Eating a healthy diet isn’t always easy, especially when the typical American diet offers so many highly processed foods with plenty of added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats. The same is true of many restaurant meals, including fast food and sit-down establishments. Eating out usually means larger portions, too, where calories and fat can add up quickly. So, how can you eat healthy at restaurants?

We know that consuming a healthy diet is vital for overall health and well-being. But after a second Covid-19 winter, many people are looking forward to going out with friends and family again. If you plan to eat out more, this guide can help you eat healthy at restaurants.

We’re Dining Out More Than Ever

A recent study examined the shifting behaviors of American consumers and families. For more than a century beginning in the early 1900s, households were spending about two-thirds of their monthly food budget at the grocery store, with the rest split between eating out and farm or home food production. But by 2014, we were spending more than 50% of our food budgets on eating out, and even more today.

Eating at home makes it much easier to make healthier meals and smaller portions. But fewer and fewer people want to spend time cooking. One study found that only 10% of Americans love cooking. And while the pandemic forced many of us to cut down on eating out, people are returning to dining out as infection rates trend down. Here’s how to keep some of those healthier at-home eating habits and still enjoy going out.

How to Be Healthy at Restaurants

Restaurant eating can present several challenges for those interested in starting or maintaining a healthy diet. Most restaurants serve dishes high in calories, fats, sugars, and sodium, along with large portions. Eating out means you don’t have to cook and clean, and it’s often a social event as well, so skipping the restaurant dining in favor of home cooking isn’t always an option. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to eat healthier even when eating out.

Understand How to Read the Menu

Decoding the menu goes beyond just food descriptions. You need to dive a little deeper into how each dish is prepared and know which preparation styles are better or worse in terms of healthy eating. Stay away from preparations that involve frying, oils, or heavy creams. They might be described with words like:

  • Breaded (or “crispy”)
  • Fried
  • Pan-fried
  • Scalloped

Instead, choose preparations with lower fat and salt, such as:

  • Baked
  • Broiled
  • Grilled
  • Roasted
  • Seared
  • Steamed

Load Up on (Lean) Proteins

Eating more protein can help you feel fuller and more satisfied than meals high in carbohydrates. Unfortunately, many restaurant meals include a lot of carbs. Help avoid them by building a meal around protein. Choose lean meats whenever possible, such as fish, pork, or chicken, and avoid red meats like steak. If you do order red meat, pick lean cuts with lower fat, such as sirloin or filet mignon.

Request Vegetables and Fruits on the Side

Fill out the rest of your meal with vegetables and fruits instead of typical side dishes like French fries or chips. Most sit-down restaurants offer a selection of vegetables, and you can usually request extra portions for free or for a minimal additional charge. Find out how they are prepared—sometimes cooked in butter or oil—and request them without butter.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Ask your server if you’re not sure what items on the menu are ‘lighter’ fare. They can steer you toward healthier options or answer questions about how dishes are prepared. Most restaurants can accommodate specific requests, so it’s always worthwhile to ask.

Drink Water

Another common pitfall of eating out is the added calories from your drinks. Alcoholic beverages can contain a lot of calories—especially exotic or fancy mixed drinks—and bottomless sodas can also significantly increase your sugar and calorie consumption without you even realizing it. Even diet sodas with no calories still have artificial sweeteners, which are not ideal. Instead, stick to just a single alcoholic beverage or soda, or drink water instead. Despite persistent myths, drinking water does not cause bloating or interfere with healthy digestion.  

Take Some to Go

Just because a restaurant serves a massive portion of food doesn’t mean you have to eat it all in a single sitting. Doing so will probably leave you feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. Instead, plan to take some of it home and eat it for leftovers. If you have a big appetite and it’s easy to eat more food than you planned while you’re chatting away with friends, try asking for a to-go box early and putting half of your meal inside where it’s out of sight.  

Share Dessert

You could choose to skip dessert entirely, but sometimes you want a little something sweet. Sharing a dessert with everyone at the table means you get a few bites and don’t have to feel bad about eating a ton of extra calories on top of your meal.

Eating out can be a fun and social event that gets you out of the kitchen. With the right knowledge, you can still maintain a healthy diet when eating at restaurants.