Here’s the deal. I know that you know what a healthy option looks like at a restaurant. The hardest part is making the healthy decision when you get there. In today’s blog, I will cover some basics for what to look for on a restaurant’s menu, but I’ll also share some of my favorite tips for sticking with your plan of choosing a healthier entrée. First, I’ll walk you through the approach that I use when I know I’m going out to dinner (or lunch, or brunch, etc.).
I’ll admit that I am notorious in my friend group for always scoping out the menu and knowing ahead of time exactly what I’m going to order, what I’ll need to substitute, and how I want my dish cooked. This is not on accident. I know that if I choose my entrée ahead of time, I won’t have to look at the menu and get tempted by those tasty-sounding, high-calorie dishes. I’m only human, so I have learned over the years how to set myself up for success.
Here’s how I approach any menu:
First I scan the menu for a “from the grill” section. Many menus have this section, and it will likely be the best place to find a grilled protein option that you can order.
Next, I scope out the options for sides. I look at what comes with my entrée and also the other offerings of sides to make sure I have the luscious vegetables that my body craves. For example, if my grilled salmon comes with rice and broccoli, I’ll often swap out the rice for an additional steamed vegetable or side salad to keep my meal lean and green. I find that restaurants can be stingy with vegetable servings, so opting for an additional vegetable is helpful in getting my servings of vegetables in and cutting calories.
Here are some other tips to help you make the healthier choice at restaurants:
Beware of the hidden calories (I’m looking at you sneaky hidden butter, salt, and sugar!). Have you ever ordered a seemingly healthy dish, brought half home (#winning), and then pulled it out of the fridge the next day to find congealed fat all over your once fresh-looking veggies? Whaaaaaat?! I know, and I was feeling so smug about my super healthy choice of grilled chicken and green beans…sigh. We all know that there is often extra butter, salt, and sugar in dishes that we get at restaurants. These ingredients are often hiding in sauces and dressings, so it’s best to ask for steamed veggies when possible and oil and vinegar for salads if you want the leanest, cleanest option.
Choose grilled over fried. Always. Do I really need to explain? And no, sweet potato fries are not healthier than regular fries. Don’t even try to debate this one.
Swap fried or carb-dense sides for healthier vegetable sides. Meals at restaurants are always higher in calories than the same meal cooked at home. This is one reason that I choose vegetables as my sides instead of a carb-dense option whenever possible. My favorite go-to is a steamed vegetable, because you know there’s nothing added to it (like butter, for example). Even if you don’t see steamed vegetables on the menu, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Many restaurants are very accommodating with this. At the very least, you can usually substitute a side salad with the dressing on the side (hold the cheese and croutons<—these are butter soaked calorie bombs!) instead of the less healthy option.
Check out the a la carte or appetizer menu. If you don’t see an entrée that fits your healthy lifestyle needs, checking these other sections may give you a few other options to choose from while also helping you portion control.
When in doubt… portion control. Split an entree with a friend or take half home to enjoy later. This is a safe technique to use at a restaurant that doesn’t seem to know what a vegetable is. Hopefully you will not have to frequent that place often!
Be mindful of liquid calories. I’m not saying alcohol is bad, you just have to think about the extra calories that it can add and adjust accordingly to make it fit into your weekly calorie budget.
When you get your food, eat your protein and veggies first, and take your time. Try to eat slowly and set your fork down between bites. This will give your stomach enough time to signal to your brain when it is starting to get full and when you are satisfied. If you eat too quickly, it can be very easy to overeat and feel uncomfortable. Nobody likes that!
How to actually choose the healthy option:
Look at the menu ahead of time (and don’t look at it when you get to the restaurant). If you know that you shouldn’t go to the grocery store hungry, why would you try to choose a healthy menu option hungry? It usually doesn’t end well. Save yourself the struggle and scan the menu online while you’re at home (and hopefully calm and well-fed) so that you can make a healthy decision before you even set foot in the restaurant.
If you’re trying to stay on track, it might be wise to avoid a restaurant where you have a favorite dish that’s not within your calorie budget (hello, chicken enchiladas and margaritas). If a friend suggests your favorite Tex-mex place for dinner, but you know you will cave in to temptation, kindly suggest an alternate option or two where you won’t feel tempted and you won’t feel deprived for not ordering your favorite go-to. This will greatly reduce the stress of eating out with friends and family.
It’s your turn: Apply what you’ve learned!
- Pick one tip listed in this blog and give it a try the next time you go out to eat! One great place to start is by reading the menu ahead of time to pick out what you want to order.
I hope that this has helped you pick up some new tips and tricks for navigating restaurant menus so that you can make healthy choices like a pro. I’m not saying that you always have to have a healthy item (sometimes it’s nice to indulge in your favorite dish!), but when you would like to stay on track it helps to have a plan.