Eating out is both fun and sociable.
However, studies have linked dining out with overeating and poor food choices (, , , ).
This article lists 20 clever tips to help you eat healthy when eating out.
These will help you stick to your health goals without having to give up your social life.
1. Read the Menu Before You Go
If you're not familiar with the menu, read it before you get to the restaurant.
You're more likely to make unhealthy choices when hungry or distracted (, ).
The sight and smell of food can make sticking to a plan more difficult, especially if you are hungry ().
Choosing your food before you arrive makes it easier to avoid snap decisions you might regret later.
2. Have a Healthy Snack Before You Arrive
If you're hungry when you arrive at a restaurant, you may end up eating too much. One way to prevent this is to eat a healthy snack before you get there.
3. Drink Water Before and During Your Meal
Replacing sugar-sweetened drinks with water can help reduce your intake of calories and added sugar (, , , ).
One study showed that people on a diet who drank 500 ml (17 oz) of water half an hour before a meal ate fewer calories and lost 44% more weight than those who didn't ().
4. Check How Food is Cooked and Prepared
The way food is cooked can have a significant impact on the amount of calories it contains.
Look for food that has been steamed, grilled, roasted or poached. In general, these cooking methods equate to less fat and therefore fewer calories.
Foods that are described on the menu as pan-fried, fried, crispy, crunchy or sautéed will usually contain more fat and more calories.
5. Try Eating Your Meal Mindfully
Mindful eating means making conscious choices about what you consume and giving your full attention to the eating process.
Take the time to savor the aromas and flavors of your meal, as well as thoughts and feelings that arise while you eat ().
Mindful eating has been linked with healthier food choices in restaurants ().
It can also help improve your self-control and prevent you from overeating ().
6. Order Your Meal Before Everyone Else
Other people can influence our decisions without us really noticing.
In social situations, people tend to mimic each other subconsciously, and dining out is no exception.
People's menu choices and eating behaviors can be highly influenced by the choices of other people at the table (, , ).
If you're eating with a group that is likely to order something that doesn't fit into your healthy eating plan, make sure you order first.
7. Order Two Appetizers Instead of a Main
Studies show that people are more likely to overeat when they're served bigger portions (, , ).
If you are going to a restaurant where you know the portions are huge, try ordering two appetizers instead of a main course.
This can help you fill up without going overboard with the calories.
8. Slow Down and Chew Thoroughly
Chewing your food thoroughly and eating slower could help you eat less. It can also make you feel full more quickly (, , ).
When you're eating, try counting a minimum number of chews per mouthful to stop yourself from eating too quickly.
Putting your utensils down between mouthfuls is also a good way to slow down and give your satiety signals some time to kick in.
9. Have a Cup of Coffee Instead of Dessert
Skip dessert and order a coffee instead.
As well as seriously cutting calories and added sugar, you'll also get some of the great health benefits associated with coffee.
10. Avoid All-You-Can-Eat Buffets
People are notoriously bad at estimating portion sizes ().
So when you are faced with an unlimited supply of food at a buffet, eating the right amount can be challenging.
If you're stuck with a buffet as your only choice, using a smaller plate might help you eat less (, ).
Another effective trick is to use a normal-sized plate and fill half of it with salad or vegetables ().
11. Ask to Make A Healthy Swap
Most people aren't eating enough vegetables (, , ).
Vegetables are great, since they contain very few calories, but lots of healthy fiber and nutrients ().
Increasing vegetable intake has also been linked to a reduced risk of many diseases including cancer, obesity and depression (, , ).
When you order your meal, ask the server to swap part of your meal, such as fries or potatoes, for extra vegetables or a salad. You'll boost your vegetable intake and cut your calories.
12. Ask for Sauces or Dressings on the Side
Sauces and dressings can add a lot of extra fat and calories to a dish, so ask for your sauce on the side.
For example, two tablespoons of ranch salad dressing will add an extra 140 calories and 16 grams of fat to your meal.
Keeping it separate will make it much easier to control the amount you eat.
13. Skip the Pre-Dinner Bread Basket
If you turn up to a restaurant hungry, it's easy to overeat the nibbles provided to you before your meal.
If you're easily tempted, send them back.
14. Order a Soup or a Salad to Start
Having a soup or a salad before your main course can stop you from eating too much (, , , ).
Studies looking at the effects of eating soup before a meal have shown that it can reduce your total calorie intake by 20% ().
The type of soup didn't make a difference, so any soup of the day can be a really healthy option.
15. Share with Someone Else (or Order a Half Portion)
A study of people who successfully lost weight and kept it off showed that they often shared food or ordered half a portion when eating out ().
It's a simple way to cut back on calories and prevent overeating.
If you have nobody to share with, you can ask the waiter to wrap up half your meal for you to take home.
16. Avoid Sugar-Sweetened Drinks
Many of us have too much sugar in our diets, and it can be quite bad for us (, ).
One source of sugar that we really don't need is sugar-sweetened drinks (, , ).
Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is strongly linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes (, ).
If you want to make a healthy drink choice while dining out, stick to water or unsweetened tea.
17. Choose Small Measures of Alcohol and Low-Calorie Mixers
Drinking alcohol can add a significant number of calories to your meal.
The number of calories in an alcoholic drink varies depending on the strength of the alcohol and the size of the drink.
For example, a large glass of red wine, which is about 1 cup (250 ml) and 13% alcohol by volume, can add around 280 calories to your meal. That's the same as a Snickers chocolate bar.
If you want to enjoy a drink, you can cut back on the extra calories by ordering smaller measures, such as a small glass of wine.
If you're making mixed drinks with spirits such as gin, vodka or whiskey, try mixing the spirit with a diet drink instead of a sugar-sweetened drink or fruit juice.
18. Go for Tomato-Based Sauces Over Creamy Ones
Choose tomato- or vegetable-based sauces over creamy or cheese-based ones to help cut the calories and fat from your meal.
They'll also add more healthy vegetables to your diet.
19. Watch Out For Health Claims
These labels don't necessarily mean a choice is healthy. Added sugars and fats can be hidden in these foods to make them taste better.
Even so-called "sugar-free" cakes and sweets may still contain added "natural" sugars. These are still added sugars — they're just not the table sugar or high fructose corn syrup traditionally used in cakes and candy.
For example, agave nectar is commonly found in "healthy" dishes, but is just as unhealthy as regular sugar, if not more.
To be certain, read the menu description thoroughly. Added sugars can hide in many places. When in doubt, ask your server.
20. Think About Your Whole Diet
There will be times when you want to eat your favorite food for pleasure and not worry about whether it is healthy or not.
Being flexible about your diet and food choices is linked with better overall health and weight management (, ).
It's helpful to think about how a meal fits into your diet overall.
If you are following healthy meal patterns most of the time, go ahead and treat yourself. An occasional indulgence can be good for the soul.