How to Eat Healthy at a Restaurant

We previously discussed how to make healthier restaurant choices with dietitian Maya Nahra, who pointed out that many of our eating decisions are driven by deeply rooted habits and behaviors that are part of a larger journey of self-improvement. Whether your New Year’s resolution has you embarking on that journey or you’re simply hoping to keep a closer eye on your diet while attending business dinners, birthday celebrations, and holiday parties this year, here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you want to eat healthy at a restaurant.

Tips for Making Healthy Choices

Go for half. Portion control is important, and it’s easy to accidentally overeat when a generous serving of a delicious restaurant meal is in front of you. Fortunately, there are a few ways you can practice better portion control.

If you’re dining out during lunch, many restaurants offer a lunch menu with select menu items served in smaller portions. During dinner, you can look for pastas, sandwiches, and other entrees that are available in half-sizes. If you’re dining out with someone who shares your culinary preferences, you may also consider splitting an entrĂ©e, though some restaurants may charge guests a fee for splitting plates.

If you want to order a full portion so you can enjoy your leftovers at home, consider boxing up half your meal before you dig in. Your server will likely be understanding and accommodating if you request a to-go container as you order or when your food arrives. If you’re worried your server may be confused, you can offer a brief explanation, such as: “Can I have a to-go container? I know I won’t be able to eat all of this and I’d like to take the rest home with me.”

Swap your side. Sandwiches and burgers are notorious for including french fries as a standard side option. Most restaurants will let you swap your side for something else, such as a small salad. However, you should pay attention to what will come on the salad, since it could be piled high with extra ingredients and rich dressings. To get the healthiest side salad, pair it with a low-calorie dressing on the side so you can control how much is added.

If you’d prefer a more substantial side option, see if the restaurant offers vegetable sides like steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus. Still want to enjoy a spud with dinner? Spring for a baked potato, but ditch extra toppings like bacon, cheese, and sour cream that are often piled on top.

Choose a lighter meal. Thanks to the FDA’s menu labeling requirements, restaurants with 20 or more locations must list the calories of each of their menu items, which makes it easy to identify lower-calorie options. For example, you can try Bonefish Grill’s 410-calorie grilled rainbow trout instead of the heavier, 860-calorie pecan Parmesan crusted rainbow trout. At a restaurant like Chili’s, which offers a “Guiltless Grill” menu, you can enjoy under-500-calorie options like a 6-ounce sirloin with grilled avocado, grilled chicken salad, or mango-chile chicken.

Dining out at local spots that aren’t subject to menu labeling requirements can make it a little more difficult to eat healthy at a restaurant, but in the absence of a calorie declaration, you can make your favorite items a little healthier with simple changes like ordering your protein grilled instead of fried.

Plan ahead. Meals out with friends and family are often spontaneous, but larger events are organized well in advance, giving you the flexibility to plan ahead for a filling restaurant dinner. Eating lighter meals and snacks leading up to a night out can help you enjoy an indulgent dinner without worrying about how healthy it is.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.