When we’re trying to follow a healthy diet, it’s easy for dining out in restaurants or cafes to be seen negatively and as something that’ll set us back. But this doesn’t have to be the case. There are plenty of ways we can enjoy trying new foods and socialising with friends and family, without having to stick to salads or skip dessert.

Small changes really can make a big difference when it comes to eating out. From sharing a dessert between two to swapping fried rice for boiled rice, here are 10 tips for healthy eating out.

1. Consider how often you’re eating out

Consider how often you’re eating out

Making healthy menu choices generally becomes more important the more you eat out. If you hardly ever eat in cafes or restaurants then a one-off meal out isn’t going to make much difference to your overall health – in which case, you might not want to worry about making any adjustments.

However, if you’re eating out regularly, it can help to consider how your meals out fit into your overall diet. For example, if you plan to have a big lunch out, then you could have a lighter breakfast and dinner. Or, you could choose meals that have a similar health profile to the ones you’d eat at home.

2. Check the menu before you arrive

Check the menu before you arrive

Checking the menu online before you arrive at a restaurant is one of the best ways to make healthy meal choices. This is because you can take your time choosing what you want to eat, without pressure or influence from others.

As an added bonus, checking the menu before you arrive at a restaurant can also help you to stick to a budget and avoid overspending – which can be easy to do when you arrive hungry!

When deciding what to have, it’s worth noting that higher-calorie, higher-fat meal choices may be accompanied by words such as: breaded, dipped, scalloped, crispy, alfredo, cream, and pan-fried. While lower-calorie, lower-fat meal choices, may be described using words such as: boiled, braised, roasted, baked, grilled, steamed, broiled, and seared.

Most restaurant and cafe websites will also publish nutritional information so you can get a clearer picture of just how healthy (or unhealthy) something is.

3. Try sticking to one or two courses

Try sticking to one or two courses

When we eat lunch or dinner out, it can be tempting to go for the full works and order three courses – even though this is something that many of us don’t do at home.

While there’s nothing wrong with indulging once in a while, it’s worth considering whether you really need three courses, or whether you could be just as satisfied with one or two.

It can help to decide before arriving at the restaurant whether you’re going to have a starter and a main, a main and a dessert or just a main – that way you’ll be less likely to be swayed once you see what others are ordering.

If you don’t want to order dessert but you also don’t want to miss out altogether, why not consider having tea or coffee instead? Or, you could share a dessert with one or two others at your table.

4. Adapt your meal

Adapt your meal

If something on the menu isn’t as healthy as you’d like it to be, you don’t necessarily have to skip it altogether. Instead, you could ask the waiter if it’s possible to make some changes.

For example, you could ask…

  • For salt and/or butter not to be added to your meal during preparation or cooking
  • For sauces to be served separately, so you can put them on your food yourself and decide how much you eat
  • For butter, spread, or mayonnaise to be left out of your sandwich if it already has a moist filling

If you’re not clear on how your food is going to be prepared (for example, whether it’ll be pan-fried in lots of oil) and you’re concerned about this, it’s also worth asking the waiter for more details – as they may be able to offer you a healthier alternative.

5. Make food swaps

Make food swaps

There are also some simple food swaps which can make your meals healthier.

For example, you could ask to swap…

  • Fried rice for boiled rice
  • Cheese sauces for vegetable sauces
  • Bacon, sausages, and pies for lean protein, such as chicken or turkey (with the skin removed), ham, fish, or fillet of pork/beef
  • Higher-fat cheeses (like cheddar, stilton, mascarpone, parmesan, and brie) for lower-fat options (like edam, emmental, gruyère, mozzarella, and lower-fat cream cheese)
  • Creamy mash and chips for boiled, baked, or steamed potatoes with the skins on
  • Fried eggs for boiled or poached eggs
  • White bread for brown or wholemeal bread
  • Cakes or creamy, chocolatey puddings for fruit-based desserts (such as apple crumble or raspberry sorbet) or lower-fat, lower-sugar yoghurts
  • Creamy dressings like Bearnaise and blue cheese for a vinaigrette
  • Alcohol and sugary fizzy drinks for soda water with cordial (such as blackcurrant or lime). You could also have unsweetened fruit juice – though it’s best to stick to drinking no more than 150ml per day because it can still be quite sugary.

