Diet-Safe Dining Out Strategies

Dining out is a fact of our busy life.


We tell ourselves we will choose healthy options… but do you really know what is – and isn’t – healthy on the menu or specials board? When pressed for nutritional information, some servers at your favorite eateries will begrudgingly serve up a few numbers.


The sad fact is many sit-down restaurants simply do not have that info available.


So what’s a determined dieter to do? Stick with boring old baked chicken and steamed veggies or throw caution to the wind and order whatever you want with the hopes that “it can’t be that bad.”


Sorry, but it can be that bad … and maybe even worse than you imagined.


Several years ago I became friends with nationally-known dietitian and diabetes expert Hope Warshaw, author of Eat Out, Eat Right, a book still available via Amazon and other outlets.


Hope’s mission has always been to educate us on the best choices available at our favorite fast food joints and sit-down restaurants.

“More and more, restaurant eating is simply a part of our daily life,” Hope told me. “The numbers show that on average we eat five meals a week in restaurants … with lunch the most common meal out.”


At the time, she noted that we get a third of our calories from restaurant food.


Before you frequent another restaurant, check out Hope’s tips for a better dining out experience.

“It’s all about making better choices,” she says. “You don’t have to throw your hands up and do nothing about it but pack on pounds. If you have the will, you can do it. You simply need to develop a healthy mindset and healthy attitude about eating.”


Hope says the two main issues facing us are portion control and hidden fats. Her book thoroughly covers both.


The following general skills and strategies can be applied to just about any restaurant eating situation – whether eating in or taking out.


  1. Develop a healthy mindset and a can-do attitude

Developing a healthy mindset and having a can-do attitude about eating healthier restaurant meals is your critical first step.

Until you accomplish this first step, you’ll have a difficult time putting the other nine skills and strategies, which follow here, into action

Think about steps you can take to develop a healthier mindset about restaurant meals. Ask yourself what changes you need to make to find a balance between continuing to enjoy restaurant dining while you order and eat healthier foods. Be kind to yourself. These changes will take some time and a repertoire of positive experiences.


  1. Assess the whens, whys, wheres, and whats of your restaurant meals

Get to know your restaurant eating habits. Raising your awareness about your behaviors is the first step to changing behaviors.


  1. Select restaurants with care

Choose restaurants that make it easier for you to eat healthfully. Reality is that you can choose to eat healthfully in 95 percent of restaurants. Some menus just make it easier than others. Steer clear of some of your favorite restaurants in which you typically ate unhealthy meals and the healthy pickings are slim. Take for example a fried chicken or fish-and-chips restaurant.


  1. Think through your action plan

Think before you act should be your modus operandi. If you are familiar with the menu offerings from a particular restaurant you frequent, pre-plan what you might order before you cross the restaurant’s threshold.

Be the first of your party to order. This strategy eliminates your time to ponder changes as you wait for your dining partners to place their orders. If you want to split and/or share menu items, bring it up as people peruse the menu. More often than not, people will be pleased you made the offer.


  1. Be an avid fat detector

Dodging the fats in restaurants is a big challenge. Fat adds significant calories without adding any food volume. A great example is a medium baked potato containing about 100 calories. Add to that one teaspoon of regular butter or margarine at 50 calories or two tablespoons of regular sour cream at 50 calories. You’ve added another 100 calories without adding any bites.

Certain preparation methods simply mean drenched in fat, such as deep-fried, smothered, or covered with a cream-based sauce. Particular menu items, by definition, mean loaded with fat, such as pasta with Alfredo sauce or chimichangas, a fried burrito. Become acquainted with the high-fat items and learn the ingredients, preparation methods, and menu descriptions that signal low fat and healthy in each cuisine. Don’t forget to feel free to ask questions about unfamiliar ingredients, preparations, and menu descriptions.


  1. Order with healthy eating goals top of mind

More than likely you’ll be looking to integrate more fruits and vegetables and lighten up on the portion of meat and fats.


  1. Practice portion control from the get-go

Large portions are a fact of restaurant dining. You’ll need to outsmart the menu to cut portions down to a healthy size. A successful strategy is to control portions from the point of ordering. This means less food will be in front of you and you’ll eat less. Think of this as the “out of sight, out of mind (or mouth)” technique. It’s a lot more difficult to control the amount you eat if food is just a forkful away.

Steer clear of menu descriptions that mean large portions – jumbo, grande, supreme, extra-large, king size, double, triple, feast, or combo.


  1. Practice menu creativity

To eat healthfully and to eat reasonable portions, you’ll need to be creative with menus. For example, no rule says you must order an entree. Mix and match items from the soups, salads, appetizers and side dishes. There are countless ways to combine these to eat smaller portions. Another winner: Split portions with your dining partner. Go ahead, order from soup to dessert, but split everything down the middle.


  1. Order foods as you need and want them

Special requests are a key to being served dishes as you like (and want or need) them. A special request might mean asking an ingredient to be left off, such as cheese, bacon, or sour cream. Or it may be a substitution: baked potato rather than French fries or potato chips; or to spread mustard rather than mayonnaise on a sandwich. It’s important to take the attitude that there’s no harm in asking and the worst someone can say is NO.


  1. Know when to say ENOUGH

You already know that portion control is a key to healthier restaurant meals. Control portions from the start by ordering creatively. If the portions are huge, request a take-home container and immediately set aside the portion to take home. If that feels uncomfortable in some situations, separate the portion you don’t want to eat and place it on a small plate and offer tastes to your dining companions or just move it to the side of your plate.


To get your very own copy of Eat Out, Eat Right click here.



John McGran has been writing about health and weight loss for several national companies since 2000. He brings his knowledge of diets — and his passion for dropping pounds — to Meal Plan Map because he believes it is the future of smart, stress-free eating and improved health.


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