Secrets of ordering wisely at a restaurant while dieting: Nutrition experts share best tips


If you’re among the millions of Americans trying to drop pounds in 2024, you may worry that your palate and/or social life will suffer, but the good news is, you don’t have to hold back from dining out at restaurants.

Still, ordering out while dieting may pose challenges, since restaurants often cook with an excess amount of salt, oil and sugar (not to mention offer supersized portions). It is possible, though, to dine healthily and still enjoy yourself.

“Believe it or not, you can dine out when you are trying to shed a few pounds,” Dr. Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University, author of “Nutrition & You” and the host of nutrition podcast “Spot On!” told Fox News Digital.

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To do so healthily, “you just need to know how to outsmart the appetizing restaurant menu that you are served,” she said. 

And it’s not just what we eat when dining out, but how often you do so, said Colleen Kiley, a registered dietitian and owner of Colleen Kiley Nutrition in Annapolis, Maryland.

It is still possible to enjoy dining out while being conscious of your healthy diet, according to experts. (iStock)

“The choices made outside the home tend to be higher in fat, calories and salt compared to eating at home,” Kiley said.

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Menus, too, can be a minefield when trying to pick out healthy meals at restaurants, let alone knowing how to find the ones that are nutrient-dense, or at least superior to say, a double cheeseburger with bacon and a side of onion rings.

You need to be extra cautious about what you eat when going out; food has a tendency to be high in fat and calories. (iStock)

“It can be a little tricky to stick to a diet when dining out if you’re not aware of what to look for on the menu,” said Shelley Balls, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Fueling Your Lifestyle LLC, in Smoot, Wyoming. 

The good news: “With changes in what foods are being offered in restaurants these days, it’s making it easier for individuals to find healthy options that fit within their nutrition goals, while still being able to enjoy eating out.” 

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Plus, with some strategic planning, it’s possible to dine out without breaking the calorie bank. 

Balls and other dietitians shared their top techniques for ordering a meal at a restaurant while you’re committed to a healthy eating plan.

With the positive changes that are happening in restaurants these day, it’s easier to find healthy menu options that align with your nutrition goals – but if not, there’s a few smart tactics you can employ. (iStock)

Swap French fries for a side of veggies

Balls recommends opting for a side of veggies instead of French fries to save calories and boost nutrient intake.

“French fries are loaded with solid fats, and sodium making them a once-in-a-while option, whereas veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, dietary fiber, and low in calories,” she said, noting that these qualities in vegetables can help you stick to a healthy diet to see those changes you seek. 

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Go lean with protein

Fried chicken is something you will want to avoid when enjoying a bite and a night out on the town. (iStock)

Sorry, fried chicken and fish and chips aficionados. 

“Choose fish, chicken breast, beans, and other lean meats that don’t contain as many solid fats, which can increase calorie intake,” said Balls. 

“Protein promotes satiety and can help you feel full for longer on fewer calories, which can help promote a healthy and balanced diet.” 

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Plus, something like a bean burger can be surprisingly flavor-packed and a nice vessel to load up with other healthy add-ons like sliced avocados and tomatoes. 

There are a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages that contain added sugars, which can get in the way of your nutrition plan. Opt for water, and/or keep everything in moderation. (iStock)

Rethink your drink

Balls said you should embrace this ethos when dining out, as beverages can add up calories quickly depending on what you order. 

“Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, sweetened teas, juices, sports drinks, etc. contain a lot of added sugars that can prevent you from losing that extra weight,” she said. 

Alcohol is even worse: “Alcohol contains seven calories per gram whereas carbohydrates and protein contain only four calories per gram, so be mindful if you do choose to have a drink,” she continued.

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She said the best option is to choose water, since it’s “no calories, no cost, and it’s going to help you reach your nutrition goals.”

Salge Blake said there’s a savvy strategy you can employ if you don’t want to skip the booze during a festive night out: “Skip the alcohol until you place your order.”  

She said alcohol is one of the few substances that is absorbed directly in your stomach as well as in the small intestine. 

Skipping alcohol is not a bad idea. Experts suggest waiting until you order your meal before you decide to sip on a cocktail. (iStock)

“If your dinner reservation is at 7:00 p.m. and your last meal was at noon, your stomach is going to be empty, so you will feel the inebriating effects of alcohol immediately,” said Salge Blake. 

“The worst thing you can do is to peruse the menu while sipping a glass of Cabernet (or any alcoholic drink, for that matter).” 

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As Salge Blake pointed out, when you’re already drinking alcohol before dinner arrives, everything on the menu will be calling your name, as your willpower declines.

Dine out for lunch instead of dinner

Instead of eating out at night, try making a lunchtime reservation because lunch portions tend to be smaller than dinner portions at restaurants. (iStock)

A brilliant idea that helps you save calories without even trying, practically.

“Making your restaurant meal a lunchtime treat rather than dinner can help both your waist and wallet,” said Salge Blake.

She said lunchtime meal options are typically smaller in portions than dinner portions and might be in line with your calorie-cutting goals.

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“Because you are both less hungry and tired earlier in the day, you will have a better chance of sticking to your weight-loss goals and willpower at the noontime meal,” she said.

Order dressing and sauces on the side

If you want to enjoy a refreshing salad, request that your waiter or waitress serves your dressing on the side so you can control how much you use. (iStock)

“Always ask for dressing or sauces on the side,” said Kiley. 

“This gives you control over the extra calories, salt and sugar added to your meal,” she continued.

Order a veggie soup as your first course

Salge Blake recommends ordering vegetable soup as your first course, as it can replace higher-calorie, fried appetizers for fewer calories and more nutrition. 

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“High-volume, low-calorie foods such as a veggie soup will also fill you up before it feels you out as it increases satiety,” she said, pointing to research from the journal Appetite, which suggests that eating a veggie soup before a meal can help you reduce the calories at that meal by about 20%. 

Ask for veggies with a dip

“When ordering a dip appetizer, always ask for cut up vegetables to go with it,” advised Kiley, sharing that this will increase your fiber, water content and vitamin intake.

Plus, sometimes you might like the way celery sticks or carrots taste with your guacamole or artichoke dip more than over-salty tortilla chips. 

Visualize portion sizes

As a rule of thumb when dining out, Kiley shared that you should try to visualize portion sizes when eating your food. 

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“Make half the plate vegetables, even if you have to order a side salad or additional hot vegetables,” she said. 

Nutrition pros are revealing their top nine tips to help promote nutrition goals that can still be kept even when you go out to eat. (iStock)

“Keep the starch to one fist and protein the size of your hand. Take the rest of the meal home,” Kiley said.

Order steamed lobster

“A one-pound steamed lobster in the shell is a great entrée because it not only is low in heart unhealthy saturated fat but will also yield only about three-to-four ounces of meat — a perfect portion of protein,” said Salge Blake. 

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Ordering a lobster “will also slow down your eating speed as you have to work at cracking the shell to get your edible dinner,” she said, suggesting individuals order extra fresh lemon on the side rather than fat and caloric drawn butter.

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