We’ve all been there – you’re hungry, in a hurry and need something fast. You’re faced with countless restaurants all around you.  Can you find something healthy to eat? Of course, you can; just be aware that most items from restaurants are high in fat, sodium, sugar and calories. Many restaurants add salt to their food because it enhances flavor and sugar is hidden in most sauces, marinades, dips and dressings. Extra fat, like oil and butter, can also be added to many dishes sometimes, making many dishes over 1,000 calories.

These tips will help find healthy food and make good choices when dining out.

  1. Checkout the menu: with today’s technology, you can easily view the restaurant’s menu online so you can plan ahead and not be swayed by your hunger drive.
  2. Pick the veggies and protein: foods high in protein, fiber and water go the furthest in filling you up. They take longer to digest and will keep you full longer. Pick lean proteins such as “grilled chicken, turkey, grilled fish, beans, tofu and veggie burgers. Limit cheese and anything battered or breaded, as these items are usually deep-fried.”
  3. How is your food cooked? Stay away from the words breaded, fried, deep-fried, creamy, crispy, cheesy, au gratin, Alfredo, scalloped. Look for the healthier options: grilled, baked, broiled, roasted, chargrilled, steamed, stir-fried. Some fat is good, but it’s best to get it from avocado, nuts and seeds.
  4. Pay attention to your portion size: most restaurants serve bigger portions, often 2-4 servings in one meal. Stick with the smallest portion size for foods such as burgers (junior or single vs. double), sandwiches (6-inch vs. 12-inch) and fries. Veggies can be bigger servings as long as you don’t douse them in dressing. For protein, aim for something that’s the size of the palm of your hand. For starches (rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, tortillas, etc.) and fruit, one portion is about the size of your fist. Aim for two fistfuls for veggies.”
  5. Pick your sides carefully: items like french fries, potato salad, macaroni salad, chips, mashed potatoes and gravy are salty, fatty starches with lots of calories and not a lot of nutrients. We’re all conditioned to want to have chips with our sandwich, but the extra fat and salt will have your pants fitting a little tighter. Opt for a side of fruit or veggies and hummus or guacamole or just skip it all together.
  6. Don’t drink your calories: while things like juices, smoothies, coffee drinks and sports beverages can have vitamins, minerals and antioxidants they are also full of calories and sugar. Hydration is important and water is one of the keys to satiety (along with protein and fiber). If it’s difficult to get your requisite 2 liters of water a day, look to unsweetened tea (green or black) or coffee, as well as sparkling water to satisfy your needs.
  7. Ask for specific items – you can ask for your food to be prepared in a specific way – it’s your meal and you’re paying good money for it, so why shouldn’t you have it just right. To keep fat, sugar and calories under control, watch out for condiments (mayo, salad dressing and BBQ sauce), added cheese, anything crunchy (croutons, wontons, fried onions, chips) and side dishes. Ideally, fill half of your plate with vegetables, and the other half should be divided between a lean protein and a whole grain.

Dining out doesn’t have to throw you off your diet, just be aware of your portion sizes and choose items on the menu that have more nutritional value. Limiting restaurant meals to once or twice a week should provide a good balance for being able to achieve weight and health goals.

Tiffani Bachus, R.D.N., & Erin Macdonald, R.D.N.; Precision Nutrition