As a busy millennial who hates to cook, I find myself eating out on a semiregular basis—and feeling pretty unhealthy afterward. But instead of never going out again or just accepting that uncomfortable postmeal “blegh” sensation, there is a middle ground: finding ways to make eating out healthy.
Here two nutritionists explain how it’s done. Follow their tips and restaurant suggestions the next time you dine out in order to make healthier choices, feel better, and stay on track with your wellness goals.
Tips for Eating Out Healthy
When it comes to eating “healthy,” there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach as dietary tolerances and preferences can vary person to person. That said, there are general things you can do to make your meal out as good for you as possible.
Eat normally earlier in the day.
Instead of depriving yourself in preparation for a big dinner out, eat balanced meals beforehand and snack when you’re hungry, says Kelly Jones, R.D., a registered dietitian in Philadelphia. This way, when you get to the restaurant, you’ll be less likely to go overboard on foods that will make you feel less-than-stellar the next day (which could then trigger the urge to deprive yourself again).
Proper hydration can help you better evaluate your hunger and appetite cues, says Jones. This isn’t to say you need to chug tons of water before going out to eat (the goal, after all, isn’t to “drink away” any actual hunger), but you should instead aim to enter a meal well-hydrated. (Not sure what “well-hydrated” means for you? Check out this guide from the Mayo Clinic for a generalized recommendation.) Also, if you choose to order alcohol or another sugary beverage, try to consume one glass of water in between each round, suggest Jones and Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., a nutrition and wellness expert in Brooklyn and author of Eating in Color. This will help you become more mindful of how much you’re imbibing, says Jones, and could prevent you from sipping more than you intended.
Sometimes menus will describe dishes with healthy-sounding terms, like “heart-healthy,” but it won’t be clear how that term is actually defined, says Jones. If you’re unsure what a specific word, ingredient, or cooking term means, just ask the server. More information can help you make smarter choices.
In Jones’s experience, many folks experience restaurant-related GI distress when they eat sodium- and/or fat-heavy dishes. To dial back these offenders without sacrificing flavor, ask if a dish can be cooked in light oil or light butter and topped with light cheese, she suggests. “Typically you are not going to miss the extra or notice the difference because of the exorbitant amount that they're usually adding to some of these dishes,” she says. And in general, don’t hesitate to request substitutions. “Sometimes people feel weird about asking for menu changes in front of other people,” says Largeman-Roth. “They don’t want to call attention to themselves or be a pain. But you shouldn’t feel shy!” It is your health after all, she points out, and that’s always worth speaking up for.
Say no to artificial sweeteners.
Drinks advertised as “skinny” or "low-sugar” are automatically healthy, right? Not exactly. These terms may actually mean that a beverage is made with artificial sweeteners, and new research suggests certain artificial sweeteners may damage gut bacteria, warns Jones. You may also want to avoid drinks made with simple syrups, as these can deliver a concentrated dose of sugar. Instead, ask the bartender to sweeten your drink with juice, recommend Jones and Largeman-Roth.
Be willing to share.
“If there’s something I really want to try, but I know it’s going to be super rich, I’ll see if anyone at the table wants to share it with me,” offers Largeman-Roth. “That way I can take just a few bites and not feel bad about wasting food.”
Practice mindful eating.
Try to enjoy your meal with all of your senses, not just your tongue. By noticing things like the smell and texture of your food, “you'll really truly enjoy it a lot more and may be satisfied again sooner than you might have in the past,” says Jones. Largeman-Roth takes it one step further, focusing her attention on all aspects of the dining experience. “I really try to take in everything—the design of the restaurant and the menu, the flavor of my wine or cocktail, and every bite of food,” she says.
Best Restaurants for Healthy Eating
Where you choose to eat can have a big impact on the quality of your choices. Here are some of Jones's and Largeman-Roth’s top healthy picks.
Places with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
If a restaurant advertises its fare as “locally sourced” and/or “seasonal,” that’s often a good sign. Why? There’s a greater chance their food is fresh, says Jones, and eating food closer to when it was harvested means a higher nutrient quality, she explains.
If you’re in the mood to indulge but also want to keep things healthy, Jones recommends By Chloe. The NYC-based fast-casual chain, which specializes in plant-based fare, offers healthier versions of classic comfort foods—their mac and cheese is made with butternut squash and nuts, for example, and their french fries are air fried.
Noodles & Company
This Colorado-born fast-casual chain offers zoodles (zucchini noodles) and caulifloodles (cauliflower noodles) that can be swapped into any dish on its customizable menu, says Largeman-Roth. And while there’s nothing wrong with traditional pasta, she clarifies, zoodles (and other veggie noodles) can be a great way to add more vegetables and fiber to your meal.
For healthy stir-fry, consider this Philadelphia-based chain, suggests Jones. According to the company website, all stir-fry options are made with just a half ounce of oil and garlic. Even better, all menu items are fully customizable.
Jones recommends this Washington, D.C.–born fast-casual chain that specializes in salads and grain bowls made with simple, seasonal ingredients.
Healthiest Foods and Dishes to Order When Eating Out
To build a healthy, well-balanced meal, you should aim to include a fiber-rich starch, a protein, a fruit or vegetable, some fat, and flavor, says Jones. Here are specific dishes that are good bets.
Lean proteins and vegetables.
Opt for lean proteins—like salmon, shrimp, chicken, or lamb—and nonstarchy steamed or roasted veggies, says Largeman-Roth. Roasted colorful vegetables (brussels sprouts, winter squash, and carrots, for example) offer disease-fighting antioxidants and filling fiber, she says. And don’t be afraid to double up on the veggies. Largeman-Roth’s pro tip: “When a restaurant lists that a dish comes with a side of veggies and a side of fries, I almost always ask them to double the veggies.”
Soba noodles and whole-grain pasta.
When it comes to carbs, say yes to soba noodles, which are made from nutrient-rich buckwheat, and whole-grain pasta, which is made with whole wheat (or another whole grain) and contains more fiber and protein than regular pasta, says Largeman-Roth.
Warm grain bowls (like the Mediterranean Warm Grain Bowl at Panera), are “a wonderful way to get your veggies,” says Largeman-Roth. “Not everyone finds a cold salad appealing, especially in the middle of winter—so combining fresh veggies with warm grains is a more comforting way to get the nutrients you need.”
As you pick and choose items from the menu, aim to order a variety of colors, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. In general, more colors in your diet equals more antioxidants, which help protect your cells from damage and stress, says Jones.
Originally Appeared on Glamour