With temptation and extra calories abound at restaurants — from the bread basket and the cocktail menu to the oil-laden sides, staying healthy when eating out takes a bit of planning and foresight. And not just from the moment you enter the restaurant, either, but from the moment you wake and decide you’re going to dine out that day.
If you’re watching your weight or conscious of your calorie consumption, you’ve got to play it smart. “People tell me all the time, ‘There’s no way you could eat out as much as you say you do!’” says dietitian Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “But I [do] eat out several times a week. I just always remember that it’s not my last meal of all time, so I can make changes [to dishes]” and not feel guilty, she adds.
Here’s how to get the most out of that dine-out dish — without going overboard.
10 Dinner Hacks to Cut Calories While Eating Out
1. Pre-game with protein and fiber.
Starving through breakfast and lunch is everyone’s natural instinct to save cals before a night out, but doing so will only make you even hungrier when you finally go out. “Have a small snack with at least five grams of fiber and five grams of protein about an hour before your reservation time,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, founder of New York Nutrition Group, to help you avoid overeating. This trick will allow you to easily split a single entree with a pal or even just portion out your own food better when it’s in front of you. “You’ll still be hungry, but not ravenous, setting you up for a more successful meal,” Moskovitz says. Solid snack suggestions include a something like a Larabar (try our DIY recipe here), a small handful of almonds or some cut-up veggies.
2. Give the menu a full look before you decide.
“Read the whole menu,” says Gans, so you can be savvy with your substitutions. “If your dish comes with French fries or a loaded baked potato, and you see roasted potatoes paired with another dish, ask for those instead,” she says. “If another burger comes with a lettuce wrap instead of a bun, ask for that to save calories. I’d say 95 percent of restaurants will accommodate these equal switches.” So don’t be shy — speaking up almost always works in your favor.
3. Order E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G on the side.
Feel free to be that annoying customer when you’re ordering (but only then, of course!). Getting a salad with dressing, bacon, nuts or dried fruit? Dressing and extras on the side. If it’s chicken-tortilla soup with tortilla strips on top? Tortilla strips on the side. If it’s pasta with creamy alfredo sauce? Sauce on the side. Get the drift? “You want control,” says Gans. “You wouldn’t let someone else dress you with clothes; make sure you’re dressing your own meals, too.” Start by adding just a sprinkle of each extra, and only add more if necessary.
4. Get a healthy app to take the edge off.
Hunger pangs can be the worst. But while everyone else is ordering their first (likely caloric) cocktail, choose something with solid nutritional value instead. “Start off with a light salad or a clear soup as an appetizer,” says Moskovitz. Not only will this help keep your mouth busy when everyone else is boozing, but your body will also start registering that it’s filling up so you don’t overeat when your meal finally arrives — and regret any bread basket dives later on.
5. Be the first one to place your order.
Speak up before your co-diners when the waiter gets to your table. “I like to order first, so that way you’re not swayed or tempted to change your order based on what everyone else is getting,” says Gans. “Suddenly the Chicken Parmesan sounds irresistible when your friend gets it, and you switch from the salmon and broccoli you [originally] chose.” And hey: Maybe your pals will even jump on the healthy-ordering bandwagon!
6. Don’t booze without food.
Wait to have an alcoholic beverage until your main meal is in front of you (and a glass of water is too, which you should also be sipping). Not only are you saving the calories of a cocktail, you’ll also be saving the calories you’d potentially overeat later on after imbibing a bit. “Starting to drink too early can lead to lower inhibitions, which often translates into less willpower around food,” says Moskovitz. And then before you know it, you’ve cleaned everyone’s dinner plates. (Whoops.)
7. Immediately split the meal in half when it arrives.
Whether it’s fine dining or fast food, individually dished portions are usually enough for two people these days — at least. You wouldn’t dish out that much out for yourself at home, so why not avoid it while you’re at a restaurant, too? “Ask for a doggie bag as soon as your food comes out, and separate half of it before you start eating,” says Anna Maria Bittoni, RD, a clinical dietitian at The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital. If you’re stuck with fast food and don’t want to toss half away, order the kid’s meal instead to automatically reduce your portions size.
8. If you’re a “finish the plate” person, make trade-offs.
“Some people know that, if they order something, they are going to finish the entire plate,” Gans says. “And while that’s fine, it should affect the way you order and your decision-making process.” If you’re having a burger and fries, try skipping the bun and any fatty toppings like bacon or mayo — just tell the waiter to keep it off your plate.
9. Get creative with your order — mix and match your plates.
Feel free to mix things up! There’s no need to order an app, entrée and dessert just ‘cause you think you should. Instead, try sharing a main dish with your dining partner while each ordering your own healthy apps (shrimp cocktail, soup, light salad, Brussels sprouts), so you have just enough. “Or you can order two apps or two sides instead of one main,” says Moskovitz. “Smaller portions equal healthier dining.” So even if you do choose a small indulgence, like a creamy soup or crab cake, you’ve already saved calories with a light salad or veggie app on the other end of your order.
10. Put your fork down between bites.
Whoa, kid. Slow down! Even if you’re hungry enough to chew your arm off, your body needs time to register the meal so don’t go straight from starving to stuffed. “It takes up to 20 minutes for your body to tell your brain when you are full,” says Bittoni. “Force yourself to put your fork down between each bite of food. Enjoy your company, and savor the flavors before you take another bite.” If you slow down, when your body says, “Hey, I’m full now,” you’ll actually be able to hear it instead of feeling full and sick.