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Publication #FCS8900

Make Eating Out a Healthier Experience1

Anghela Z. Paredes and Karla P. Shelnutt2

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), well over half of married families have two parents working full time. This can often lead to both parents getting home from work too tired to prepare a healthy meal at home. The easiest option for parents is to gather the crew and head to a local restaurant. This is just one of many scenarios that have become a common occurrence in the busy lives of families today.

Eating out is an attractive option for many families. It can be a relaxing and fun time. Having a full selection of menu options allows everyone to find something they like. Eating out means there are no worries about coming up with a menu, running to the store to pick up ingredients, defrosting meat, etc. Best of all—no clean-up!

With families eating more meals away from home, it is more important than ever for parents to consider ways to incorporate healthier options into the meals they eat out. Healthy choices when dining at restaurants are important aspects of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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Tips for Before Leaving Home

Many restaurants offer delicious meals low in saturated fat, trans-fat, and cholesterol. It is just a matter of doing a little research before arriving at the restaurant. Many restaurants have nutrition information about most, if not all, of their menu items. Use the eating establishment’s website to compare the nutritional value of menu items and to identify healthier options you can incorporate when eating out. Search engines such as can help locate healthy restaurants in your area as well as the healthier options at restaurants.

Use the Menu as a Tool

Item descriptions on the menu give insight on which choices are the healthier options.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Foods labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, Alfredo, au gratin, or in a cream sauce are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium.

  • Look for foods that are grilled, broiled, or baked and served without a cream-based sauce.

  • Ask your waiter or waitress questions! Don’t be afraid to ask how the food is made or what ingredients were used to prepare the item. If there is a particular food you would like to eat but it is prepared in a way that makes it less healthy, ask if it is possible to have it prepared differently. For example, if the item is breaded and fried, ask if they can grill the item instead.

Small Changes Can Lead to a Healthier Dining Experience

Making a single change may not seem like it would have a big effect, but as you add more changes they can have a positive impact on your family’s health. The following are strategies you can use to make healthier choices when eating out.

  • To avoid overeating, place half of your food in a to-go container as soon as your food is served and enjoy it the next day. If you don’t like to bring leftovers home, order a smaller portion, such as an appetizer-sized portion, which will often cost less.

  • When choosing beverages, look for low-calorie options, such as water with lemon, diet soft drinks or beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners, like iced tea.

  • Share a meal. Not only will you reduce your intake of calories and fat, you will reduce the cost of your meal!

  • Order a smaller serving. Try one size smaller than what you normally order. Instead of getting the large fries, order the medium fries. Some restaurants now serve smaller versions of desserts. This is a great option if you are craving something sweet but want to cut back on calories.

Tips for Specific Types of Foods

The following guidelines, adapted from the American Heart Association (2010), can be used to help you make healthier choices at restaurants featuring different types of food.

Table 1. 

Making healthier choices at restaurants

Type of Food


Instead of…


Cajun Food

Avoid fried seafood or meats.

“Blackened” foods are usually dipped in butter or oil, covered in spices, and pan-fried.

Ask for sauces and gravies of your favorite foods on the side.

Fried seafood

Boiled, grilled, or pan sautéed fish

Gumbo and sauces made with roux (cooked mixture of wheat flour and fat)

Creoles (which do not contain roux) and Creole jambalaya dishes

Dirty rice (contains chicken gizzards, livers, butter, etc.)

White or brown rice; rice in chicken stock for flavor

Red beans and rice with sausage

Red beans and rice without sausage

Chinese Food

Choose entrées that contain lots of vegetables.

Substitute chicken for duck as often as possible.

Skip the crispy noodles.

Egg-drop soup

Wonton or hot-and-sour soup

Egg rolls or fried wontons

Steamed dumplings, grilled veggies

Fried entrées

Boiled, broiled, grilled, steamed, or lightly stir-fried entrées

Fried rice

Steamed brown or white rice

Family Restaurants

Avoid dishes that contain a lot of cheese, sour cream, or mayonnaise.

Ask about bread options. Try something new like whole-wheat bread.

Avoid or limit visits to buffets because the temptation to overeat is greater.

Cream soups

Broth-based soups with lots of vegetables

Fried chicken sandwich

Grilled chicken sandwich

French fries or potatoes and gravy

Baked sweet potato, a smaller size of French fries, steamed vegetables, potatoes without gravy

Hot fudge sundae or ice cream

Non-fat yogurt, sherbet, or fruit juice

Share a dessert with all of the family

Italian Food

Enjoy pasta as a main entrée and not an appetizer, or just order the appetizer size.

Ask the waiter to hold the cheese and bacon, or limit the amount that is added.

When ordering pizza, try new toppings such as spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, and peppers.

Casserole-type dishes or cheese-filled pastas

Pasta primavera with sautéed vegetables, or pasta with white or red clam sauce

Pasta with butter or cream sauces

Risotto (a slow-cooked, broth-based rice dish), or pasta with marinara sauce (made of tomatoes, onions, and garlic)

Italian pastries such as cream cakes

Italian ice, granita, or sorbet

Share a dessert with all of the family

Fast Food restaurants

Pickles, onions, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and ketchup add flavor without the fat.

Limit the amount of fried sandwiches consumed.

Jumbo cheeseburgers

Grilled chicken sandwich, or a smaller hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion

Fried chicken pieces

Grilled chicken or a salad

French fries

Steamed veggies, a smaller size of fries

Mexican Food

Tell your waiter not to bring fried tortilla chips to the table, or avoid getting refills.

Ask for low-fat sour cream, or just use salsa for flavor.

Flour tortilla

Corn tortillas, or limit the amount of flour tortillas you consume

Refried beans



Chicken fajitas

Flautas, chimichangas, burritos

Chicken or beef enchiladas with red sauce or salsa, a smaller burrito, fewer flautas

Adapted from American Heart Association, 2010.

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Learn More

For more information about eating out, contact one of the following reliable sources in your county:

  • UF/IFAS Extension Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Educator (look in the blue pages of your telephone book). UF/IFAS Extension offices are listed online at

  • WIC nutritionist at your county health department (also in the blue pages of your telephone book).

  • For a referral to a registered dietitian (RD) in your area, you can call the Florida Dietetic Association at (850) 386-8850, or check the yellow pages of your phone book.

Recommended Websites

HelpGuide – Offers healthy tips when eating at fast food restaurants; lists less healthy options at restaurants and the healthier available option.

KidsHealth – Offers three steps for scheduling family meals and making them enjoyable for everyone!


American Heart Association. (2010). Tips by cuisine. Retrieved from

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). Employment characteristics of families summary. Retrieved from



This document is FCS8900, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: April 2010. Latest revision: July 2013. Visit the EDIS website at


Anghela Z. Paredes, MS, RD, former dietetic intern, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; and Karla P. Shelnutt, PhD, RD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other suitable products.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.