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How to eat healthy at restaurants

Megan Widdows
Written by

Megan Widdows

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

8 min read
Last updated July 2024

Now that restaurants are back open, most of us are excited to start eating out again. In fact, many of us are making up for lost time and eating out more often than previously. We know that eating out is a fantastic way to socialise with friends and family but it often doesn’t feel compatible with our healthy diet or attempts to lose weight. 

Restaurants and social situations can provide the most temptation to deviate from a healthy eating plan. Portion sizes are often large, menus are full of tasty options, and it’s easy to be influenced by other people’s food choices. Often we leave feeling guilty over our food choices, or feeling like we have “fallen off the wagon”.

Even when trying to lose weight, indulging in a less healthy option is perfectly ok now and again. It doesn’t mean that we’ve blown all our progress in our healthy lifestyle or weight loss journey. 

Feeling guilty over straying from our eating plan is actually one of the biggest reasons for people giving up entirely on their good intentions. So, instead of feeling guilty about occasional treats and indulgences, recognise that they are part of life and carry on with your healthy eating plan as soon as you can. 

However, if we’re eating out regularly, or decide we’d rather not indulge, this guide has our top tips on how to eat healthy at restaurants.  

If you’re looking for more support on what to choose at individual restaurants, the registered dietitians and nutritionists here at Second Nature have gone through the nutritional information and picked out the healthiest options at ten popular restaurants and fast food outlets – Wagamama, Bella Italia, Pret a Manger, Zizzi’s, McDonald’s, Nandos, Pizza Express, Bill’s, Costa Coffee, and Caffe Nero

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Before your meal out

1) Plan and prepare healthy meals on the days surrounding your meal out

If you know when you’re going to be eating out in advance, try to make sure you cook most of your meals yourself in the days leading up to the event. Doing so will give you a level of control and help you feel motivated to make healthier choices if you have been eating well for most of the week. 

Planning and preparing your meals following the meal out will also prevent something psychologists call the ‘what-the-hell effect’. This effect describes the cycle many people fall into once they have indulged slightly, regretted indulging and then gone back for more because ‘what-the-hell, you’ve already blown it’.

Having this all-or-nothing mindset will not allow you to make sustainable, long-term health changes. While you’re embarking upon your health journey, it’s helpful to avoid getting caught in that cycle until healthy choices come naturally.

2) Look at the menu ahead of time

Pre-planning is often one of the best ways to avoid giving in to temptation. Try and choose what you’ll order before you leave the house, so you don’t get overwhelmed by the options, blindsided by a craving or influenced by what other people are having.

Aim to pick a dish that is predominantly lean protein (chicken, meat, pulses or fish) and vegetables, rather than carbs (pasta and rice). If you want to add some carbs, include them as a side dish or a dish to share, rather than as the main event. That way you can enjoy some carbs with your meal but consume a smaller portion. A lower-carb diet has been shown to be the most effective for sustainable weight loss.

Most cuisines provide suitable, healthier options. Even Italian, which is famous for pizza and pasta, often has plenty of delicious meat and fish dishes on the menu.  

Pay attention to how food is prepared as well. Dishes that are ‘crispy’, fried, creamed, sauteed, pan-fried or ‘crunchy’ tend to contain many more calories than foods that are steamed, grilled, baked or poached. 

Calorie counting is not a sustainable means of monitoring food intake, but it helps us to be mindful of how much food we are taking in. For instance, if you would like a side dish, consider choosing grilled or steamed vegetables that have fewer calories, rather than french fries to be mindful of your overall intake. 

3) Don’t arrive very hungry

Although you might be worried about overeating, it’s best to eat normally throughout the day, rather than ‘saving yourself’ for a meal out. Just as it’s a bad idea to do a grocery shop when you’re hungry, it’s equally risky to order at a restaurant when you’re starving. 

Eat normally throughout the day and arrive feeling ready, but not desperate, for your meal. That way, you’re more likely to choose a healthy option and are also far less likely to overindulge on the complimentary bread basket!

Key points:

  • Preparing your own meals in the days leading up to eating out may help to prevent the all-or-nothing mindset as you will have eaten well for a few days in a row.
  • Be prepared by checking the menu ahead of time and scoping out some healthy options that are protein and vegetable based.
  • Arriving extremely hungry increases the chances of ordering less healthy options and overeating.

During your meal out

1) Don’t be afraid to ask

If you can’t find anything to suit you on the menu, don’t panic! Remember that the menu is just a guide. Your options aren’t limited to the mains on the list. You could build your meal from two entrees or appetizers, or ask for a starter in a main course sized portion. Seek out healthy ingredients and go from there.

Healthy food does not have to be boring either. You can ask for substitutions to make your meal suit your needs. Consider swapping out higher-carb foods for extra vegetables. This helps to keep the meal lower carb as well as getting extra veggies throughout the day. 

For example, if you’re having a hamburger, ask the staff if it’s possible to remove the bun and swap the french fries for a side salad. That way, you can still enjoy going out to a burger restaurant without feeling deprived nor guilty that you’ve overindulged. 

You could also consider asking for creamy sauces or salad dressings to come on the side. These are often high in salt and sugar and added to food in excessive quantities. Having it on the side means you can add some to taste but don’t need to consume it all. Alternatively, you could request olive oil or balsamic vinegar on the side in place of a salad dressing or sauce. 

2) Stay hydrated

Drinking water before and during the meal will not only quench your thirst, but it’ll stop you mistaking it for hunger. This, in turn, will help you stick to your healthy choices. Pausing your meal to sip water will also prevent you from eating too quickly and allow you to enjoy the taste and textures of your food thoroughly.

