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How to dine out healthier without feeling deprived

By Michelle Rogers, CPT | November 12, 2021 | Healthy Lifestyle, Nutrition

Hand-off of McDonalds bag at the drive-thru

Americans love to eat out. But studies show that people who eat out consume significantly more calories than they realize. It’s not uncommon for one restaurant or fast-food meal to contain an entire day’s worth of calories, fat and sodium. It’s no wonder we’re struggling!

Look, no one’s saying you have to ditch the food you love for a sad plate of lettuce. Instead, why not start with one or more small changes based on the following suggestions.

I did this myself, and it helped me lose 60 pounds without giving up foods I enjoyed.

Knowledge is power

Knowing your options can make it easier to make healthier choices when eating out. As part of a federal law, calories are now listed on menus and menu boards of restaurants and other food establishments that have 20 or more locations.

Planning ahead helps. You can look up calorie counts on each restaurant’s website, or use this site which list the nutritional information for all the major chains:

The average adult needs around 2,000 calories a day, but may be more or less depending on gender, activity level and age.

Fast food: Small swaps can make a huge difference

If you like to visit the drive-thru on the regular, you aren’t alone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-third of all adults in the U.S. dine out daily at fast food restaurants.

Obviously, eating less fast food would be better for your health. But, if getting your fast food fix is non-negotiable for you, there is a way to make a meal healthier without giving up your restaurant faves. The secret sauce? Substitution and portion size.

Here I’ve compared two sample meals at fast food restaurants. Look at the drastic difference in calories, fat and sodium between the two options!


Meal 1:

  • Big Mac
  • Large Fries
  • Large Dr. Pepper

TOTAL: 1,340 calories; 52 g fat; 1,395 mg sodium

Meal 2:

  • Double Hamburger
  • Small Fries
  • Large Diet Dr. Pepper

TOTAL: 560 calories; 25 g fat; 875 mg sodium


Meal 1:

  • Chicken Deluxe Sandwich
  • Large Waffle Fries
  • Large Vanilla Milkshake

TOTAL: 1,700 calories; 80 g fat; 2,420 mg sodium

Meal 2:

  • Grilled Chicken Sandwich
  • Large Fruit Cup
  • Small Ice Cream Cone
  • Large Diet Coke

TOTAL: 560 calories; 10 g fat; 860 mg sodium

Burger King

Meal 1:

  • Whopper with Cheese
  • Large Onion Rings
  • Chocolate Milk Shake

TOTAL: 2,154 calories; 108 g fat; 3,314 mg sodium

Meal 2:

  • Whopper Jr.
  • Small Jalapeño Cheddar Bites
  • Small Mocha Iced Coffee

TOTAL: 662 calories; 69 g fat; 885 mg sodium


Meal 1:

  • Footlong Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt
  • Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips
  • 21 oz. Coca Cola Classic

TOTAL: 1,650 calories; 69 g fat; 2,547 mg sodium

Meal 2:

  • 6” Rotisserie Style Chicken
  • Baked Lay’s Chips
  • 21 oz. Diet Coke

TOTAL: 480 calories; 8 g fat; 765 mg sodium

As you can see, by making some simple swaps you can still enjoy fast food while saving a ton of calories, fat and sodium.

Here’s another one of my tricks. Instead of waiting in a drive-thru for greasy fried chicken on the way home, I like to pop in the grocery store for a hot rotisserie chicken. While I’m there I’ll grab a bag of salad and a ready-made side, and voilà! – dinner for the family is done. It’s a healthier choice and costs less than the fried chicken bucket meal, and I’m in and out quickly.

Drinks count, too.

You might be accustomed to considering the amount of calories, fat and sugar in foods. But many people forget that the ingredients in beverages count, too.

At Starbucks, a Grande White Chocolate Mocha with 2% Milk is 400 calories and 11 g fat. However, if you choose the Grande Skinny Mocha instead, it’s 160 calories and 2 g fat.

Cocktails anyone? At Chili’s a Grand Coconut Margarita is 360 calories and loaded with 56 g sugar. But if you sip a 6 oz. glass of red wine instead, it’s 150 calories and just 1 g sugar. Plus, red wine, in moderation, is a heart healthy option.

Salad isn’t always the healthiest choice

We think we’re making a healthy choice when we see the word “salad” on the menu. But be aware when it comes to restaurant salads – it might pack more calories, fat and sodium than a Big Mac meal!

For example, Chili’s Quesadilla Explosion Salad has 1,400 calories, 95 g fat and 2,590 mg sodium. And the Boneless Buffalo Chicken Salad has 1,020 calories, 64 g fat and a whopping 4,780 mg of sodium. That’s more than double the maximum amount of sodium per day recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. High levels of sodium and fat can contribute to high blood pressure.

A lot of the calories, fat and sodium in salads come from the dressing. Many restaurants drench their salads in dressing. When ordering salad off the menu, ask for the dressing on the side so that you can add just what you need.

I’m a fan of salad bars, because I can choose the exact ingredients and portion size that I want.

Tasty tips for healthier dining out

  • Plan ahead. Look at menus and nutritional content online ahead of time.
  • Don’t go to the restaurant over-hungry. Have a healthy snack before you go.
  • Drink water before you go to the restaurant and while you’re there.
  • If you ask, some restaurants will let you order from the lunch menu instead of dinner menu. It’s smaller portions and a lower price, too. So are the kids menu and senior specials.
  • Choose baked or grilled instead of fried.
  • Skip heavy sauces and gravy, or ask for it on the side.
  • Don’t be afraid to make special requests such as no cheese, or to substitute a different side.
  • Make a meal of an appetizer and a side salad.
  • Restaurants are known for large portions. Ask for a to-go container with your meal and divide it up before you eat. Or, split an entree with your dining partner.
  • Choose whole grains (such as brown rice or whole grain pasta) instead of refined grains like white rice and pasta. Or, ask to substitute vegetables for the starchy pasta or rice.
  • Choose a baked potato instead of fries. Ask for butter or sour cream on the side.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, consider sticking to just one beer or glass of wine.
  • If you really want a soft drink, order a small or sugar-free variety.
  • Request no bread basket or endless nachos on the table.
  • Skip dessert or share it.
  • Eat slowly. “It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message from your stomach that you are no longer hungry. Fast eaters often are over eaters, while slow eaters tend to eat less and are still satisfied,” advises the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Take a walk after your meal.

Why it matters

About 74% of adults are overweight or have obesity. This puts people at risk for a number of health conditions.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. 45% of adults have hypertension (high blood pressure). In addition, high LDL and high total blood cholesterol, stroke, certain cancers, and osteoporosis are among the many health conditions associated with obesity and poor nutritional habits. Almost 90% of adults with diabetes also are overweight or have obesity (Source). Teens and children are also at risk, with obesity rates increasing.