June 24, 2020/Nutrition

How to Eat Healthy at Your Favorite Restaurants

Guide to making good choices when dining out

Eating healthy while out at a restaurant

What if we told you it’s possible to eat healthier meals at your favorite restaurants?

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“Regardless of the restaurant, it’s important to watch your portions and look for balance in your meals,” says registered dietitian Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, LD, CSSD.

No matter if you love a hearty Mexican dish or delicious Asian cuisine, Patton gives some tips for ordering at specific types of restaurants and what to look for:

Italian restaurants

If you’re going to an Italian restaurant, skip high-calorie dishes loaded with creamy sauces or extra cheese such as alfredo, lasagna and carbonara. Be cautious to avoid extra calories in buttered garlic bread by limiting how much you put on your plate. Make sure to limit sausage, meatballs, cream, butter, high-fat meats and cheese. Sausage and meatballs in particular add extra fat and calories to your dish.

Order this instead: Start off your meal with a salad filled with vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, olives, avocado and extra virgin olive oil and vinegar for the dressing. Skip the cheese and bacon to limit your intake of saturated fat. If you choose pasta, get it with red sauce, which gives you the nutrients and lycopene in the tomatoes and is much lower in calories than cream sauces. Other healthier sauces include pesto, olive oil or wine varieties. You can also ask about whole grain pasta to give it more fiber and more nutritional value. Don’t forget that you can always try to customize your dish and ask for extra vegetables for the sauce, such as broccoli or mushrooms. Consider sharing a meal or asking for a lunch size portion, as well.

Mexican restaurants

How often do you fill up on those warm, crunchy chips and savory salsa before your meal at your favorite Mexican restaurant? Even when you have a solid plan for a healthy dinner, it’s hard not to be tempted to grab a handful — or three. If this is a temptation for you, ask that the server not bring chips around, or you can put a small serving into your plate that you limit yourself to eating.

Advertisement

Most of us also know that cheesy or deep-fried entrees with lots of sour cream are high in fat and that we should avoid them. Guacamole is something to limit as well because while it’s a source of healthy monounsaturated fat, too much still means too many calories, so watch your portion size.

Order this instead: Choose fajitas or look for other grilled items on the menu. Look for entrees that focus on a lean protein such as chicken, fish, beans and vegetables. Go for black beans or pinto beans rather than refried beans and ask for lettuce leaves instead of tortilla to lower your carbohydrate intake.

Asian restaurants

At an Asian restaurant, it’s important to avoid egg rolls, wontons and other deep-fried items, which are high in fat. You also want to limit sweet and sour items and egg drop soups, which can also be high in calories without giving you the nutritional bang for the buck. If you see any items on the menu with “crispy” in the name, skip it.

Order this instead: Choose a meal focusing on lean proteins and vegetables, but remember that the sauce is especially important because it can have a lot of hidden oil. To avoid a high-calorie, high-fat sauce, ask to have your meal cooked in broth or stock and not oil. Be sure to choose brown or steamed rice over fried rice, which are much lower in fat.

Steakhouses

Eating healthy at a steakhouse is really about managing portions. It’s tempting to order a big 16 ounce steak and fill up on bread before the meal, but this is where managing your portions come into play. If you order a baked potato, don’t load it up with butter, cheese and sour cream. Order those on the side and use those toppings sparingly.

While mushrooms and onions are great additions to a steak, a lot depends on how the cooks prepare them. Watch out for too much butter or oil, and if in doubt, ask the waiter if the chef can go light on butter and oil.

Order this instead: Try to stick to a 6 ounce portion of leaner cuts like sirloin, filet, flank or London broil when it comes to steak. For a side, try adding a sweet potato, brown or wild rice and a cooked vegetable or salad.

Pizzerias

Pizza is a classic favorite. When you order that savory, delicious pizza, portion control and a few careful choices about toppings and crust can make a big difference in calories and fat. Avoid deep-dish pizza and high-fat toppings, with the biggest culprits being pepperoni, sausage and bacon.

Order this instead: Start with a garden salad without cheese and an oil-based dressing on the side. This can help you feel less hungry and less likely to overindulge on pizza. You want a thin crust or a whole wheat crust with either veggie toppings or leaner meat options like chicken, ham or Canadian bacon. Another trick is to request half the cheese and put meat on only half the pizza.

Fast food places

You might think it’s not possible to eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, but you can limit fat and calories with good choices. Even if an entree is a salad, check that it doesn’t have a lot of mayo (like tuna salad) or a lot of calories (like pasta salad). You want to limit cheese and bacon and avoid fries and large, supersized portions.

Advertisement

Order this instead: Choose salads with grilled chicken and dressing on the side or choose a grilled chicken entree or broiled burgers. Some fast food places serve fruit, yogurt, and side salads to help balance out a fast food meal. If you know what fast food restaurant you’ll be visiting, you can find nutritional information online. Many restaurants have nutrition facts pamphlets available and some even have calories listed on the menu inside and at the drive-through.

Final Tips

Before you head out to eat, look up the menu online. This way, you’ll be prepared to make a quick decision on your meal. This win-win situation will prep you for success.

“Restaurants know customer service is important,” says Patton. “Don’t hesitate to ask for meals prepared the way you want them.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Big open jar of pickles
May 22, 2024/Nutrition
Are Pickles Good for You?

Pickles are low in fat and calories and rich in some vitamins and minerals, but they’re usually high in sodium

Person reflecting on food and exercise
May 9, 2024/Mental Health
The Importance of Understanding Your Eating Habits

Learning about your relationship with food can help improve your eating behaviors and patterns

Bowl of partially peeled tamarind
May 8, 2024/Nutrition
5 Reasons To Try Tamarind

With a sweet, tangy flavor, this tropical fruit is super versatile and high in antioxidants

Yogurt, granola, fruit parfatis, with fruit on cutting boards
April 26, 2024/Lung
What To Eat When You Have COPD

A change in diet won’t cure COPD — but getting to or maintaining a healthy weight will help

Person on scale, questioning muscle weight vs. fat weight
April 12, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
The Difference Between Muscle Weight vs. Fat Weight

Both are needed for a healthy body

Turkey wrap cut in half on butcher board, with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion
April 3, 2024/Nutrition
Is Your Sandwich Healthy? What About Your Wrap?

Wrapped or sandwiched, try to choose fillings and condiments that are minimally processed, low in saturated fat and high in fiber

Person monitoring nutritional intake on smartphone app while eating a salad
April 1, 2024/Weight Loss
How Many Calories Should You Eat in a Day?

It depends on factors like your age, activity level and if you want to maintain, lose or gain weight

Variety of cereals in different bowls
Here’s What To Know About Choosing Cereal if You Have Diabetes

There are better breakfast options, but if it’s got to be cereal, look for whole grains, high fiber and no added sugar

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad