How to Eat Healthy While Dining Out

While most people say they view going out to eat as a “treat,” in reality Americans go out to eat an average of 4-5 times a week. Even the most inexpensive fast food is more expensive than preparing comparable meals at home. Our habit of dining out can have a major effect on our food budget, as well as our health. So how do we eat healthy while dining out?

March is National Nutrition Month. As part of my 12-week wellness class, we talked about one of my personal weaknesses: eating healthy while dining out. Our recent Food Finances Friday Feature was all about indulgent meatless restaurant dishes. When I go out to eat, I refuse to pay $8 for a salad I can easily make at home for a fraction of the cost. So, I have a tendency of making unhealthy choices when I go out. Today’s Wellness Wednesday is about healthier options.

The average restaurant meal has more calories, fat, and sodium in one meal than a person should consume in an entire day. That’s not including the drinks, basket of bread or tortilla chip, appetizers, or dessert.

Strategies for Healthier Choices

Here are some of the tips for dining out that I learned during my wellness class.

 Plan ahead

Before going out to eat, look up the nutrition information online. Choose restaurants that offer healthier options that you would enjoy.

You may not be surprised that Cheesecake Factory regularly makes the list of highest-calorie meals. Here are some other high-calorie meals:

15 Highest-Calorie Restaurant Meals by Delish

The Most Caloric Meals in America by Eat This

On a positive note, here are some healthier options:

10 Chain Restaurants with Diet-Friendly Options by Spark People

Choose Healthier Sides
Photo by Kristen Kaethler

My kids think that going out to eat means chicken nuggets and fries. I feel quite guilty for this, because I get fries every time I go out. One way to eat healthier is to be more adventurous and try new things.


Many places offer healthier sides:

Rather Than Try
French Fries Fresh fruit
Creamed or

Cheesy vegetables


colorful vegetables

Potato salad,

Coleslaw, or

Macaroni & cheese




Order Salads Wisely
Photo by Katka Pavlickova

Salads aren’t always a healthier choice. Salad dressings, croutons, cheeses, eggs, bacon and meats can really increase the calories.

When ordering salads, pay particular attention to the dressing (and ask for it on the side).

Which would you guess is a healthier option: McDonald’s Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad or their Cheeseburger?

Calories Fat Sodium
McDonald’s Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad 350 11 g 1070 mg
McDonald’s Cheeseburger 300 12 g 680 mg

Knowing this, would you choose the grilled chicken salad or the cheeseburger?

BE careful of condiments, sauces, and dressings

Salads aren’t the only place where delicious sauces can ruin an otherwise healthy meal. Beware of creamy dressings and sauces. Choose a dressing you can see-through.

Photo by Melissa Walker-Horn

My personal weakness is honey mustard sauce. Depending how it’s made, it can have more or less calories. Be sure to check the nutrition information for that restaurant.

Example of different nutrition value for similar sauce:

Calories Fat Sodium
Chick-fil-A’s (Fat-Free) Honey Mustard Sauce 90 0 g 150 mg
PDQ’s Honey Mustard Sauce 160 21 g 180 mg
BE wary of soups

Yes, I love broccoli cheddar soup as much as anyone can. Who wouldn’t love a bowl of melted cheese and cream? But if I think I’m eating healthy by having broccoli cheddar soup, I’m only fooling myself.

Photo by Elli O

Healthier soups are ones made with broth or tomato bases and are filled with veggies. Avoid those with cream or cheese bases, such as creamy potato soup, potato soup, or my beloved broccoli cheddar.

Drink water

Water is not only zero calorie and a necessity for our life, it’s also free! If you don’t like plain water, ask for lemon, lime, or other fresh fruit to add for flavor.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska
Making Sense of the Menu

When reading the description of food preparations, here are some words to look out for:

Look for Avoid
Baked Fried
Broiled Sautéed
Roasted Crispy
Grilled Creamy
Steamed Stuffed
Photo by Sebastian Brennes
order it your way

Don’t be afraid to ask how the food is prepared or to politely ask for a healthier option. For example, you can ask for:

  • Your meat to be grilled rather than fried
  • Sautéed food to be cooked with wine or lemon juice
  • Sauces or condiments on the side
  • Low-fat cooking spray, little or no butter or oil be used
Pick 2
Phot by Jesica To’oto’o

We are often tempted by the bread basket (or chips and salsa), appetizers, drinks, meal, and dessert. Limit calories by picking only 2 options.

