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Advice for eating clean when you’re not in charge of the kitchen.

Jenny McCoy
January 18, 2018

Even the most passionate chefs can crave a night out at a restaurant. A delicious meal with the right company can be (nearly) as nice as a home-cooked meal. Plus, you don’t have to do dishes.

The downside: when you’re not in charge of the menu or the cooking, it’s hard to control the healthiness of your meal. Excess calories, salt, fat, sugar and other additives are all too common in commercially crafted meals. In fact, a 2013 study from the University of Toronto found the average restaurant meal has more than 50 percent the USDA's current daily calorie recommendation, nearly 90 percent of the daily recommended amount of fat and 1.5 times the daily recommended amount of sodium.

Luckily, with the right knowledge and planning, you can ensure your restaurant meal doesn’t spell disaster for your diet. Here, three registered dietitians share their go-to tips for eating clean while eating out.

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Pregame with veggies

Eat a small salad or a bowl of roasted veggies about 30 to 45 minutes before going out. This fiber-filled snack will balance your blood sugar and ensure you don’t arrive at the restaurant ravenous, says North Carolina-based registered dietitian Sarah Schlichter.

Scope the menu before arrival

Peeking a restaurant’s selections in advance can help you make smarter choices, says Jenny Markowitz, a Pennsylvania-based registered dietitian. “When you're not on the spot with the waiter at your side or juggling conversation with your dining partners, you can thoroughly read the menu and make a plan that aligns with your nutrition goals,” she explains.

It's also helpful to have an idea of what you'll be eating so that if you do want to splurge, you can account for that throughout the rest of your meals that day or week. “Nutrition is all about balance,” Markowitz says. “One decadent meal doesn't derail a health plan and there is certainly room for some extra calories when most meals check all the right boxes.”

Decode the menu

When you’re browsing the menu, look out for words like breaded, parmesan- or panko-crusted, fried, batter-dipped, sautéed, confit, and au gratin. “These all mean that one way or another, your protein of choice was coated with bread crumbs and/or cheese, and then cooked in animal fat, butter or oil,” explains Jessica Krauss, an integrative nutrition health coach in NYC.

Your best protein options are ones that are baked, broiled or grilled. “This guarantees a clean method of cooking, with the simple addition of little to no oil and some herbs or spices for flavoring,” she adds.

The same goes for your veggies. Zucchini "fries" and eggplant "chips" sound like better-for-you alternatives, but they’re still coated with breadcrumbs or dipped in batter and deep-fried in oil, explains Krauss, who recommends steering clear of anything advertised as tempura, fritters, fried, crispy, crunchy and battered. Instead, pick items that are steamed, grilled or roasted.

WATCH: How Healthy Are Veggie Chips, Exactly?

Lastly, avoid thick and creamy sauces such as béchamel, béarnaise, bisque, carbonara, hollandaise, scampi, and anything smothered, says Krauss. “The majority of these sauces have a heavy-cream base, with other fattening additions such as butter, mayonnaise or cheese,” she explains. Cleaner bets: salad dressings made of oil, vinegar, and herbs; sugar-free tomato basil sauce; and a no-cream pesto.

Consider salads carefully

If you don’t have time to eat your greens at home before your meal, you can still find them as an option on most menus. Just know: not all salads are created equal.

Avoid ordering salads with crispy toppings, candied nuts, and tons of cheese, says Markowitz, as these ingredients can quickly transform a good-for-you bed of greens into a calorie, fat and sugar extravaganza. Either ask for these toppings on the side, in smaller portions or omitted altogether.

Also: make sure that your salad actually contains vegetables. Certain meal items advertised as “salad” may not even contain any fresh produce, says Markowitz. If you don’t see a suitably healthy salad, you can ask for a plate of lettuce with some lemon and olive oil. “It’s something any restaurant can prepare for an easy, tasty option that will do the trick,” she says.

Lastly, go easy on the dressing. “Restaurant salads are notorious for drowning in dressing, which can add up to 400 calories,” says Markowitz. Always request dressing on the side so you can be in control. Dressing to your liking can save at least 100 calories.

New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here, with the Cooking Light Diet.

Speak up

Perhaps the simplest, most effective thing you can do at a restaurant to stick to your diet plan is ask, says Markowitz. Ask about preparations and portions, substitutions, additions and things on the side. “The worst that can happen is that you get a ‘no,’” she says. “More likely, the restaurant will work with you to create a meal that is satisfying and healthy to you.”

Hydrate with lemon water

To counteract the extra sodium that often accompanies restaurant meals, hydrate with a refreshing, no-calorie beverage: lemon water. 

“A squeeze of lemon in your water adds a natural detoxifying agent and eases digestion after a large meal,” explains Krauss.

Curb your bread intake

“Don't even let your waiter put the bread basket down to tempt you,” advises Krauss. Eating one small dinner roll with butter tacks on an extra 100 to 150 calories without providing any nutritional benefit.

If you truly cannot give up your piece of bread, opt to eliminate drinking alcohol and avoid dessert. Bread, wine, and dessert are all high in carbs and sugar; choose only one of those options, or none if you are truly eating 100% clean.

Monitor portions

Restaurant meal portions have increased substantially in recent years, says Markowitz. Just one dish could easily be close to 1,000 calories or more. Most of us lack the self control to leave half a portion waiting on the plate for a to go box, so don't be afraid to ask the waiter to box half of the plate before it even gets to you.

Another option: look to half or appetizer portions.

“It's completely reasonable to make a meal out of two starters,” she says. “It's not only more fun to try more things, but eating the variety of flavors is more satisfying, so you're less likely to be looking for a bite from your neighbor's plate when you finish your own.”

On that note, it's also always a good idea to share with the table, says Markowitz. “I always suggest sharing decadent dishes like pasta. A few bites from a plate shared among four invites room for lighter options without leaving you feeling deprived.”

Sub veggies for chips

Instead of a basket of chips, ask for a plate of raw veggies—like carrot and celery sticks, cucumber and radish slices, and cherry tomatoes—to dip into the guac, salsa, or hummus.

“Vegetables provide all the crunch of a tortilla chip with tons of nutritious benefits,” says Krauss. “It’s also a great way to sneak in extra veggies to your (or your child's) diet, especially when dining at a place with limited healthy options.”

Be smart with dessert

If your party agrees, say no to viewing the dessert menu, advises Markowitz. “It's better to not even know what you're missing,” she says. “But if the table is up for sweet treats, order something instead of trying to resist a taste as your co-diners rave about what you're missing.” Markowitz’s suggestions: a tea or coffee; or, some fruit or a sorbet. Just go easy on portion sizes. “Ask for just one scoop,” she says. “And no whipped cream or fancy sauces drizzled alongside, please.”