3) Avoid sugar-sweetened and excessive alcoholic drinks

For many people, the temptation to have a soft drink with their meal is irresistible. However, sugar-sweetened beverages can turn a healthy, enjoyable meal into a real indulgence. Illustrating this, 1 pint of original coca-cola contains roughly 60g of sugar – the equivalent to about 14 teaspoons of sugar! 

Sugar can have many adverse effects on our health and sugar-sweetened drinks are very easy to over-consume. 

If you do want to have a soft drink, opt for a low calorie version. Be mindful that these too should only be enjoyed occasionally as there’s some evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners can increase sugar cravings and lead to weight gain

A better option would be to enjoy still or sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime for flavour. 

When we’re eating out, our meal is often accompanied by an alcoholic drink. There’s nothing wrong with alcohol in moderation, the problem occurs when we binge drink. Binge drinking, roughly defined as more than 3 alcoholic drinks, directly and indirectly, influences your weight and food choices. Research suggests that we can still be led to make poorer food choices and move less, for as long as 48 hours after binge drinking. Aim to alternate alcoholic drinks with low-calorie soft drinks.

4) Share a dessert

The easiest way to eat healthy at restaurants is to avoid appetizers or entrees and desserts and stick to a single course. However, if you have a sweet tooth, a dessert is often a much-anticipated part of eating out. Desserts are typically high in carbohydrates and refined sugar and add a lot of extra calories to your meal. 

Although calories aren’t an accurate predictor of weight gain, consistently consuming an excess of calories outside of our usual diet can contribute to weight gain.

So, if you would like a dessert, opt to share it with your company. Half portions mean that you get to round off your meal without the indulgence of an entire dessert. 

Key points:

  • Ask for alternatives or substitutions, such as swapping burger buns for a side salad, if you are struggling to find a suitable option on the menu.
  • Drinking water during your meal can help you feel satisfied.
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks, such as soft drinks or juice, and limit alcoholic drinks to 1 or 2 glasses.

After your meal out

1) Try not to harbour guilt!

If you feel you overindulged on a meal out, the main thing is not to feel guilty afterwards. Having one indulgent dinner doesn’t mean that you can’t continue eating well for the rest of the week. Part of being human is experiencing slip-ups in life, and the critical thing to focus on is maintaining motivation after we slip-up.

2) Play the long game

At the end of the day, life is supposed to be enjoyed. It isn’t practical to expect to adhere to a lifestyle without birthdays, holidays, or special occasions cropping up. Plus, life would be pretty dull without them.

By definition, a lifestyle change is for the long term; trust in your ability to make responsible choices, and eat good food that you can enjoy without feeling like you have missed out or given up.

The important thing is not to focus on these as opportunities to blow out and let go, nor tests of willpower. It is entirely possible to take your healthy habits with you into restaurants, holidays, and social events.

Key points:

  • There is nothing wrong with enjoying an indulgent meal, but if you do try not to feel guilty and focus on finding the motivation to continue making healthy choices on the following days.
  • Part of long-term lifestyle change is learning to take your new habits with you and not sacrificing social events or eating out because of fear of setbacks.

Take home message

  • With these ideas on how to eat healthy at restaurants, there’s no need to sacrifice eating out for the sake of your health goals
  • Part of a long-term healthy lifestyle is learning to adapt to different situations rather than depriving yourself
  • Plan for your outing by preparing your food on the days leading up to it and reading the menu before you go
  • Ask if substitutions from the menu can be made to suit your needs
  • Drink water or sparkling water over alcoholic or sugar-sweetened soft drinks
  • Remember that restaurant food portions are often large, so consider asking for a half portion or share with a friend
  • Remember that you can enjoy your meal without overindulging!
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Write a response

Katrina Beedie

17 August, 2020

Have definitely experienced ‘what the hell’ mindset when out for a meal!
Helpful article, thank you!

Samantha Corner

13 July, 2020

Thank you – I found this article really helpful

Joel Kaye

12 July, 2020

Thank you for your useful tips and advice

Laura Tonner

27 April, 2020

I loved this article. A lot resonates with me. The what the hell response and guilt feelings are definitely something I’ve done in the past. Like the idea of planning ahead by checking the menu and eating healthily to prepare for eating out. This programme really helps with how to tackle life in the real world ❤️ And YES!! Calorie counting is not a sustainable way of living! 😂

Christine Mckinnon

17 February, 2020

This article has come to me at the right moment. We are going away for a few days on Friday. It’s given me the insight to hopefully plan ahead in my mind.

Patricia Machin

13 February, 2020

Helpful info but deep down I do realize most of what you advise it’s the will power to say NO but hopefully I’m getting more disciplined as the weed go on.

Catherine Clark

31 January, 2020

This is a great article because I’ve been wondering what to do in social occasions such as friends dinner parties and lunches particularly, those that occur back to back.

Rob Kemp

16 December, 2019

I hate eating out. I hate eating in front of anyone. If I could get away with not eating full stop that’d be brilliant. The pressure to not have a waistline. The pressure to look a certain way. People looking down their nose at you.

Mary Youe

20 November, 2019

A useful article but as a chef the phrase “ menu is just a guide “ stresses me right out.

Marion Andrews

18 November, 2019

This is a useful article that helps to take the guilt out of a slip up of over indulging. Second Nature is really helpful in trying to help you manage life in the real world.
Planning, planning, planning = being in control!

Panayiota sowden

15 November, 2019

I agree on everything I read and the biggest solution is to believe yourself you can go through that by changing your lifestyle forever.

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