Read the Restaurant Menu Before You Leave Home to Lose Weight

Appetizing dietetic salad of  aubergine

More and more we are choosing to get our meals from sit-in and fast food restaurants. In 2002 away-from-home foods comprised about 46 percent of the food budget for American families1. This growing trend in dining out results from an increased desire for quick, tasty, low priced food2. The negative side effect, according to the FDA, is that unhealthy restaurant food has become one of the contributing factors in the rising level of obesity3. Although there are some signs of changes, most menus are filled with unhealthy options. That’s why it’s important to know how to choose healthy restaurants and low fat menu items so that you can maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Researching Menus

Most of us get into dietary trouble when we eat out because we simply aren’t aware of the nutritional value of the food we consume. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed that greater nutritional education leads to better food choices4. That’s why the first step in making healthy food selections is learning how to research menu choices in advance of a meal. All that’s required is a little preplanning and a few minutes of research on the internet.

Gaining some nutritional education is the best way to preserve a healthy diet when going out to eat. You don’t have to guess what the healthiest options on the menu are anymore. Most fast food chains and restaurants have dietary charts to their menus available online. These nutritional guides give you the calorie, fat, fiber, cholesterol, sodium, protein, sugar, and carbohydrate content of just about everything on the menu. There are also several books available at your local library and independent websites that list the nutritional value of the major American fast food restaurants. These resources serve as an invaluable source to help you make better ordering decisions because they show you exactly what you’re getting in each food item.

To make the most of this information, decide on a restaurant before you leave the house. Then go online and pull up the nutritional guides for the establishment and pick 2 or 3 of the most appealing healthy meals on the menu, so that you’ll have several options when it comes time to order. It may also be helpful to print out these nutritional guides and keep them in your car so that you’ll never be without dietary information when dining out.

Choosing Healthy Options

Due to the rising awareness of the importance of a nutritional diet, some restaurants may put special indicators on their menu by their healthy food options to let you know which food choices are low fat. But if that’s not available, you need to know some basic nutritional guidelines for ordering healthy food.

The first thing to be aware of is that not all salads are healthy. Avoid salads with creamy dressings and fried chicken. Instead, stick with vinegar based dressings and salads with lots of vegetables.

As for meat, stay away from fried foods, which are high in fat and cholesterol. Because it’s high in protein and relatively low in fat, baked or grilled chicken is a good option. Fish is also a wise choice, as it contains healthy oils and fats that help reduce your risk of heart disease.

It’s also important to know that the entrees at most restaurants are much larger than the recommended serving size for a meal. So if you’re feeling full but still have food on your plate, ask for a take-home box. That way you can limit yourself to smaller portion sizes.

Also, don’t be afraid to have your waiter help you find a healthy choice. If you’re not sure what ingredients are used or how a dish is cooked, ask your server. And feel free to make special requests like removing butter or fatty sauces from your order or substituting steamed vegetables for French fries.

Picking Healthy Restaurants

It seems to go without saying that picking healthy menu items is much easier at healthy restaurants. But that is easier said than done, because restaurants that serve a good selection of healthy food are few and far between. But if you know what to look for, you can develop a skill for picking restaurants that give you healthy options. Here’s what you need to know.

The American Heart Association recommends cutting all-you-can-eat buffets out of your restaurant rotation, as these establishments encourage overeating5. The quality of food is generally low at these establishments anyway, because the food has been sitting under heat lamps for hours.

Choose places with a large variety of menu options. Even though these establishments may have several unhealthy items, you can usually find healthy dishes on larger menus. The main thing to keep in mind when searching for healthy restaurants is that the restaurant doesn’t have to have a perfect menu; it just needs to have several healthy options that suit your taste.

Your odds of finding something nutritious are also greater at organic restaurants. These establishments tend to promote healthy eating and use local, chemical-free produce. Organic restaurants also offer a wide variety of menu items throughout the year because they typically only use produce that’s in season. If you’re looking for an organic restaurant near you, do a quick google search for organic eateries in your city and you’ll likely find a list of several places in your area.

Nutritional education is important because what you eat impacts your energy level, weight, heart health, and life span, just to give a few examples. So if you start making healthy food choices when dining out, it will have positive effects in almost every aspect of your life. You don’t have to fret over every calorie or count every gram of fat. All you have to do is incorporate what you’ve learned here and develop a simple plan to evaluate your local restaurants and their menu options. Eventually these small steps will simply become part of your healthier life.



Variyam, J. (2005). Nutrition Labeling in the Food-Away-From-Home Sector: An Economic Assessment.U.S.Department of Agriculture.

Stewart, H., Blisard, N., & Jolliffe, D. (2006). Let’s Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience, and Nutrition.Washington,DC:U.S. Department of Agriculture.

3 Questions and Answers – Keystone Forum Report on Away-From-Home Foods. (2009, May 22). Retrieved from U.S. Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ReportsResearch/ucm082074.htm

4 Klohe-Lehman, D., & Freeland-Graves, J. (2006). Nutritional Knowledge Is Associated with Greater Weight Loss in Obese and Overweight Low-Income Mothers. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 65-75.

5 Choosing a Restaurant. (2010, September 2010). Retrieved from American Heart Association: www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/DiningOut/Choosing-a-Restaurant_UCM_301438_Article.jsp


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