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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Five Tips for Healthy Restaurant Eating

April 03, 2013

By Emma Laskey, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

We live in an increasingly mobile society. There seems to be no limit to what we do on the go — talk, text, surf the internet, send e-mails and even eat.

One study found that young adults eat about 40% of their food each day away from home. Other studies have found that frequent eating out is associated with weight gain and poorer diet quality.

Restaurants typically use more salt to season foods than you might at home. Menus are usually filled with fried options. And the portions are often super sized. All of this makes eating healthy on the go difficult.

However, being mindful and doing some planning ahead can go a long way when dining out. Use these tips to navigate restaurant and fast-food menus.

1. Make technology your friend.

Most chain restaurants (eat-in or carry-out) have the nutrition information for their products on their websites. (Some even list it on the menu in the restaurant). By checking the calories, fat, sodium and serving size ahead of time, you can make smart choices when you order. (As long as you stick to your plan!) If your favorite place doesn't list nutrition information online, check out or the smart phone app for common foods and their nutrition information.

 2. Veggies, veggies, veggies.

 Vegetables are naturally low in calories and high in water and fiber. Loading up on these can make you feel full and hopefully prevent you from going overboard on the rest of the meal. Ask for an extra serving of vegetables with your meal (to replace fries or cole slaw). Or get a salad with dressing on the side. Try to eat vegetables that have been steamed, grilled, baked or roasted. These are lower-fat methods of cooking. Another option would be to just order steamed veggies and season them at the table.

 3. Less is more.

The difference between a small and medium order of popcorn is about 270 calories. Stick to the smaller size (no matter what you're ordering), regardless of how good a deal sizing up may be.

Movie Popcorn (unbuttered)

400 calories
20 grams of fat
670 calories
23 grams of fat
270 calories
3 grams of fat


French Fries

340 calories
15 grams of fat
420 calories
21 grams of fat
80 calories
6 grams of fat


4. Choose water or diet drinks.

Ordering regular soda, raspberry limeade or a fancy cocktail can hurt any attempt to keep calories in check. Try to order water, seltzer water, unsweetened iced tea or a diet drink for a treat.

12-ounce Drinks

Lemon-lime soda
142 calories
Seltzer, lemon and lime slices
2 calories
Seltzer, splash of lemonade (2 oz.)
25 calories
117 - 140 calories


5. Ask for a take-home box early on.

Most restaurant dishes are enough for two meals. Ask for a "doggie" bag when your meal is served. Pack up half of it before you start to eat. This will ensure you aren't tempted to indulge in the rest when you are already full! If your meal is already wrapped to go (sub, burrito, etc.) ask for it to be wrapped in two pieces.

A life on the go doesn't have to be a diet-buster. It takes planning and determination, but by following these simple tips, you can enjoy a restaurant meal without going overboard on calories and fat.

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Emma Laskey is a dietetic intern at Brigham & Women's Hospital, has a Bachelor of Science from Syracuse University (2009) in Nutrition and is a Master of Science candidate in Nutrition at California State University, Long Beach.

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