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Dining Out and Eating Smart

A few small choices can make eating out a little healthier.

plate of salad

Meeting friends for a night out? Or craving your favorite dish? Or don’t have time to cook? Then treat yourself and go out to eat. It’s fun, delicious and convenient. You can both enjoy your dining out experience and make it just a little bit healthier, one simple choice at a time.

Healthy eating patterns and eating out

Healthy patterns in what we eat are important for overall health and can reduce the risk of chronic diseases. According to the USDA’s newest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” healthy eating patterns involve consuming foods and drinks that are full of nutrients, staying within calorie limits that are right for you, and spending the least amount of those calories on added sugar, saturated fat or sodium.

Sometimes eating out can make it harder to stick with those healthy eating patterns. Restaurants often serve large portions. And the way they prepare food may lead to too many calories and too few nutrients. But you don’t need to avoid restaurants or even stress about them. Instead, think about small changes and try one or two of these strategies the next time you eat out. 

Choosing where you’ll eat

Consider setting yourself up for a healthier meal even before you enjoy it. If you don’t already know where you’ll eat, try using one of these approaches to choose:

  • Plan ahead. Look at menus online and pick a restaurant that offers a range of choices. With more choices, you can increase your chances of getting more delicious and healthy options. For example, does the restaurant offer several options for sides, or are French fries your only choice?
  • Try walking. By picking a restaurant that's a 15-minute walk, you get a meal and 30 minutes of exercise. And walking after your meal can help your digestion. If you’re eating with co-workers, friends or family, you can walk together.

Choosing what you’ll eat and drink

Once you’re at the restaurant, think about the delicious options you have. What small and healthy choices can you make? Try one that’s right for you:

  • Start with a salad. Eating a salad at the beginning of your meal may help you feel satisfied sooner, so you don’t overeat. Pick a salad that’s packed with veggies for more nutrients and have a low-fat salad dressing. If you ask for the dressing on the side, you get to decide how much to use.
  • Spot the nutrition clues. Many restaurants provide nutrition facts or calorie counts. They can help you make an informed decision. Food descriptions can also give you a clue about healthier choices. Foods described as baked, broiled, grilled, roasted or steamed are often lower in fat and calories. Foods that are typically higher in fat and calories are creamy, fried, breaded, battered, buttered, rich or smothered. Try choosing these foods only occasionally and in small portions.
  • Balance your day. If you ate a big lunch, eat a light dinner. Or cut back on calories during other meals if you know you’re going to a restaurant later. But avoid going to the restaurant famished. It may cause you to eat more than you need to. Have a healthy snack, like a piece of fruit, ahead of time if you’re too hungry.
  • Pay attention to portions. Restaurants often serve huge portions, sometimes enough for two or three people. Consider sharing an entrée or dessert with a friend. Or mix it up by choosing a smaller appetizer instead of a full entrée.
  • Add more nutrients. Instead of only focusing on what foods to avoid, consider what healthy items you might add. If vegetable sides are small or sparce, add more. If a sandwich only comes with chips, try adding a salad. Add avocado to your sandwich for healthy fats or ask for whole grain bread.
  • Stick to lower-calorie drinks without sugar. Sugar-sweetened drinks are the number one source of added sugars for Americans. And those empty calories can really add up, especially with refills. Instead, try unsweetened drinks like coffee or iced tea. A soda water or still water with a splash of fruit juice is a healthy and refreshing option too.

Enjoy your meal

Enjoying the restaurant and the delicious food? There’s no need to get it over with quickly. Extending the fun can also be a healthy choice:

  • Take your time. Eat slowly. Your stomach sends signals to your brain to say you’re no longer hungry. But it takes about 20 minutes for those signals to get there. Eating slowly gives your brain time to feel satisfied and makes you less likely to overeat. If you’re a fast eater, try setting down your utensils a few times while you eat. It may give you a chance to pause and lengthen your meal.
  • Save some to enjoy later. Remind yourself that you don’t have to clean your plate. Ask for a to-go bag and pack up half of your meal. That way, you won’t be tempted to eat more than you need. Use your leftovers for another meal at home.  

Whether you eat out for fun or convenience, small changes to little choices can add up to healthier eating patterns over time. Think about which choices work best for you and give one a shot.

By Beth Hawkins and Michael Phillips, Contributing Writers

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Smart Tips for Reading Menus While Eating Out. Accessed July 28, 2021.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 7 Tips for Healthy Dining Out. Accessed July 28, 2021.
FDA. Calories on the Menu: Information for Consumers. Accessed July 28, 2021.
USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Updated August 3, 2021