Experts dish about how to dine out on a diet—without feeling deprived.

By Linda Gassenheimer
Updated May 01, 2019
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Going out to dinner tonight? You've got plenty of company. Almost 75 percent of us eat at a restaurant at least once a week, and 25 percent dine out every two or three days, according to a study by the USDA.

And, hey, why not? Letting someone else cook is relaxing—the perfect treat after a busy day.

Trouble is, portion sizes have ballooned in recent years—and most of us tend to polish off every bite. Research by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating, shows that we keep nibbling until our plates are empty rather than waiting for our bodies to signal that we're full, no matter how big the serving size. So even if you're eating a low-calorie restaurant meal, you may be eating way too much of it.

Relishing in a well-prepared restaurant meal is one of the greatest pleasures in life. By heeding these strategies when dining out on a diet in your favorite restaurants, you can savor Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Italian, and American eateries without saying ciao to lasagna or hasta luego to tostadas.

10 Expert Tips for Dining Out on a Diet

  1. Ditch the starve-yourself-all-day routine. You've booked a big dinner, so you skip lunch. Sound familiar? Don't. By the time you arrive at the restaurant you're famished, and hello, here's the bread basket! Two or three pieces later (with butter, of course), you've eaten a couple hundred calories—and you haven't even spoken to the waiter. Instead, dig into a light lunch, such as a salad with salmon and veggies and a whole-grain roll. Then in the late afternoon, have a small snack—a container of Greek yogurt or a handful of nuts (try these 10 healthy nuts and seeds). Keeping your hunger under control means you won't dive into the bread basket the moment you're shown to your table.
  2. Go easy on the wine. If you want a glass of pinot noir, by all means, have it. Just don't go overboard. One study found that women who indulged in more than two drinks a day consumed nearly 30 percent more calories (because that second glass of cab tastes better with a slice of chocolate cake, right?). Stick to one glass of wine—which is what the American Medical Association advises as best for your health. (Related: How to Pick a Low-Carb Wine)
  3. Beware of dishes labeled "light." More and more low-calorie restaurant meals are being highlighted on menus—and we love that!—but unfortunately, the claim isn't always true. Read the menu carefully. Look for a balance of lean protein (fish, chicken breast, pork tenderloin, strip steak), complex carbohydrates (brown rice, whole wheat pasta) and monounsaturated fats (canola or olive oil). If you want more information to help you choose the healthiest meals, go to the restaurant's website ahead of time to see if they list nutritional information for each dish.
  4. Practice portion control. Eat three-quarters of what's on your plate and then stop when dining out on a diet. According to James Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, this one simple step can easily shave up to 300 calories off your meal. What's more, you'll be so satisfied from eating 75 percent of your dinner that you'll barely miss those extra few bites.
  5. Be smart about salad. At the salad bar, fill your plate with veggies, greens, chickpeas, and edamame, and top it with one or two tablespoons of low-fat dressing. Limit the bacon bits, cheese, croutons, and creamy dressings. Ditto for pasta, tuna, or chicken salads swimming in mayo. Stick to a quarter-cup serving or less. (Related: The Least Healthy Salads at Your Favorite Lunch Spots)
  6. Don't be afraid to ask. Restaurants will honor all kinds of special requests—all you have to do is speak up. Order your food grilled, baked, broiled, poached, or steamed instead of fried. Ask for dishes to be cooked with a little olive oil instead of butter. Request extra veggies—and less pasta—in your pasta primavera.
  7. Pick the best protein. Gotta have a steak? A 10-ounce rib-eye can pack 780 calories or more. Seek out leaner cuts of beef, such as tenderloin, flank steak, or strip when dining out on a diet. The recommended serving size is approximately 5 ounces (about the size of the palm of your hand). If the restaurant doesn't offer one that small, cut your portion in half and take the rest home. (Then use that extra meat in these Steak, Polenta, and Avocado Bowls!)
  8. Get more for less. So many people get stuck on the notion that they have to eat an entree. Says who? Order two appetizers instead and you'll sample twice the food but eat less overall. Or have one appetizer and share a main course with a friend.
  9. Make healthy swaps. Choose whole grains such as brown rice or whole-grain bread over refined white bread and rice. Pass up the French fries and the cheese-stuffed potato and order two vegetables, steamed, or a salad and vegetables. Instead of creamy pasta dishes, opt for those with tomato sauces, which are generally lower in fat and calories. (Related: We're *Obsessed* With These 10 Healthy Fast Casual Restaurants)
  10. Eat dessert. We're not kidding. Try to deny yourself the chocolate souffle and you just might chow down on something worse (like an entire carton of ice cream) when you get home. The smart dining out on a diet strategy: Order one dessert for the table. A few bites should satisfy your sweet tooth. Not in the mood to share? Ask for a low-calorie dessert of berries or a small fruit sorbet.

What to Eat (and What to Avoid) When You're Dining Out on a Diet

Try these low-calorie restaurant meals and healthy choices at every type of restaurant.

Fast food

  • Choose: Grilled chicken or fish (ask for the sauce separately and use just one tablespoon) with a green salad (dressing on the side)
  • Not: Deep-fried foods. Make these 3 craving-busting fast-food recipes at home instead

Mexican

  • Choose: Fajitas made with grilled meats and vegetables, burritos or enchiladas filled with chicken, shrimp, or lean meat and a small amount of cheese
  • Not: Dishes smothered with cheese, fried chimichangas, refried beans, large bowls of tortilla chips (a few with salsa is fine, #balance), pitchers of margaritas (stick to one glass)

Japanese

  • Choose: Sushi made with shrimp, tuna, tofu, or vegetables, sashimi, miso soup, teppanyaki dishes (meat, fish, or vegetables cooked on an iron griddle)
  • Not: Tempura, large platters of sushi rolls (each can be 250 calories or more, and you can easily eat two or three), teriyaki (the sauce can contain a lot of sugar)

Chinese

  • Choose: Stir-fried shrimp, chicken and vegetables, steamed brown rice
  • Not: Dishes with thick sweet-and-sour sauces like Kung Pao chicken, large bowls of rice, fried egg rolls, lo mein, breaded or deep-fried foods such as orange beef

Indian

  • Choose: Tandoori chicken or other foods cooked in a tandoor oven; look for "tikka" or "bhuna" dishes, which aren't covered with heavy sauces (or DIY these 8 Easy Indian Food Recipes)
  • Not: Dishes that come with creamy sauces, naan (Indian breads that are often stuffed with potatoes or coconut and topped with butter), deep-fried samosas

Italian

  • Choose: Vegetable or seafood antipasto, minestrone soup, fish or chicken dishes served with vegetables, grilled meats
  • Not: Deep-fried and breaded foods such as veal or eggplant parmesan, creamy sauces such as fettuccine Alfredo, dishes stuffed with cheese such as manicotti and calzones

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