Without a shadow of a doubt, eating at a restaurant should be an occasion to enjoy yourself and eat what you like, but if you’re on a diet, and you’re really trying to be good, or you’re someone who finds yourself in restaurants on the regular, then you may want to get a bit tactical when scanning the menu.
Ordering a healthy meal at a restaurant can be tricky, there are hidden calories in every course, and some foods that you think are healthy are often incredibly calorific. Plenty of chain restaurants offer nutritional information on their websites and even sometimes on the menus themselves so you can make an educated decision before you’ve even sat down.
But if those numbers aren’t available, you can totally learn how to read a menu like a nutritionist. We’ve called on four nutritionists to share their expertise on how to eat out, enjoy yourself, and not mainline more than your day’s calories in one sitting (which is way too easy to do). Keep scrolling for 10 key rules, plus how to navigate specific types of restaurant.
Read the Menu Right
“It’s a good idea to have a quick scan of the menu and pick out certain words. These words are a good indication of whether you should consider having them or not. Words that you should generally avoid include crispy, deep-fried, gratin, pan-fried, cream sauce and alfredo; these tend to be high-calorie options. Instead, have a scan for words such as grilled, steamed and baked; these tend to be healthier choices,” explains Shona Wilkinson, a nutritionist at Superfood UK.
Don't Eat the Rolls!
“Not that there is anything wrong with bread, but you should aim for around one to one and a half fist-sized portion of carbohydrates per meal, so if you have a bread roll, then you can’t have whatever comes with the main course. This also goes for things like curry; don’t have rice and naan and potatoes. Pick one, or just have a small amount of each,” advises Jo Travers, a registered dietitian and the author of The Low-Fad Diet.
Ask for Larger Portions
“Sounds counterintuitive, but here’s why: Restaurants typically want you to eat a lot of their cheaper ingredients or the foods on which there is the greatest markup. Don’t be tricked into eating lots of cheap carbs if the restaurant has not provided sufficient vegetables, salad or protein. Ask for larger portions of these dishes instead,” advises Peter Cox, a clinical nutritionist at OMNIYA.
“Always make sure your meal has some form of protein with it. Protein is your friend if you’re trying to lose weight!” says Wilkinson. “It has the benefit of helping balance your blood-sugar levels; this means that you won’t have cravings later on. Protein also helps keep you fuller for longer. Remember that if you have breakfast out, make sure you have protein as well; don’t just opt for toast or pastries. Instead, include protein such as eggs, salmon or lean meat.”
Don't Arrive Hungry
“Have a sensible snack an hour or so before you go for dinner, so that you can make a rational decision about what to order. It’s very hard to make a rational choice when you are ravenous,” Travers says.
Restaurant Calories Are Not Free
“Do not see your meal out as a freebie when you’re on a diet; those calories still count, and small meals can still be deceptively calorific. It is usually better to eat one course or stick to a starter and main if you are eating two courses. But remember dessert will almost certainly be the least nutritious and most calorific. If you cannot resist dessert, have just the starter and dessert,” Cox says.
Eat Your Greens
“Remember those vegetables. A great tip is to have as many vegetables as possible,” Wilkinson says. “Vegetables are jam-packed full of nutrients. Try to go for the dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli or Brussels sprouts, and ask for them to be steamed or without butter. The more vegetables you have on your plate, the less room you have for anything else, which could add to those calories!”
Sharing is Caring
“Don’t be afraid to ask if anyone wants to share a starter or dessert with you. Lots of people are trying to watch what they eat but want to have all three courses. Sharing can significantly reduce the amount you eat, but you will feel you ate well and weren’t deprived,” Travers says.
Don't Always Default to Salad
“Don’t assume that a salad is a healthy option! Salads can be delicious and healthy, but it can also be delicious and unhealthy. Learn to tell the difference. Opt for a salad that has plenty of fresh greens, beans and vegetables. Watch out for those high-calorie dressings—dressings to avoid usually include things like cheese, bacon and croutons, as well as the creamy sauces. Choose vinaigrettes, and ask for them to be served on the side rather than over the salad,” Wilkinson says.
Keep It Simple
“Remember these three rules,” Cox says. “Avoid the nibbles, including the bread. Drink only water if you’re trying to lose weight. If there is a sauce, eat it sparingly, if at all.”
Keep scrolling as Filip Koidis, a specialist nutritionist, clinical dietitian and the founder of W1 Nutritionist, reveals how to navigate different specific types of restaurants from Italian and brunch to Thai and tapas.
- People tend to get a starter that is carbohydrate-based like bruschetta, and they follow it with second carb-based main like pizza or pasta, which results in an energy overload (unless you’re fuelling for a marathon!). Instead, explore the Italian salads and vegetable dishes with a vegetable-based soup or salad to start, and then choose a main course of your liking—the fibre from the first course will keep you from overeating during your main (whether this means not finishing a large portion or not nibbling on sides).
- It is customary that Italian restaurants will offer a selection of bread, which is absolutely fine to refuse. If the restaurant is busy, and there is a delay with your meal, you could find yourself reaching for the third piece of bread (and spreading that butter generously) without realising it.
- Eat your pizza with a knife and fork (even if it is delivered at home), and serve one slice at a time; this will help you have a more mindful eating experience, avoid overeating and control your portions.
- Go for a side of fruit salad rather than a large glass of juice; you will save yourself some sugar and increase your fibre intake, which will fill you up and help you to avoid overindulging.
- Refuse the side of butter—your toast with avocado and eggs probably has more than enough in it already.
- When you finish your main meal, take your time and have some tea. There is a good chance that by the end of it, you won’t be craving dessert as much as you thought you were. The 21-minute mark will have probably passed, and your brain will have received the message from your appetite hormones.
- Go for steamed rather than fried options when possible—e.g., steamed dumplings or steamed rice. This will make a significant difference in your overall fat and calorie intake.
- Use chopsticks even if you’re not very good with them. By nature, they will decrease the speed at which you eat and the quantity of food eaten per mouthful, which will result in less food being eaten and a more mindful eating experience.
- Opt for a ramen soup; they are filling, usually served in general portions and traditionally packed with vegetables and low-fat food items.
- Lots of small dishes can easily pile up to a large meal, especially when sharing them, as keeping track of your intake becomes even more challenging. Three or four dishes per person should be more than enough, aim for half to be vegetable-based and go easy on the fried options like whitebait and nachos.