What to Eat & What to Skip: A Guide to Restaurant Dining

Article By: Maria Tucker, MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES

Maria Tucker is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with over 20 years of experience assisting patients with diabetes, obesity, and nutrition-related conditions. Maria is also the Founder of MyBiyaya.com, a site dedicated to healthy recipes and kitchen shortcuts.

Eating healthy foods can be a challenge, especially when dining out. With restaurants vying for your business and enticing you with bigger portions, new offerings, specials, and deals, it can be difficult to stay on track and make healthy choices. There can also be pressure from your dining companions to “live a little, indulge just this once, and/or forget your diet today."

Don’t despair! You don’t have to give up eating at your favorite restaurant or make up excuses to not join your family or friends for dinner to celebrate a special occasion. Most restaurants have some healthier items on the menu be it Italian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Mexican to name a few. Here are tips to help you navigate the restaurant menu.

1) Appetizers + starters:

Eat: Lettuce wraps, grilled chicken skewers, shrimp cocktail, fresh spring rolls, and even a bruschetta slice with tomato come in small serving portions with calories ranging from 50-100 per serving.

Skip: Stay away from fried calamari, fried mozzarella sticks, crispy fried egg rolls, and that big bowl of deep fried tortilla chips with queso dip. These options can have upwards of 300 calories and over 5 grams of fat per serving.

2) Sides + soups:

Eat: Steamed, sautéed, and stir-fried vegetables, a small baked sweet potato, brown rice, and wild rice pilaf contain less than 200 calories and at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Soups such as minestrone, tomato, or egg drop soup are low calorie options as well but can be high in sodium, so you’ll have to choose wisely if you are on a low sodium diet. Simple salads like a garden or house salad with low fat or fat-free vinaigrette dressing can be an excellent side dish choice with fewer calories and loads of fiber and vitamins.

Skip: Macaroni and cheese, loaded baked or mashed potatoes, deep fried onion rings, and French fries can pack a whopping 500 to over 1,000 calories, more than 20 grams of fat, and greater than 900 mg of sodium! Even seemingly healthy salads can be deceiving... A lettuce wedge salad sounds like a healthy option, right? By itself, 1⁄4 of a head of iceberg lettuce (typically used in a lettuce wedge salad) has less than 30 calories. However, when covered with bleu cheese dressing and topped with crumbled bacon, it can have up to 420 calories and over 30 grams of fat. Cobb and southwest salads also sound like good choices but are high calorie options when topped with bacon, lots of cheese, fried tortilla strips, and full fat salad dressing.

3) Entrées:

Eat: At Mexican restaurants, opt for a burrito bowl that you can customize to include healthy ingredients such as pinto or black beans, brown rice, lots of lettuce, and fresh cucumbers, fresh tomato salsa, steak, or tofu. For tacos, choose soft corn tortillas which are not fried and therefore have fewer calories and sodium than their flour counterparts.

If you fancy Italian food, go for tomato sauce-based dishes, whole grain pasta, and grilled chicken or shrimp. Check the children’s menu with smaller pasta portions, which you can top with meatballs or grilled chicken strips. Skip the unlimited bread sticks and ask for the unlimited salad with dressing on the side.

Chinese and other Asian restaurants offer meatless options with baked tofu as an alternative protein source. When served with steamed veggies such as broccoli, mushrooms, and asparagus, this can be a great low calorie, fiber-packed entrée. Pair it with a small serving of brown rice, and you’ll have a delicious, satisfying meal. Go for lightly sautéed greens, such as bok choy or broccoli with thin strips of pork, chicken, or shrimp served with a light soy ginger sauce.

Steak houses usually have petite steak offerings, which are grilled and served with a side of roasted vegetables. Seafood can be a healthy choice at restaurants if you choose steamed, grilled, or roasted options. Grilled or boiled shrimp, roasted salmon or tilapia, and steamed clams or mussels with a squeeze of lemon or lime are excellent protein-rich entrées. Broth-based soups, like the Vietnamese Pho, is a fiber and protein loaded meal in a bowl. That said, it can be high in sodium, so be sure to sip less of the broth.

Skip: Fried tacos, tostadas, and chimichangas are all deep fried and usually topped with high fat items such as sour cream and loads of melted cheese. They can have over 700 calories and 45 grams of fat per serving! Pasta in Alfredo sauce can be oh so delicious but full of fat and high in calories as well as sodium. It can pack a whopping 1,400+ calories and close to 80 grams of fat, and at least 1,600 mg of sodium per serving and is not even authentically Italian.

When going for Chinese or Asian cuisine, stay away from General Tso’s chicken, which typically contains deep fried chicken pieces smothered in a sugary, salty sauce. It can have over 2,000 mg of sodium and more than 20 grams of fat per serving. Orange chicken (not even a traditional Chinese dish) is also deep fried and smothered in a sweet orange sauce full of sugar. At some popular Chinese restaurants, a serving of orange chicken can pack up to 1,100 calories and at least 50 grams of sugar.

At steak houses, avoid large steak portions such as the Tomahawk ribeye steak, which has at least 1,600 calories and over 100 grams of fat. Country fried steak is no better with 1,100 calories and 50 grams of fat. When dining at seafood restaurants, don’t get tempted to order deep fried, battered fish or shellfish such as fish and chips or fried oysters, with calories ranging from 700 to 1,500 per serving and about 40 to 100 grams of fat depending on the size of the serving.

4) Desserts:

Eat: Fresh seasonal fruit is a great low calorie option for a sweet treat after a meal. A cup of cut up fresh fruit provides just 80-150 calories and 2 to 5 grams of fiber. If you really want to indulge, go for mini dessert cakes or cupcakes, dessert shooters that come in cute little glass containers or a serving of sherbet or sorbet.

Skip: Cheesecake (even plain) can have up to 800 calories per slice. Other desserts to avoid include cinnamon fried biscuits, decadent chocolate brownie cakes (especially if served a la mode), chocolate chip skillet cookie, and milkshakes. These desserts can contain more than 500 calories and 20 grams of fat per serving, which can be more than an actual healthy meal can contain.

5) Eating healthy when dining out is not rocket science — it just requires planning ahead and following these tips:

  • Look up the restaurant’s menu online before you get there. That way, you can choose healthier options and minimize the temptation to order higher calorie offerings or specials.
  • Ask questions about how the food is prepared and request some customization if needed. Grilled food is usually basted with clarified butter or oil to keep it from sticking to the grill and give it more flavor.
  • Have the to-go box be brought to your table when your food is served so that you can put away part of your meal to eat later. Most restaurant servings are more than adequate or one meal and what you pack in the to-go box can be enough for two more meals.
  • Savor the food — look at it, admire the textures and colors of the food on your plate, smell it, chew it well, and eat slowly. Doing so allows you to feel fullness without overeating.
  • Choose water or a low calorie drink for your beverage. Sweet drinks and mixed alcoholic beverages can add 200-400 calories to your meal.
  • Most of all, enjoy your meal and the company you’re with!

Bon appetit!

BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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