Nutrition with Nina - Blog - How to eat out and still be healthy in Summer 2024

How to Eat Out and Be Healthy
In Summer 2024

Avoid the challenges and Try these 10 Practical Ideas

Can you eat out and be healthy without compromising your health goals? We all enjoy an invitation to eat out but eating a meal at a restaurant shouldn’t mean derailing your healthy eating plans. Here are 10 nutritionist-approved ideas to help you make smart choices and stay on your chosen health-track. 

What Makes Eating Out Healthily A Challenge?

Navigating healthy eating when dining out can be challenging, especially when you’re faced with obstacles that test your commitment to your health and nutritional goals. From spotting calorie-dense / nutrient-poor options, hunting out hidden ingredients, or feeling pressured to ‘fit in with the crowd’, planning to eat out and be healthy can be a complex affair.

Calorie-dense but nutrient-poor meals

You’ll often find yourself scanning menus filled with tantalising dishes. But on closer inspection you find that while they’re rich in calories they’re pretty devoid of nutrients.

When eating out leaves you frustrated by the limited availability of wholesome options, it’s all too common to feel torn between convenience and sticking to your dietary goals.

Hidden ingredients

Ever found yourself pleasantly surprised by a seemingly healthy dish at a restaurant, only to discover hidden ingredients that sabotage your efforts? You’re not alone. From excessive fats to sneaky sugars and additives, restaurant meals can pack a punch in terms of hidden pitfalls.

These stealthy ingredients make it challenging to stay on track with your health-conscious choices, leaving you feeling disheartened and uncertain about what to order.

Peer pressure

Let’s not forget the social pressures that come into play when dining out with friends or family. Picture this: everyone eagerly discussing menu options, and suddenly you’re faced with a dilemma. Do you stick to your dietary intentions or succumb to the temptation to indulge?

It’s a tough spot to be in, but social expectations are a real factor that can derail your healthy eating plans.

Ideas to eat out and be healthy. Four plates of food on a table - 3 are burger and chips and one is a salad and sandwich
Beware of social pressure when you eat out. A desire to fit in
with the crowd can derail your healthy eating plans.

What Healthy Eating Principles Can You Follow When Eating Out?

Consider that today’s standard Western diet is more likely to include processed foods, ultra processed foods, added sugars, artificial sweeteners and fast foods. At the same time, it’s depleted in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and low in fibre too.

It’s a combination which poses a challenge to maintaining optimal health.

Fortunately, there are some broad dietary themes that can help transform an AVERAGE Western diet into an OPTIMISED Western diet. One that’s more likely to meet essential nutritional needs. These include: 

  • Increasing your vegetable intake 
  • Getting enough good quality plant and animal protein
  • Eating essential fats 
  • Having an appropriate amount of carbohydrates on your plate
  • Eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods

When you’re dining out following these principles could help keep your healthy eating efforts on track.

If you need some ideas on ways to support your healthy eating plans and health progress with key nutrients, check out this recent blog:

3 Core Supplements for Women in 2024.

Woman eating out healthily as she tucks into a meal of grilled fish, vegetables and rice.
Follow general principles that help you eat fewer heavily-processed
and more nutrient-packed foods and enjoy an 'optimised Western diet',
even when you're eating out.

10 Ideas on
How to Eat Out and Be Healthy

Here are 10 nutritionist-approved ideas on how to make healthier choices when you’re eating out. From a focus on nutrient-rich veggie starters to creating better-balanced main courses, you’ll find plenty of healthy-eating strategies to try.

3 Ideas on Choosing Starters to Eat Out and Be Healthy

— Starters —

#1 – Order olives or crudites instead of bread.

When you’re eating out and focusing on your health you can get a quick win by boosting your vegetable intake. Did you know that out of all the different foods, eating vegetables and fruit is most strongly associated with better long term health? 

#2 – Choose a dish with a high protein content, such as smoked salmon, sashimi, prawns, edamame or a bean soup.

Having a protein-rich starter can help keep your meal more nutritionally balanced, especially if you’re eating a carbohydrate-rich dish – pasta, pizza, biriyani – for your main.

#3 – Have a side salad with a simple dressing like virgin olive oil and vinegar, a vegetable-based dish (avoiding breadcrumbs or frying), or a cream-free veggie soup. If you’re planning to eat bread, have the salad first.

One sign of a healthy, well-balanced meal is that it doesn’t produce a massive spike in insulin, the hormone that helps manage your blood glucose levels. Starting your meal with fibre-rich veggies with a vinegar dressing helps regulate your insulin. Even if you eat more starchy carbs later on, insulin levels don’t rise as much.

A plate of green lettuce, tomatoes and smoked fish. Ideas to eat out and be healthy.
Choosing a vegetable-rich starter is a sure-fire way
to eat out and be healthy. Adding fish, beans or eggs offers
opportunities to focus on protein too.

