How to Eat Healthy at Your Favorite Restaurants

Guide to making good choices when dining out
How to Eat Healthy at Your Favorite Restaurants

No matter what your favorite restaurant is serving, you can still practice healthy dining.

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

Here are some of her tips for ordering at specific types of restaurants:

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. Also, avoid extra calories in buttered garlic bread by limiting how much you eat. Sausage and meat balls in sauces also adds fat and calories. Limit cream, butter, high-fat meats and cheese.

What to order: Start off your meal with a salad filled with vegetables, with fruit, nuts, seeds, olives and/or avocado. Skip the cheese, bacon, and creamy dressings. The fiber from the vegetables in the salad will help you feel full. 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. You can also ask about whole-grain pasta to give it more fiber and more nutritional value, and extra vegetables for the sauce, such as broccoli or mushrooms.

Mexican restaurants

At a Mexican restaurant, even when you have a solid plan for a healthy dinner, it’s really easy to fill up on chips and salsa before the meal. 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.

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. But guacamole is something to limit as well. Yes, it’s a source of healthy monounsaturated fat, but too much still means too many calories, so watch your portion size.

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What to order: Choose fajitas or look for other grilled items on the menu. Watch for entrees that focus on a lean protein, such as chicken, fish, or beans, as well as vegetables.

Asian eateries

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.

What to order: 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. Also, choose brown or steamed rice over fried rice, which are much lower in fat.


Eating healthy at a steakhouse is really about managing portions. Avoid ordering big 16-ounce steaks and be careful not to fill up on bread before the meal. Also, don’t load up your potato with butter, cheese and sour cream. Order those on the side and use those toppings sparingly.

What to order: You’ll do well to stick to a 6-ounce portion when it comes to steak. Try leaner cuts like sirloin, filet, flank or London broil. You can try a sweet potato, brown or wild rice and a cooked vegetable or salad for side dishes. Also, 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.


When you order 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, such as pepperoni, sausage and bacon.

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What to order: 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 and a whole wheat crust if possible, veggie toppings and if you like meat, try leaner options like chicken, ham or Canadian bacon. Some other tricks: 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 lots of calories (like pasta salad). You want to limit cheese and bacon, avoid fries and avoid large, super-sized portions.

What to order: Choose salads with grilled chicken and go easy on the dressing or choose grilled chicken or broiled burgers. Some fast food places serve chili and baked potatoes, which are good choices if you don’t overdo sour cream, cheese or other fattening toppings. 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.

All-you-can-eat buffets

Of course, you should avoid all-you-can-eat buffets, where it’s all too tempting to go back for another slab of ham or more scalloped potatoes.

But if you find yourself there, you can use what Patton calls “the plate method”:

  • Use half your plate for vegetables.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein, such as chicken, turkey, fish, pork tenderloin, or legumes.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with whole grain starch or complex carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, barley, and baked, red skin or sweet potato.

Final tip: Restaurants know customer service is important. Don’t hesitate to ask for meals prepared the way you want them.

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