How to Eat Healthy When Eating Out

Written by Tamara Willner
Medically reviewed by 

7 min read
Last updated November 2019

Eating out is a fantastic way to socialise with friends and family. You certainly don’t have to sacrifice it for the sake of your health or weight-loss journey.

However, 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.

While there’s nothing wrong with choosing something you’ll enjoy, that doesn’t always have to be at odds with making healthy choices. The problem occurs when you select an option that leaves you with guilt. Feeling guilty for straying from a healthy eating plan is one of the biggest reasons that people give up entirely on their good intentions.

The key is not to fear eating out, but to learn how to make the best choices you can in these situations. You can then take control of your diet, rather than feeling pressured into something that will leave you feeling bad.

Once you practise making healthy choices, it will become a habit, and you will worry less about eating out. Here is some food for thought to help you make healthy decisions.

Before your meal out

1) Prepare healthy meals on the days leading up to your meal out

If you know you’re going to be eating out on the weekend, try to make sure you cook most of your meals yourself in the weekdays 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’ve been eating well for most of the week.

It 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 protein (e.g. chicken, meat, pulses or fish) and vegetables, rather than carbs (e.g. pasta or 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.

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

Pay attention to how the 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 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 rather than french fries to be mindful of your overall intake.

3) Don’t arrive very hungry

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 at that point. Many people refrain from eating as much as usual in the daytime if they are going out for an evening meal, but this means you’re less likely to order healthy options and more likely to overeat.

The best thing to do is eat normally throughout the day and arrive feeling ready, but not desperate, for your meal. That way, you’re 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 sides, or ask for a starter in the main course sized portion. Seek out healthy ingredients and go from there.

Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring either. You can ask for substitutions to make your meal suit your needs. For example, if you have a hamburger, you can 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.

Consider asking for sauces or salad dressings to come on the side. These are often riddled with salt and sugar and added to food rather liberally. Having it on the side means you could have 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 make it very easy to overconsume the sweet stuff.

There is no harm in enjoying an alcoholic drink with your meal. 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. As long as 48 hours after binge drinking, we can still be led to make poorer food choices and move less.

Try swapping the soft drinks or a second glass of wine for sparkling water with a lime wedge.

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 weekend. 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

  • There is 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.
  • 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 majoritively still or sparkling water.
  • Remember that you can enjoy your meal without overindulging.
Write a response
Laura Tonner
5 November, 2019

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! 😂