Whether it’s happy hour with coworkers, a birthday dinner with friends, or a big family outing, there’s something special about going out to eat. You have no responsibilities except to enjoy your company, order a glass wine, and eat really good food. (Ah, the beauty of no dishes to clean.) While we’re all about ordering the rich pasta over the fish and veg dish, research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAAND) found that 92 percent of meals from large chain and local restaurants had more calories than recommended for the average eater.
While we’re not calorie counters, the new year has us motivated to clean up our eating a bit. If you’re with us and need help navigating menus and making healthier choices when you dine out, we’ve compiled a slew of advice and research-based tips about how to eat healthier in restaurants.
1. It starts with restaurant selection.
Making healthy choices starts with where you’re eating. Menus from three of the most popular cuisines in the U.S.—American, Italian, Chinese—had the least healthy options, according to the JAAND study. When deciding where to go for dinner, opt for cuisines centered around whole grains, veggies, fats, and lean protein (Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Greek, and Indian typically have better-for-you options).
Also, put restaurants with menus that change seasonally on your radar, which indicates a focus on fresh, local produce. Not only does that make it a more veg-heavy meal, but you’ll notice how much better it tastes too.
2. Think leftovers.
If the Italian joint on the corner is the only place your S.O. wants to go, we have a solution for that too. And it’s not just telling you to order the Caprese salad. How you order is as important as what you order.
Portion sizes have grown by as much as 138 percent since the 1970s (just look at the sizes of sodas now vs. 40 years ago). So instead of passing on your favorite cacio e pepe and ordering a “meal” from the appetizer section, take advantage of the growing portion sizes and order the decadent entrée that you’ve been eyeing with the mindset that half of it will come home with you. The best leftovers are ones that won’t suffer from reheating or hanging out in your fridge for a day. Think: rich risotto; creamy pasta dishes; or big, meaty steaks. Plus, when you have leftovers, you’re getting a two-for-one deal, and man, do we love saving money.
3. Put the phone away, guys.
Whether you’re preoccupied with texts and Snaps or watching the game on a television behind the bar, distracted eating can lead to eating too much. A report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when you’re not paying attention to your meal, you’re not tuned in to the signs that you’re full (or truly enjoying what you’re eating). The report also found that paying attention to a meal was linked to eating less later in the day. So do that trendy thing and be more mindful when you eat.
4. Eat all day long (sort of).
How’s that for advice? If you know you’ll be dining at a restaurant that serves rich food and huge portions, one of the best ways to avoid overdoing isn’t to “save up” for dinner, but to eat throughout the day. You’re not you when you’re hungry, so don’t deprive yourself. Aim to eat a filling, healthy breakfast; a lighter lunch; and a small snack before dinner. If you don’t, it’ll likely be harder to resist the more indulgent (see: fatty, fried, and sweet) dishes on the menu.
5. Dine out in smaller groups.
We know you’re popular, so this might be tough, but you might consider curbing the number of people in your party if you’re trying to be a bit healthier. Several studies, including one published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the more people you dine with at the table, the more you eat. “Meals eaten with one other person present were 33 percent larger than meals eaten alone, whereas 47, 58, 69, 70, 72, and 96 percent increases were associated with two, three, four, five, six, and seven or more people present, respectively,” says study psychologist Jon de Castro.