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Healthy Menu Tips for Dining Out

Today’s American families spend as much as half their food budget on meals away from home. Meals at restaurants can be costly on the wallet, but are also costly for a family’s health.

While it is easy to point the unhealthy finger at fast food and convenient stores, sit-down restaurants should not be overlooked. Research in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine journal shows children, depending on the age, consume between 125 and 310 extra calories at a fast-food meal and between 160 and 267 extra calories for a full-service dining experience. It only takes 50 to 150 additional calories a day for children to gain weight – the difference between eating meals at home and dining out.

Reduce the caloric damage from restaurants with these eye-opening tips for you and your family’s health:

  • Take a family walk before or after a restaurant meal.
  • Order food that is grilled or steamed. Avoid fried or sautéed options.
  • Pick a healthy side dish. Instead of French fries, order fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • Skip sugary and caloric drinks. Drink water, fat-free milk, or unsweetened tea.
  • Hold the butter and avoid meals with gravy and creamy sauces.
  • Dine in places with calorie counts on the menu or look for nutrition information online. One study showed parents with this information ordered meals with 100 fewer calories for their children.
  • When dining as a family, lead by example. Start your meal with a salad and have dressing on the side.

For restaurants with large portions:

  • Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets. Everyone is more likely to overeat.
  • Order a side or an appetizer instead of a meal.
  • Split the dish with another person at the table.
  • Bring your own “to go” container. When the meal arrives, immediately put half the meal in this container and save it for another meal.

You do not have to ban your favorite diner, drive-thru, or deli. Smart choices can keep your family eating healthy at almost any establishment.


Becky Espinel is a Registered Dietitian at Barton Health. Visit bartonhealth.org/nutrition for more information on nutrition education and services, or make an appointment by getting a doctor’s referral or calling 530.543.5824.