The Restaurant Survival Guide

Sticking to a healthy diet doesn’t mean you have to avoid eating out. Here are 12 tips to help you navigate those obstacles to avoid derailing your diet.

By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD | October 4, 2016

Whether it’s for convenience, cravings or social gatherings (like Fri-yays!), sometimes you call upon another cook to feed you. And clearly America’s appetite for eating out has never been larger. Recently, spending on dining out overtook grocery store sales for the first time. And it’s very likely that this love affair with eating away from home is contributing to growing waistlines as restaurants employ a range of tempting nutritional sins to lure you from your kitchen and make it easy to get stuffed on high-profit junk. Simply put, the more often you dine out, the fatter you grow, particularly if you don’t give much thought to combating the myriad ways that many restaurants assault your waistline and health.

Although restaurants are always going to present a challenge when it comes to eating nutritious food in reasonable portions, you can definitely still eat out without bidding adieu to your six-pack. The next time you’re craving a break from the stove, follow these dining-out strategies to dodge menu disasters and order up healthier food so you don’t supersize your physique.

1. Don’t Let Your Guard Down

If you think that by steering clear of much-maligned fast-food restaurants your waistline is in the clear, think again. A 2016 University of South Carolina study found that main dishes provided at casual restaurants like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill can deliver up to 35 percent more calories than those from fast-food joints such as Subway, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Heftier portion sizes and the greater ease of adding caloric extras like cheese and sour cream may be the culprits behind this calorie gap. Similarly, a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that meals at non-chain (local) restaurants often supply just as many, if not more, calories than chain restaurants. The researchers determined the average entree at a chain or local restaurant had about a lofty 1,200 calories. What’s more, a University of Illinois investigation revealed that meals at full-service restaurants often supply higher amounts of fat, cholesterol and sodium than fast-food establishments. That study also found that when we eat out, regardless of where it takes place, there is a tendency to consume an average of 200 more calories than when eating at home.

Your Move: The intuitive hypothesis that fast-food restaurants are more of a gut-bomb is not true, so regardless of whether you are visiting the Golden Arches or a family-owned Italian eatery, it’s important to take the necessary precautions (making note of menu calorie counts if available, ditching fatty extras, asking for a doggie bag and so on) to avoid pushing away from the table a little inflated.

2. Step Into the Light

A Journal of Marketing Research study found that those who dined in well-lit rooms were up to 24 percent more likely to order healthy foods from a menu than those who noshed in a dimly lit dining space. Also, subjects seated in the dark ordered 39 percent more calories. The researchers surmised that we are more alert when the lights are turned up and this can lead to more healthful ordering decisions. On the flipside, the darker the space, the more concealed you feel and the less likely you are to experience guilt when ordering.

Your Move: Forget the mood lighting. Seek out eating establishments that brighten up their space. Or ask to be seated in an area of the restaurant that is well lighted and you’ll likely order the grilled fish instead of shrimp Alfredo.

3. Embrace Silence

Their menus are already full of nutritional landmines, but here is another good reason to avoid eating at sports bars and other rowdy places: too much noise. Research from Brigham Young and Colorado State universities shows that you are more likely to overeat when blaring televisions, screaming kids and other loud noise drowns out the sound of your chewing. The investigators suspect that crunching and chomping sounds make you more aware of how much you’re eating, which can trigger satiety.

Your Move: When considering your dining options, make sure the place you choose doesn’t offer up dangerous decibels along with a menu replete with fried calorie bombs. Or avoid eating in areas of a restaurant or pub that are too close to a television sound system so you can better tune in to the food in front of you.

4. Know the Lingo

Cooking style matters greatly when it comes to ordering belt-stretching grub or flat-ab foods. For the sake of your fitness gains, nine times out of 10 (if not more) you’ll want to stay away from menu options that include the words “fried,” “loaded,” “creamed,” “battered,” “breaded” or “crusted.” These are often prepared in ways that will send the calorie count on a Rocky Mountain high. But keep your guard up against mischievous code words such as “crispy” being substituted for “fried” to make a dish sound healthier. Also, know that “grilled” in many restaurants means meats and vegetables are cooked in a greasy grill pan so less fat is cooked off than when a “flame-grilled” method is used in which the food is placed directly over a fire.

