You’re eating out with friends, and the waiter hands you a menu. Suddenly, your eyes glaze over. What should you order at the restaurant that falls in line with your healthy eating goals?
When dining out, there are seemingly endless options, and it’s hard to know which dishes are healthy and which aren’t. It’s enough to make you dizzy! But usually restaurants will have healthy (or healthy-ish!) choices — it just takes a little sleuthing to find them.
That’s why it’s so important to know ahead of time what’s a smart order, no matter what eatery you choose — whether it’s an Italian, Mexican or American spot. Follow this guide on how to eat healthy at a variety of restaurants. This way, you can fully enjoy your meal — and your company.
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The restaurant: Italian
It can be daunting to try and choose a healthy Italian option when given a menu with a list of pasta and pizzas. But trust us — there are ways to enjoy Italian cuisine without derailing your goals. The key, of course, is to choose wisely!
Order this: Caprese salad with grilled chicken or a pasta dish with a marinara sauce and vegetables
A caprese salad, made with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and a drizzle of olive oil is a light and fresh choice. You’ll get protein and calcium from the cheese1 (try to stick to one serving which is a little less than a ¼ cup) and potassium from the tomatoes.2 Pair it with grilled chicken for another hit of lean protein. Check out these 8 proven health benefits of protein.
Another option — a pasta dish with marinara sauce and vegetables. Pasta doesn’t have to be avoided, especially when it comes with a tomato-based marinara sauce and some delicious veggies like zucchini and carrots. Just keep an eye on your portion size — and try to stick to 1 cup of pasta. Ask for a to-go box with your meal so you can save some for lunch the next day!
Avoid this: Creamy pastas and breadsticks
Yes, creamy pasta sauces like Alfredo taste delicious, but they’re often served in large portions, which can make sticking to your goals difficult. An extra large plate will pack on the sauce and turn your meal into something that’s loaded with calories and saturated fat, thanks to the ample cheese and heavy cream.3 Not only can too much saturated fat throw off your weight loss goals, but it can raise your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood, according to the American Heart Association.4 That, in turn, can up your risk of heart disease and stroke.4
Meanwhile, breadsticks can easily raise the calorie count of your meal without adding quality nutrition to your plate. Your best bet is to avoid them, but if you do go for the bread basket, try to stick to one piece.
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The restaurant: American
Most foods at American restaurants come smothered in cheese or layered on a bun. But there are still hacks to make a nutritious pick!
Order this: A grilled chicken salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil or a burger “protein style”
Almost every classic American restaurant or diner will have at least one salad on the menu — often it will come topped with tomatoes, carrots and if you’re lucky, maybe even more good-for-you veggies. Here’s the catch: The chicken is sometimes fried, so ask for yours to be grilled if you can. Skip the creamy ranch dressing, and ask for balsamic vinegar and olive oil on the side. Just be mindful of how much oil you pour on top — you’ll want to aim for about a teaspoon if your goals include weight loss.
If you’re craving a burger, order yours “protein style,” which means it’s served without the bun on a bed of lettuce (restaurant buns are typically oversized and are packed with simple carbs). Grilled vegetables or a side salad complement this dish perfectly.
Avoid this: A burger with the works, plus fries
These days, it seems like almost every burger joint is trying to outdo each other with creative burgers, whether it’s a double burger with fried onion rings or one that’s slathered in guacamole and sour cream.
All those add-ons up the burger’s calorie count and saturated fat, which isn’t ideal when you’re sticking to a healthy eating routine. Just remember, simple is better when it comes to burgers (unless you’re talking lots of veggie additions!).
Then, skip the fries, and see if you can get a side salad instead. French fries are notoriously high in sodium, which can quickly up your count for the day. (Here’s how much sodium you should actually have in a day.) Too much sodium could put you at risk for high blood pressure.5
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The restaurant: Chinese
Fried rice tastes oh-so-good, but if you avoid the “f” word when you order, you’ll find there are still tons of healthy and tasty choices!
Order this: Steamed anything or a beef and broccoli dish
When you see “steamed” on the menu, order up! Yes, we know fried wontons are tempting, but eating a diet filled with fried foods is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.6 Order your protein steamed rather than fried, as well as your rice.
Another option — consider a classic beef and broccoli dish — the beef is typically not breaded and deep-fried and neither is the broccoli. Broccoli can taste amazing and is full of filling good-for-you fiber.7 Add brown rice for a healthy whole grain to complete the meal.
Avoid this: Orange beef or chicken and General Tso's Chicken
It’s true that orange glaze is delicious, but it’s typically made with loads of sugar.8 Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to weight gain and medical conditions.9 Skip it, and opt for a meat that isn’t slathered in a thick sauce.
Another popular dish, General Tso's Chicken, is generally deep-fried and made with a thick, sweet sauce.10 Plus, it’s typically served on a bed of rice, without many veggies. Instead, order a dish that usually comes loaded with nutritious, filling veggies, like Kung Pao chicken.11
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The restaurant: Mexican
You might be surprised how healthy Mexican food can be when you stick to smart portion sizes and avoid too many toppings.
Order this: Grilled fish tacos with salsa
Take the opportunity to order some delicious fish for its protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for your heart.12 Skip the fried versions and go for grilled instead. Keep things light and add some salsa, too, but avoid the sour cream, which can up the taco’s saturated fat content.
Avoid this: Everything nachos and fried dishes (like taquitos and tostadas)
Bigger is often considered better when it comes to nachos, but not when you’re trying to stick to your healthy eating plan. Skip the dish when dining out, and then make a healthier version at home.
It’s also worth passing on all the fried entrées, like taquitos and tostadas. Think about ordering a taco instead (on a tortilla that isn’t fried and crispy). Avoid chimichangas, which are essentially deep-fried burritos.
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The restaurant: Greek
Because it’s situated on the Mediterranean, you know there are tons of nutritious, fresh options.
Order this: Avgolemono soup and hummus dip
Avgolemono soup is light and simple (but also tasty!). It’s made of egg and lemon juice, and often includes chicken and rice.
Hummus is another classic Greek order, made with chickpeas that give the spread its high-protein punch. Pair it with veggies and consider ordering some dolmades — another healthy choice — which are stuffed grape leaves (usually filled with rice and herbs).
Avoid this: Moussaka and gyros
Moussaka is like a “Greek lasagna” that’s made with eggplant, meat and cheese. It’s rich and can be high in calories.13 So, while it’s fine to enjoy every now and then, it’s better to have occasionally, rather than every time you order.
Gyros, too, can be packed with calories because the meat isn’t always the leanest (it’s typically a combination of meats, like beef and lamb). Instead, go for a Greek salad with a lean protein on top.
Now you can enjoy your dining out experience with a (pretty much!) guaranteed healthy pick. Happy ordering!
Want to make healthy choices easier? With Jenny Craig, your meal planning and prepping is done for you! Book an appointment with a weight loss coach to get started today.
Leslie Barrie has a health writing and editing background, and holds her master's degree from Columbia University Graduate Journalism School. Over the past 10 years, she has worked at various magazines in New York City, such as Woman's Day, Health, Seventeen, and more. When she's not writing about health, she likes living it — she enjoys running, hiking, swimming, and yoga (even though she's not the best at it, it helps her to relax!).
Favorite healthy snack: a piece of dark chocolate with a handful of almonds
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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Edited by Elisa - Jenny Craig