing sodas and sugary drinks; including coffees or drinks high in caffeine.

The Bottom Line

Eating out makes healthy choices more difficult, but not impossible. Before eating out, be sure to plan ahead by thinking about the choices you want to make before even arriving at the restaurant. Having a plan helps you to make the healthiest choices possible and to stick to them. If you don’t have time to plan ahead and choose what you want to eat before arriving at the restaurant, try to look for menu items that are full of good calories such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and that are low in salt and sugar. Be sure to remember portion distortion and that most restaurants serve dishes with two to three portions, making them perfect to split with friends or to pack up for a second meal later on. Easy comparisons such as one serving of meat is 3 ounces, which is the size of a deck of cards, are good tricks to keep in mind to help you eat the right amount and not gorge on large portions of food.

When eating at a restaurant, it’s also important to be aware of what foods your choosing to eat. What you pick to eat and the calories that go into your body are very important. New research finds that the quality of calories in is more important than the number of calories in and number of calories out. Try to fill your plate with half fruits and vegetables, a quarter with protein, and a quarter with grains; preferably whole grains. Supplementing your protein intake with varying sources is also important. Lean meats, grains, peas, nuts, and beans are all great ways of supplementing your protein intake.

Dessert is one of the biggest health demons. If you’re trying to cut back and eat healthier, one very easy way is to skip dessert at the restaurant. Have a healthier choice waiting at home like sorbet or something homemade so that you know exactly what’s in it. Eating dessert at home gives you the power to control the amount of sugar you’re eating.

Travel makes eating healthy difficult because you’re often forced to eat out with no options of cooking for yourself. One of the best options to fight travel eating is to pack non-perishable snacks to take with you.

Making good choices when eating out takes planning ahead, patience, and thinking about what is the most nutritious option on the menu. These tips and tricks should help to start you in the right direction. Eating out is a part of life and being social, so be sure to enjoy your time out and enjoy the food that you eat.