Your Move: When you open up a menu, be a detective and opt for selections that indicate they are flame-grilled, steamed, roasted, broiled or baked, which are often less hazardous food-preparation styles. In general, dry methods of cooking result in fewer calories. But stir-fried or sauteed is always going to be better than fried. Also, don’t be too afraid to speak up. If you see fish in cream sauce as a menu option, it’s very likely you can order the same fish to be served with lemon wedges instead of the calorie-laden creamy white stuff. With a polite request, breaded chicken can easily become naked broiled or baked chicken and a grilled chicken sandwich can come to your mouth minus the mayonnaise or in a lettuce wrap instead of carb-heavy bread. If you see that a certain pasta dish has broccoli why not ask for a side order of steamed broccoli.

And, of course, in a perfect feat of clean eating you won’t order dessert. But that takes some serious willpower. So why not ask your server if there is any fruit floating around the kitchen that can be topped with simple whipped cream or request some berries be served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Both options are surely going to bring fewer calories to the table than a piece of apple pie or molten chocolate cake. Customizing your order can result in a much healthier meal.

5. Hold the Bread

basket of doughy white bread that’s destined to be dipped in oil or adorned with a slick of butter is no way to kick off a healthy meal. A study in the journal Physiology & Behavior discovered that people who ate a protein-heavy appetizer consumed an average of 16 percent fewer calories from their entree than those who started with a carb-heavy item like bread. Why? Protein helps you feel full, whereas processed carbs like rolls, pancakes and nachos are more likely to stoke your appetite. That’s one reason many restaurants offer up free bread in the first place.

Your Move: The next time you are being seated in a restaurant, request that the waitperson hold the breadbasket. Scan the menu for lean, protein-packed appetizers such as shrimp cocktail instead. Another option is to begin your meal with a low-calorie, broth-based soup (not the creamy variety), as research shows that can keep you from overeating by helping to expand your stomach to trigger satiety. Or consider nibbling on a protein-rich snack like a hardboiled egg or jerky before eating out. A large review of studies published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that looked at the relationship between protein and fullness found that having a high-protein snack before sitting down at the table for a meal can keep you from stuffing yourself silly.

6. In Plain Sight

When you enter a restaurant, don’t hide in a booth. Research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab discovered that restaurant patrons sitting at high tables or next to a window ordered healthier grub and tended to skip dessert and alcohol compared to those sitting in booths. Being more visible to prying eyes and/or sitting in a more upright, alert position can make you more aware of the importance of opting for less dangerous menu options.

Your Move: After walking in the doors, scan the restaurant layout and request to be seated in a location that will make you more accountable for what’s on the plate in front of you. What might seem like an inconsequential dining decision can pay off big-time for your six-pack. You may think twice about ordering the cheesy steak fries if others can witness your gluttony.

7. Beware of “Greenwashing”

It may be shocking, but entree salads are not always your healthiest menu choice. When restaurants have a heavy hand with creamy dressings, cheese, croutons, crispy chicken and other add-ons, a pile of seemingly innocent greens can become a calorie monster. Case in point: A fiesta salad loaded down with cheese and tortilla chips can ring in at a whopping 1,200 calories. Fried noodles can quickly turn an Asian chicken salad into a calorie and sodium disaster. Also, be wary of the green smoothies and juices offered at an increasing number of establishments. Often, they are blended with lots of fruit and sweeteners giving them sky-high sugar levels that can contribute to your waistline.

Your Move: Don’t fall for the health halo of a salad or green juice. When ordering a salad, request one that is mostly raw vegetables along with less-hazardous fixings such as grilled chicken breast. And order vinaigrette on the side so you can drizzle on a more reasonable portion. Again, don’t be afraid to make special requests if a salad on a menu does not meet your more stringent dietary needs. Only order a green smoothie or juice if it contains mostly vegetables with no added sweeteners like honey.

8. Nothing to Hide

If possible, frequent establishments that make it known what the calorie cost of their menu items happen to be. According to a study in Health Affairs, places that display calorie counts tend to have lower calorie counts overall. The increased transparency may make a restaurant more likely to saturate its menu with healthier offerings.

Your Move: Many chain restaurants and fast-food joints now post calorie information on their menus or online, even before they will be required to by federal law. This can make it easier to weed out the options that are calorie horror shows. There is a glitch, though — a Journal of the American Medical Association investigation determined that about one-fifth of menu items can contain more calories than listed owing to differences in preparation. A cook may have a heavy hand with toppings or other ingredients. So also base your order on what you believe to be the most nutrient-dense option among the lower-calorie contenders.