For example, if you really want to enjoy a margarita with your fajitas, then pass on the complimentary chips and salsa, the queso appetizer, and fried ice cream dessert.

smaller portions

Better yet, you can limit calories by choosing a side salad and an appetizer rather than an entrée.

If you do plan to order an entrée, bring a to-go container. As soon as your food arrives, place half in the container and save it for the next day. If it’s sitting in front of you, you’re likely to eat it (regardless of whether you are still hungry).

At fast food establishments, order from the kid’s menu.

vegetarian options

You would think that eating vegetarian would be healthy. But when dining out, many of the meatless dishes are full of cheese or cream.

If you are looking for vegetarian options that are full of flavor but not loaded with cheese or cream, consider mixed vegetable dishes (my go-to at Asian restaurants), vegetable fajitas, Indian cuisine, vegetable soup with a garden salad, or eggs with side of fruit. Some of these dishes may be high in sodium or cooked with butter, so check the nutrition information or ask your server.


If you are a dessert lover, be sure to check the calories ahead of time. Fresh fruit, low-fat ice cream, sorbet, gelatin, and angel food cake tend to have fewer calories than other options. If you do want to indulge in something richer, share with a friend.


Challenge for the Week

My challenge for the week was to go to the website of my favorite restaurant and decide 3 things I can order the next time I went.

My Progress

Although I had not planned on going out to eat, family invited me to events that I could not turn down. In addition, I ordered a pizza. But I did use what I had learned and made healthier options:

Pizza – Ate smaller portions

I looked up the calories for a slice of pizza (no meat) from my favorite pizza take-out. 1 slice is 300 calories! Because I was limiting my calories per meal to around 500, this realization motivated me to eat a smaller portion. Rather than 3 slices, I had 2. Bonus: there was pizza leftover for the next day!

Fast Food – Ordered Kid’s meal

A couple of days later I received a call from a family member I had not seen in a while who wanted to meet up for lunch. This person chose the restaurant, which was my children’s favorite place because the kid’s meal comes with ice cream.

After looking up the calories on-line, I decided not to order my usual double-cheese burger, fries with honey mustard sauce, soda, and ice cream. Instead, I chose to split a chicken tender kid’s meal with my youngest. I ate 1 chicken tender, a few fries (no sauce), and lots of water.

As I left the restaurant I commented to my husband that I couldn’t believe how full I was after just splitting a kid’s meal! As a bonus, the kid’s meal was much less expensive!

Mexican Restaurant – Pick 2

To celebrate my mother’s birthday, the entire family went to a Mexican restaurant. Usually when eating healthy I would choose something with grilled chicken. But I had recently committed to vegetarianism. Even more challenging was that paying for 5 people to go out to eat can be quite expensive. Balancing low-calorie, no meat, and low-cost was not easy.

Because it was a locally owned establishment, there was no nutrition information on-line. So I looked up similar items on the website of a chain restaurant to get some idea of the calories. 

Because it was a party, there was so much food to choose from: chips and salsa, queso and guacamole ordered as appetizers, margaritas, main course, and both cake and ice cream offered for dessert.

But I chose only 2: margarita and main course. To keep the cost down (and because everything else contained meat or cheese), I shared my husband’s refried beans, rice, and pico de gallo.

How Did I Do?

With going out to eat so much, you may not be surprised that I didn’t lose any weight this week. But the good news is that with my healthier choices, I was able to enjoy pizza, fast food, and a margarita without gaining any weight!

I continued with my exercise plan including Couch to 5K, daily walks during lunch, and arm exercises with a resistance band. I also continued my healthier snack choices, and ate healthy meals when at home.

Next week’s Wellness Wednesday will focus on portion distortion. I plan on going out to eat less next week, which will hopefully help me maintain my health and stick to my food budget.








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