Next time you go out to dinner, consider this: the average meal at large chain restaurants has 1,128 calories—more than half of what most people should eat in an entire day. As you can probably imagine, many meals are much worse than that. For example, the Chicken and Biscuits at Cheesecake Factory has 2,260 calories!
Perhaps if you grab a meal at your neighborhood diner you’ll be better off? Not so much. A JAMA Internal Medicine study found that the average meal at independent and small restaurants has 1,327 calories. These numbers don’t include drinks and appetizers either, which could add another 500–1000 calories.
Eating deceptively unhealthy foods at restaurants is one of the biggest reasons people struggle with their weight. But it doesn’t have to be. In this article, you’ll learn how to order healthy food at any restaurant.
1. Prepare ahead of time.
Nearly all fast food restaurants and most chain restaurants post their nutrition facts information online now. Take 5 minutes to plot your meal strategy and you can save yourself 1,000 calories or more.
2. Start with a low calorie appetizer.
Appetizers can make or break your meal health-wise. Olive Garden’s Calamari with Parmesan-Peppercorn Sauce has a whopping 1190 calories, 84 grams of fat, and 2680 mg of sodium—more than an entire day’s worth! Stick with light appetizers like ahi tuna, shrimp (not fried), and vegetables.
3. Choose veggies for side dishes.
Side dishes are another hidden source of calories and fat. Stick with steamed vegetables whenever possible. Ask the waiter or waitress how the veggies are prepared. If they’re fried or cooked with butter, ask if you can get them steamed instead. Most restaurants will have no problem honoring this request.
4. Order a salad with dressing on the side.
Salads seem like a healthy option, but the truth is most are loaded with an excessive amount of calories, salt and fat. The Chicken Caesar Salad at Outback Steakhouse has 907 calories and 60 grams of fat, for example. To find a healthier salad, order it without croutons or cheese, and ask for a vinaigrette dressing on the side.
5. Stick with red sauces.
Red sauces are usually healthier options than cream sauces. If you’re ordering pasta with your red sauce, ask if they have whole grain or whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta, which makes your blood sugar spike and temporarily blocks your body’s ability to effectively burn fat.
6. Scope out healthy dishes on the menu.
The first thing you should do when you look at a menu is to check for “light” dishes. Many restaurants now offer options that are “reduced calorie,” “reduced guilt,” or “under 600 calories.”
7. Choose water and unsweetened iced tea.
As mentioned, drinks can put a damper on an otherwise healthy meal. Soda, in particular, is nothing but empty calories with a lot of added sugar your body doesn’t need. Stick with water, tea, and coffee. And if you’re drinking booze, have a glass of wine or beer. Skip the fruity drinks, which are high in sugar and empty calories.
8. Pick healthy protein like chicken, turkey or fish.
When in doubt, order a dish with chicken, turkey, or fish. Chicken sandwiches at fast food restaurants (minus the sauce and cheese) are a safe bet. And grilled or broiled fish at most larger restaurants are usually healthier options.
9. Share with your friends.
There are going to be times when you indulge, and that’s perfectly fine. Use this simple strategy to reduce your calorie intake though: share a dish with your friends. This is especially useful if you love dessert. Some desserts at restaurants have more calories than your dinner (like the Chocolate Tower Truffle Cake at Cheesecake Factory, which has 1,680 calories). Split it between four people and you’ll avoid a lot of damage.
10. Ask the server for a copy of the nutrition facts information.
This is such a simple way to order healthy food at restaurants but no one does it. When you get to the restaurant, ask the server or manager if they have a copy of the nutrition facts information for the menu. Even if they don’t, they will likely recommend a healthier dish for you. Don’t be afraid to ask.
As you can see, eating at restaurants can make or break your health goals. Put these tips into action today and you’ll start reaping the benefits immediately.