7 Easy Ways To Make Healthy Food Substitutions When Dining Out

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friends at a restaurant making healthy food substitutions

Is it possible to eat healthy when dining out at a restaurant? It certainly is, with some healthy food substitutions!

All you need to do is dive into the menu and find the foods that will be the most healthy and tasty, with the least amount of trouble for yourself, the server, and the kitchen.

Years ago, I had a little anxiety about eating out because I felt obligated to order from the menu and not ask for any changes, whether the food was good for me or not.

Once I started working in the restaurant industry, I changed my view on that because I saw how easy it can be.

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The money you spend in a restaurant should be for your enjoyment and health, not just splurging and potentially regretting it later.  

Restaurants have a goal to make their food as tasty as possible and profitable, not necessarily healthy. If you care about what you eat and want to leave with a happy stomach, then put yourself in the driver’s seat of your experience.

It's entirely possible to have the best food and good nutrition when you're eating out at a restaurant. 

Here are 7 easy ways to make healthy food substitutions when eating out. 

1. Research a restaurant’s menu before you go.

This way you can preview potential options. Call the restaurant (in off-peak hours), ask for a manager, and find out how open they are to requesting menu changes.

If they prefer not to do that, then I recommend going somewhere else.

2. Once you're in the restaurant, search the menu for vegetables.

No matter what they are served with, even if the main course isn’t something you are interested in. Vegetables contain a lot of vitamins and minerals and just happen to be delicious too.

To be specific, look out for the non-starchy veggies — broccoli, carrots, zucchini, squash, bells peppers, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, green beans, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and/or combinations of these.

These types of vegetables cost more and are more labor-intensive so you don’t see them as often. Usually, it’s white potatoes, pasta, or perhaps corn as an accompaniment because they are easy, inexpensive, and well-loved by most customers.

But, let’s be honest, they're certainly not the best choice for nutrition, especially for those glycemic issues, those trying to lose weight, and for gluten allergies in the case of pasta.

If you see rice as a choice, that would be better. At least it’s gluten-free and if it's brown rice then it’s a whole-grain carbohydrate, which is better.

3. The best main course is a lean protein of whatever variety you like.

Stay away from breaded, fried, heavily sauced, and cheese-covered entrees. Grilled meats and fish are the best. Luckily, this is something a large majority of restaurants do well.

Sandwiches, wraps, noodle dishes, and any menu item where a large portion of the food is a carbohydrate will not be as healthy. 

Yes, these items can be delicious, counting burgers and pizza among them, but as for their health benefits, they're less desirable. And as far as bread with the meal goes, just skip it, and ask for it not to be served.

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4. Ordering a salad can be good but doesn’t mean it’s ideal depending on what’s in it.

If all the ingredients are listed on the menu, then you should be able to ask for something to be removed that is less desirable.

You’ll be in good shape if you can maneuver the ingredients, add a lean protein, and have veggies like tomato, carrot, cucumber, onions, etc., which are usually available.

I will often ask if I can get a side of sauteed or grilled seasonal veggies on the side and will sometimes add them into the salad to add more flavor.

For the dressing, ask for a house-made vinaigrette on the side. Manufactured and packaged dressings are generally loaded with unhealthy fats and preservatives. It's best to stay with restaurants that make their own.

5. Pick your beverage, carefully.

What about beverages? The best choices are unsweetened iced tea or coffee. And bring your own stevia or other natural zero-calorie sweetener, club soda with lime, or bottled water.

Most anything else will be loaded with sugar and contain more than the daily recommendation of sugar for an average adult. If you're choosing to have alcohol, then red wine is the best choice.

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A lot of restaurants have a reasonably priced "House Label" red wine that is more than drinkable.

6. Be cautious with appetizers and desserts. 

Appetizer or dessert anyone? I’m sorry that there is generally no good news on either front.

Appetizers are a real minefield of bad choices in most eating establishments, you might consider a shrimp cocktail as the lesser evil.

With desserts, you have sugar, unhealthy fats, and flour to contend with so not a healthy ending here. The best choice would be berries with a small dollop of whipped cream.

7. Avoid fast food. 

But if you do find yourself stuck at such an establishment, have a salad with a grilled meat topping and dressing on the side.

If you're into classic movies, you may remember the movie "When Harry Met Sally" and the extensive list of requests Sally made when ordering in a restaurant.

It's funny to watch but requesting more than 3 changes/exceptions per person can be daunting even for the most seasoned wait staff and kitchen. If you can keep it to no more than 3, the results will be better.

Keep your food substitutions as simple as possible and try to frequent restaurants that welcome creativity. It’s easier than you might think to make healthy and nutritious choices while dining out and not be stuck ordering items only the way they are listed on the menu.

You can still have fun and enjoy yourself while staying healthy. 

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Becky Smith is a Certified Health Coach with a background in Menu Development/Food & Beverage procurement in the restaurant industry. She shares her knowledge of healthy food and healthy lifestyle habits to help her clients achieve their own health/wellness goals and to have the motivation and discipline that it takes to succeed. Go to her website to learn more.