6. Order a side of vegetables with your meal

Order a side of vegetables with your meal

Ordering a side of salad or boiled vegetables with your meal can be an effective way to add an extra helping of vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

Filling up on vegetables can also help you to stick to one or two courses.

When ordering salad or vegetables, it’s worth checking how they come, as some restaurants may smother them in oil, dressings, or butter – so you might want to ask for healthier alternatives.

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7. Avoid unnecessary extras like complimentary bread and sauces

Avoid unnecessary extras like sauces and complimentary bread

When we arrive at a cafe or restaurant hungry, it can be tempting to fill up on bread, olives, or whatever snack we’re presented with when we first sit down. If you’re trying to cut the calories, then don’t be afraid to say no to any extras you haven’t asked for – even if they’ve already been put on the table. 

Many of us also smother our food in sauces, like ketchup or mayonnaise, without much thought, but a small pot of sauce can add as many as 200-300 calories to a meal – with no nutritional value.

If you do want to have a sauce, it can also be a good idea to limit yourself to one tablespoon and to spoon this onto your plate, so you can be clear on how much you’re eating.

8. Exercise portion control

Exercise portion control

Most of us eat more than we would at home in a restaurant setting, and it’s not uncommon to leave at the end of the evening feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And while there’s nothing wrong with overindulging every once in a while, if you’re eating out regularly, this can be a quick way for the calories to stack up.

Ordering a starter can be an effective way to take the edge off your appetite and prevent overeating when your main meal arrives. When looking for a lighter meal, some people also choose to order a starter and a side – or a couple of starters – instead of a main course.

Another tip is to make sure that you don’t arrive at the restaurant starving, as this can make you more likely to overorder and overeat.

If you’re going for dinner, make sure to eat a couple of small, balanced meals throughout the day. Or, if you’re going out for lunch and don’t want to eat too much in the morning before you go, then eating a healthy snack, like a banana and yoghurt, can be a good idea.

For more tips on how to get your portions right, you might want to check out our article; 9 tips to prevent overeating and encourage portion control.

9. Be drink aware

Be drink aware

It can be easy to forget how many calories are in some of the drinks we consume – not just in alcohol, but in things like creamy coffees and fruit juices.

While there’s nothing wrong with having one or two mojitos with dinner, it’s always best to be aware of how much you’re drinking. The NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units a week, spread across three or more days (which is roughly equivalent to 3-4 units a day for women and 2-3 units for men).

Some alcohols such as red wine, cocktails, and beer are also higher in calories than those like gin, prosecco, and vodka. For example, 50ml (a double measure) of gin contains 95kcal, while a pint of 5% strength beer contains 239kcal.

When it comes to soft drinks, you can keep things healthier by…

  • Choosing diet fizzy drinks, rather than full-sugar ones
  • Skipping milk and sugar in tea and coffee
  • Swapping cows milk for oat or almond milk
  • Limiting your fruit juice intake to 150ml a day (nutritious options include pomegranate, beetroot, and cranberry)
  • Sticking to water with a slice of lemon

Our article, How to make healthier drinks choices, has plenty more tips.

10. Consider entertaining friends and family at home

Consider entertaining friends and family at home

If you eat out regularly to catch up with friends and family, why not consider hosting a dinner party at home instead? This way, you’ll have greater control over what goes into your meals and it could save you money too.

However, if you want to cut costs further and reduce your cooking time, you could always ask your guests to bring a (healthy) dish each.

Additional healthy menu tips

  • Avoid ordering large or supersized meal options. These can look tempting if you’re really hungry but it’s better to order a smaller meal – and you can always order something else later if you’re still hungry.
  • Drink water before your meal to help you feel fuller and, in turn, reduce your calorie intake.
  • Slow down and chew thoroughly – this is better for your digestion and can also help you to eat less.
  • Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets as when faced with unlimited food it can be challenging to choose food thoughtfully. Or, if a buffet is your only option, use a smaller plate to help you eat less.
  • If you’re not that hungry, consider sharing your meal with someone else or asking for leftovers to be boxed up for later.

Final thoughts…

While making sensible dietary choices is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, that doesn’t mean you can’t still go out and enjoy yourself. Life is about balance and making a few small changes to your menu choices can go a long way in helping you find it.

For more healthy eating tips and advice, you might want to check out the diet and nutrition section of our website.

Have you found any of the tips above particularly helpful? Or do you have any additional healthy eating tips you’d like to share? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.