4 Ideas on Choosing Mains to Eat Out and Be Healthy

— Mains —

#4 – Stick to simple options and ‘whole’ cuts of meat. Choose a steak, chop, leg, or fillet instead of a burger or sausages.

A ‘whole’ piece of meat, poultry or fish is likely to be less processed, reducing the likelihood of hidden ingredients ending up on your plate.

#5 – If you’re minding your intake of dietary fats and oils, opt for leaner meats and fish. Think chicken, turkey, game, skate, seabass or wild cod, instead of lamb or pork chops.

Although the healthy eating conversation often centres on reducing fats (and calories), it’s important to not overlook their importance for women’s health. By eating good quality fats and oils you’re supporting hormonal balance, mood, cognition, cardiovascular health, skin and your joints.

#6 – Follow ‘The Rule of 4’ and keep the carbohydrate-portion of your meal to just a quarter of your plate. 

What’s ‘The Rule of 4’? A really simple way to build a more balanced plate of food. The goal is to have a healthy mix of macros, and you achieve this by dividing your plate into 4 zones. A 1/4 is for protein, 1/2 is for greens, and a 1/4 for starchy carbs. That’s it: ‘The Rule of 4’

If you’re eating pizza, pasta, risotto or a biryani, then you’ll need to do some creative ordering to avoid complete carb overload.

#7 – Are you a vegan, vegetarian or eating plant-based? Remember  protein doesn’t mean you have to rely on soy. Go for beans, lentils, pulses, nuts or seeds instead. Houmous, dahl, bean stews, 3-bean chili, nut roasts are all protein-rich options.

Choosing vegetarian or vegan options often means you end up eating soy-based products. But we all know variety is the spice of life! Eating beans, lentils, pulses and nuts gives you more than just protein, they’re a source of fibre and phytonutrients that are great for your heart and digestive health.

A plate of food with a combination of pasta, fish for protein and plenty of green and red vegetables. Ideas to eat out and be healthy.
Follow 'The Rule of 4' (see #7) for a simple way to achieve
better balance between veg, protein and starchy carbs when you're eating out.

3 Ideas on Buffets and Bits on the side to Eat Out and Be Healthy

— Buffets & Bits On the Side —

#8 – Buffets: Circle twice, swoop once

Don’t fall foul of all-you-can-eat buffets. The trick here is to take your time. Make a first pass to see all that’s on offer. Next time round make your choices. Once you’ve eaten everything – stop! You’ve had a full plate of food so there’s no need to head back for more.

#9 – Drinks: Go for lower sugar options, like sparkling water, dry white wine or unsweetened tea to drink with your meal. Drinking carbonated drinks, smoothies, juice drinks, sweet wines, liqueurs or cocktails will add unnecessary added sugars (and calories) to your meal.

A glass of water or herbal tea goes towards your daily goal of drinking enough fluid to be well hydrated. Sadly the wine doesn’t count here. 

#10 – Seasonings: Forget those creamy, rich or sweet sauces or ketchups and choose dishes that are seasoned with Cornish sea salt, citrus, olives, anchovies, spices and herbs, or mustard.

Ketchups and condiments can add extra calories and sugar to your meals surprisingly quickly. Consider that a tablespoon of ketchup has 17 kcal and 3.6g of sugar, brown sauce is roughly the same (18 kcal and 3.5g). Want to splash on some sweet chili sauce? You’re looking at 35 kcal and a significant 8.4g of sugar per tablespoon. Lower sugar options include mustard (9 kcal and 0.2g sugar) or mayonnaise (94 kcal and 0.1g sugar).

Ideas to eat out and be healthy. Herbal tea and filtered water replace smoothies, cola or juices
Swap smoothies, carbonated drinks and liqueurs for
water, herbal tea or dry wine to minimise added sugars.

The Takeaway

In today’s dining landscape, it often feels like you have to hit pause on your healthy eating habits whenever you eat out at restaurants. But, there are ways to answer the question ‘Can I eat out and still be healthy?’ with a resounding YES!!, when you’re armed with knowledge about healthy eating and have a few trusted strategies at your fingertips.

Being knowledgeable about healthy eating could mean having an understanding of macronutrients, which are the carbs, fats and proteins in your meal. Or appreciating the impact of different cooking methods and knowing whether your dish is fried, grilled, steamed or stir-fried.

As for strategies that encourage healthy eating, you might plan to choose a veg-based starter, and a main with a ‘whole’ cut of meat or fish. Or beans and lentils might feature in your meal.

If you’re feeling stressed because your options are limited, take comfort in remembering: This is just 1 meal; you can work some magic into the next.

Nina Sabat, Nutritional therapist and Nutritionist in London

What’s your experience of eating out and sticking to your health plans?

What strategies already work for you, or which of my 10 ideas would you like to try next?

You can leave your comment below as I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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Images by Alex Haney, Dan Gold, Travis Yewell, Tania Melnyczuk, Rui Silvestre and Sebastian Sammerat Unsplash.