Healthy Fast Food And Restaurant Options

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

Considering the average American eats 24 percent of their meals outside of the home, you could say that they love to eat out! Restaurant food looks good and tastes great, but are the meals nutritiously balanced? Is there even such a thing as healthy fast food? Dining out can easily add up in calories from the creamy salad dressings, dishes smothered in butter, and over-sized portions. Keep a few of these healthy fast food and restaurant options in your back pocket so you can enjoy the experience without compromising your nutrition.

Have a strategy ready!

Having a strategy ahead of time will set you up for success when choosing where and what to eat. Do your research ahead of time to review what’s available in the area and the type of items on the menu. Have snacks on hand and stay hydrated with water to help reduce hunger cravings. Keep your entrée simple by sticking to a lean protein and a variety of vegetables. Kick the free bread and sugary drinks to curb and focus on filling up with soup or salad before the main dish. Share with your family or friends if you’re treating yourself to a special dish and, most importantly, savor every bite because the dining out experience is meant to be enjoyed!

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Longer Version

Est. Reading Time: 7 Minutes

From Thursday’s happy hours to next week’s work trip, we all eat out of the home at some point. While eating out is fun, it can be more difficult to stick to your health goals compared to preparing meals at home. Difficult but certainly doable! With Americans eating about a quarter of their meals away from home, restaurants and convenience stores are catching on to the trends. The restaurant industry is full of dining gimmicks to lure in diners, so it’s up to the consumers to be armed with tips and tricks to figure out healthy eating out options as to not forgo optimal nutrition. 

Break it down now

What exactly does it mean to “eat out”? Eating or dining out simply means to eat a meal not prepared in the home. This includes meals at a sit-down restaurant, drive-through foods, grabbing a snack inside the gas station, and food deliveries to the home. Busy lifestyles may be part of what has led nearly 37 percent of Americans to consume fast food on any given day. Whether it’s a spontaneous decision or scheduled outing, there are plenty of tips to stay on track when eating out.

The best tips for healthy fast food and restaurant options

Plan ahead

Be prepared before you go out to eat or when traveling. Most establishments allow you to review the menu ahead of time. Look for the “lighter-fare” section which typically has less sodium, total fat, and calories. Decide what to order before arriving and stick to this plan. The Food & Drug Administration’s menu labeling rule now requires calories to be on all standard menu items for establishments of 20 or more locations. These calories can act as a guideline for where to look on the menu.

Be the first to order!

~ Dietitian’s Tip

You’re less likely to be influenced by friends or family who may choose the less healthy options when you get your order out of the way first. And who knows, maybe they’ll follow your healthy lead!

When traveling, research the area beforehand noting familiar restaurants that align with your nutrition goals. Locate convenient grocery stores so you can restock on snacks or load your hotel fridge with fresh fruit, yogurt, or pre-made salads.

Stay hydrated

Sometimes dehydration can make our bodies feel hungry. Staying hydrated with water helps us make wiser decisions. Stick to drinking water with meals. Sugary sodas and sweetened alcoholic drinks are easily consumed empty-calories. Instead, chew your calories choosing nutrient-dense foods and save your beer or wine for a separate occasion.

Ask for lemon or lime wedges to flavor water or add a spritz of club soda for something bubbly.

~ Dietitian’s Tip

Eat a snack beforehand

When our hunger cues are soaring for food, we tend to overeat and even feel out of control around food. Instead of loading up on chips and salsa as soon as you sit down, load up on a protein-based snack beforehand. It will help to get yourself out of starvation mode so that we’re more mindful when making our food choices and determining portion sizes. Choose a snack that has protein, fiber, and healthy fats for optimal satiety.

Aside from eating a snack beforehand, go ahead and eat well-balanced meals throughout the entire day.

~ Dietitian’s Tip

This is better than skipping meals to “save” calories for eating out. We need a full day’s worth of nutrients to power us through the next day!

Pack snacks for on-the-go

Even just running errands all day can be exhausting and requires fuel. Bring along non-perishable snacks with you like trail mix, dried fruit, low-fat string cheese, and whole fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas. Having snacks in your bag or car will prevent the desperate decision to grab the candy bar at the register.

