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How to Make Good Decisions from Restaurant Menus

September 24, 2018


We all enjoy eating a meal out now and then. What could be better than food prepared by someone else… and with no dishes to wash! When meals out become the norm though, it can be tough to stick with a healthy eating plan.


For starters, restaurant meals are often very heavy in carbohydrate (pizza with bread sticks, burgers with fries, Chinese food with mounds of rice, etc.). Vegetables are often missing from these meals. Sugary drinks such as soda, sweet tea or lemonade are often consumed with restaurant meals (and sometimes our glasses get topped off several times during the meal!). Kid’s meals are often no better (chicken nuggets and fries, hot dogs and chips or spaghetti with bread… of course served with a sugary beverage).


For families who wish to cut back on food purchased out, it becomes a matter of planning ahead and coming up with ideas for quick “go-to” meals to make (read my post on "Pronto Meals" here for some ideas!)


If the current situation does involve frequent meals purchased out, there ARE some things that are within our control:


1. Choose water instead of a sugary drink.   

It’s one thing to have a glass of soda or fruit punch as a treat on occasion but quite another when several glasses of sugary liquids are being downed with restaurant meals a few times each week. As an added benefit… ice water is free with the meal!


2. Find a way to include veggies with the meal. 

Choose the broccoli or green beans instead of the fries or mashed potatoes. Try the side salad instead of fries with your next fast food meal. The cost of a side salad is generally about the same as that of fries. Always get all of the veggie options on fast food burgers (lettuce, tomato and onion).


3. Find ways to trim carbohydrate.

The type of carbohydrate that we consume with restaurant meals is often refined (heavily processed). Some examples include that thick slice of Texas toast, bagels, frozen French fries, white pasta, white rice, dinner rolls, pizza crust, etc. Some easy tricks to help manage carbohydrate intake from restaurant meals include:

  • Remove a lot of the interior breading from bagels, sub buns, hamburger buns, etc.

  • Eat only one or two croutons from the salad… or remove them altogether.

  • Order pizza with extra thin crust (NOT thick or regular crust).

  • Request that the dinner roll or Texas toast NOT be served with the meal.  Chances are that it will not even be missed!

  • Ask to substitute a vegetable or side salad for the potato or rice that normally comes with the meal. Many restaurants are willing to do this at NO extra charge.

  • Order smaller servings of pasta meals (lunch portions are often available).

  • Double and triple dip the chips at Mexican restaurants (of course you will need to ask for your own dish of salsa!). This way we end up eating more of the salsa (which is veggie based) and LESS of chips!

4. When grabbing a fast food meal to go, add a healthy side item at home.

Consider leaving the French fries off of the order and instead pair the meal with a quick-fix veggie at home:

  • Serve raw, cut up veggies and dip with the fast food meal.

  • Frozen veggies may quickly be heated on the stove (adding a bit of olive oil, pepper, garlic powder and salt transforms them into a delicious addition to a fast food burger meal).  

  • Throw together a quick salad to go with the pizza. 

  • Canned veggies such as green beans or carrots are a super easy addition to a fast food meal (and are WAY more healthful than eating French fries!).  Buy veggies with < 300 mg of sodium per serving.

5. Practice mindful eating skills with restaurant meals.

Eat the meal slowly and focus on how delicious the food tastes. Restaurant portions are often very large. We are often satisfied after eating a portion of the meal. Pack up the left-overs for lunch tomorrow!


Jenny Favret, MS,RD,LDN

Nutritionist, Duke Pediatrics Healthy Lifestyles Program

September, 2018


Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder via unsplash.com

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