9. Buck Peer Pressure

Research shows that people have a habit of selecting the same menu items as others gathered around the table. Think of it as the copycat effect. We also tend to eat more when dining with a crowd, owing to social cues and, for guys, as a way to assert masculinity. By committing to a healthy menu selection and placing your order ahead of others it is less likely you’ll give in to social pressure to opt for the burgers and fries. You’ll also set the stage for a healthier dining experience for your fellow patrons as they take your lead.

Your Move: When dining with a group, speak up and don’t feel regret about ordering first. And consider dining out with fellow fitness nuts. A study in the journal Appetite found that people ate 32 percent more pasta and 44 percent less salad when in the company of an overweight person. Dining with individuals who are less physique-minded might deactivate your goals of selecting healthier menu options and practicing portion control.

10. Watch Out for Menu Decoys

Many establishments employ subtle menu trickery to get you to spend more on nutritionally corrupt food. For example, a restaurant may use fancy fonts, graphics and shading to emphasize a certain menu category like burgers. Suddenly, that grilled fish seems less appetizing. Phrases such as “chef’s choice” and “special of the day” can make a dish seem more special no matter how much of a dietary nightmare it might be. And people are more likely to order an item if it is described with taste-tempting adjectives such as “juicy.” We are also more likely to order what we see first, which is why restaurants often put their prime appetizers and entrees closer to the top of the menu.

Your Move: Don’t fall for the tricks. Ignore all the fanciful menu descriptions. Make your selection based on the components of a meal and not on whether it is being sold as “sweet and spicy.” Because we tend to read menu items from top to bottom, try starting your menu search for the healthiest fare down below. These dishes tend to be less profitable for restaurants so they don’t mind if they get ordered less often in favor of more processed (and more profitable) options. But be sure to take a moment to review the whole menu so you know the best plan of attack. Try to find something that is a great source of lean protein like sirloin steak or salmon and also offers up more than a measly serving of vegetables.

11. Plan for Leftovers

Studies show that we eat about 90 percent of the food served to us. Considering that restaurant portions have ballooned in recent decades (think of that slice of cheesecake the size of your head), being a member of the clean-your-plate club can make it a lot harder to hold on to your abs.

Your Move: When you order your entree, also ask for a to-go container. A doggie bag on the table will give you a visual reminder that there is no need to polish off that entire plate at once. Another easy portion-control solution is to say up front to the server “I’d like a half-portion now and you can give me the other portion at the end of the meal to take home.” Ordering something healthy that will reheat nicely will provide you with a hassle-free lunch or dinner the next day. A win-win!

12. Be a Teetotaler

Be it beer, a cocktail or glass of wine, booze quickly drives up the cost of your meal, so your server is eager to sell you a drink from the get-go. However, your body can’t store the calories from alcohol, so it burns off those first at the expense of the calories in food. The upshot is the calories in that plate of tacos are more likely to pad your waistline. And studies show that your body has a harder time sensing liquid calories compared to calories found in food. So a few hundred calories from alcoholic drinks or any other liquid like soda or juice won’t fill you up the same way as an equal amount of calories sourced from food. Finally, the more you imbibe the harder it is to stick to your healthy eating plan because the alcohol impairs your judgment. That means a plate of fully loaded nachos no longer seems like a bad side-dish option.

Your Move: Stick to one serving of alcohol and spend the rest of the night sipping calorie-free liquids like water or seltzer. To help maintain your willpower, be sure to keep your distance from the bar. Cornell University research found that patrons who sit within two tables of the bar consume an average of three more alcoholic drinks than people who sit three or more tables away.

Need Another Reason to Eat at Home?

These eating-out strategies can help you stay on track with respect to your fitness goals, but for the sake of your overall health it’s still a good idea to spend more time dining at home. People who eat dinner at home five to seven times a week have a 15 percent lower risk of Type 2 diabetes than those who consume two or fewer dinners at home per week, according to a study in PLOS Medicine. Subjects who ate out more often gained more weight than those who prepared more of their own meals. That weight gain can increase the chances of developing diabetes. Another study found a link between eating out more often and increased risk for hypertension. Try to limit your restaurant visits to a couple times per week and practice better meal planning so you’re less tempted to idle in the drive-thru line.


About the Author

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, M.S., RD, is a Canadian-based dietitian, nutrition writer and recipe developer. A regular contributor for Oxygen and Muscle & Performance magazines, he is also the author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Foods for Sports and Adventure (VeloPress, 2016), Muffin Tin Chef (Ulysses Press, 2012) and The No-Cook, No-Bake Cookbook (Ulysses Press, 2013). An avid cycle tourist, Matthew has pedaled his bike through Thailand, Cuba, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.