Snacks for road trips and traveling long distances help decrease how often you need to eat out. Pack a small cooler in the car with ready-to-eat items like sliced veggies and hummus or a protein smoothie. Packing light for a flight? Store dry oats, chia seeds, dried fruit, and cinnamon in a resealable plastic bag. Snag a heat-safe coffee cup from the hotel, add hot water, and you’ve got a fiber-packed morning snack!

Eat soup or salad first

Fill up on a soup or salad before your entrée arrives. These lighter options tend to be smaller portions and thus fewer in calories than other appetizers. Choose broth and veggie-based soups. Salads start the meal with fiber which will help you feel satiated going into your meal.

Read carefully

Look for words on the menu like “grilled”, “broiled”, “steamed”, and “baked” that generally means the food is cooked in less fat compared to “fried” or “breaded” food. Avoid dishes described as “creamy,” “smothered,” or “rich.”

Keep it simple

Think protein and veggies. Aim for filling half your plate with veggies paired with a lean protein source like grilled chicken or baked salmon. Combine your vegetables and protein in a veggie omelet or in a leafy green salad. If the choice of protein comes with two sides, double up on the fresh veggies rather than a smothered baked potato.

Create your own

Don’t see what you want on the menu? Order meal components from the soups, salads, and sides to create your own meal. Side item menus typically contain seasonal vegetables and whole grains, and may even be smaller portion sizes than what’s served with an entrée. These side items can help compliment an entrée if it’s lacking a key component, too. Craving the extra-fluffy berry pancakes for brunch? Add a side of eggs packed with protein to help balance the meal.


Share a dish with family or friends so you can still enjoy your favorite foods. We know that American portion sizes are much more than what our body typically needs at once, so share the dining experience with others. This also helps everyone get to know each other talking about food preferences and health goals. Ask the server how many portions are included in the dish and plan to divide it accordingly.

Dine out with like-minded people.

~ Dietitian’s Tip

Find people who are supportive of your health goals. Social influence is key in making the right decisions.

Keep dressings and sauces on the side

These little extras add up to big calories. When striving for healthy fast food or restaurant options, ask to leave dressing and sauces on the side to easily monitor how much is added.

Lightly dip the fork into the sauce first before picking up a bite rather than dunking the bite into the sauce.

~ Dietitian’s Tip

Visualize your plate

Imagine how you would build this meal at home to know whether it’s truly a healthy fast food or restaurant option. Would it normally have over half a plate of rice? If the portions or balance of food items aren’t your norms, make it your norm by putting the remaining portions in a to-go box. It also helps to always eat off of an actual plate. Arrange take-out meals or fast-food on a plate so you can decide how much of everything to include.

Pick bread or dessert

Either start with a savory treat or finish with a sweet treat, but avoid both. Pass on the burger bun by swapping in a bed of lettuce to later enjoy your favorite dessert. Or indulge in the famous cheesy bread but save the dessert for another night out.

Avoid buffets

“All you can eat!” just sounds like trouble. Buffets encourage overeating and neglecting your body’s hunger cues. Most buffet restaurants also offer a set menu. Choose from this list eliminating the option for seconds or thirds.

Just ask

Ask about the preparation of the foods (i.e. how much oil or salt is added), how large the portions are, and what substitutions can be made. Be upfront about what you are looking for in your meal and the server can point you in the right direction.

Eat slowly

It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to recognize that it’s satisfied. Putting the fork down between bites and taking time to thoroughly chew the food not only benefits your waistline, but also aids in digestion and makes savoring much more enjoyable.

Enjoy yourself

Don’t let dining out stress you out. Enjoy the experience, enjoy the company, and enjoy savoring every delicious bite… mindfully! View dining out as a special occasion that fits well into your balanced eating plan.

Actionable Steps


Keep this reference close

Keep this quick Tip Sheet for “Eating foods away from home” with you as a reference.


Review the health items

Get a quick review of some of the healthy eating out options from 30 popular chain restaurants, dietitian-reviewed restaurant menus, and 30 healthier fast-food orders.


Use an app

Use apps like Clean Plates, Food Tripping, and Healthy Out to make finding healthy restaurants easier.


Prep snacks

Prep some healthy on-the-go snacks and have these on hand to reduce hunger cravings before going out.

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About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching

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