The Ultimate Guide to Cutting Calories When Eating Out

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The Ultimate Guide to Cutting Calories When Eating Out

Eating out is a notoriously easy way to rack up added calories, fat, sugar and salt. However, it’s extremely convenient and a social necessity on certain occasions. Instead of feeling lost the next time you glance at a menu, follow these tips and guidelines to choose smarter, healthier fare!

With the endless bowls of chips and salsa, mounds of queso smothered enchiladas and fishbowl-size margaritas, the calories and fat grams can add up fast when eating Mexican food. Have your fiesta, and eat it, too, with these slimming tips for dining south of the border:

  • Add fresh vegetables and salsa to your dish instead of cheese, queso dip or sour cream. These ingredients are calorie-dense and can quickly addfat.
  • Choose corn tortillas rather than flour tortillas. Not only are corn tortillas usually smaller, they are also a source of whole grains. For a low-carb alternative, order your dish as a salad bowl.
  • Go meatless! Fill your taco, enchilada or burrito with a variety of beans and grilled vegetables instead of meat.
  • Order brown rice instead of white rice. Brown rice is a whole grain that serves as a rich source of fiber, selenium and other nutrients.
  • Don’t fill up on chips and salsa – save room for your main course.

Healthier Picks

  1. Chicken Fajitas
  2. Taco Salad (hold the hard shell and queso)
  3. Shrimp or Chicken Taco on Soft Corn Tortillas

Cartons of white rice, breaded chicken and greasy egg rolls doused in soy sauce can quickly become a high-salt, high-calorie nightmare. Follow these quick tips to enjoy your favorite Chinese cuisine:

  • Choose steamed dumplings or “summer” rolls instead of fried wontons or egg rolls. Summer rolls are made with thin rice paper and usually contain fresh vegetables and shrimp or lean meats like chicken or pork.
  • Many meat and vegetarian stir-fry dishes include a variety of vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, cabbage and mushrooms. However, there is often not a full serving of vegetables in the main dish alone. Consider ordering an extra side of steamed vegetables to complement your entree.
  • Be conscious of sauces. If a dish comes with a thick sauce or dressing, order it on the side. Use soy sauce sparingly, and choose a low-sodium option whenever possible to avoid unnecessary salt intake.
  • Choose a stir-fried or sauteed meat option (e.g., Kung Pao Chicken or Chicken & Broccoli) instead of a breaded or fried meat option (e.g., General Tso’s, Sesame or Sweet & Sour).
  • Order a side of steamed brown rice rather than white rice or fried rice. Fried rice is often made with white rice and soy sauce, making it higher in salt and lower in fiber than steamed brown rice.

Healthier Picks

  1. Kung Pao Chicken. This spicy stir fry chicken dish is made with peanuts, vegetables, and hot chili peppers
  2. Moo Goo Gai Pan. A stir-fry dish made with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables.
  3. Sashimi

While stacks of pancakes, sizzling bacon and gravy-smothered biscuits tempt your taste buds, these breakfast staples can easily pile on fat and calories. Enjoy the most important meal of the day in a healthy way using these simple breakfast tips:

  • Order a side of whole-grain toast rather than enriched grain sources (Think: white bread, grits, biscuits, muffins or buttermilk pancakes). The whole-grain toast will provide a boost of satiating fiber and other important nutrients.
  • Creating your own omelet is the perfect way to load up on a variety of vegetables and protein! Include a leafy green such as kale or spinach and a lean meat source such as turkey or chicken sausage. Sausage is both higher in protein and lower in fat than bacon.
  • For a boost of vegetables, add tomato, avocado or spinach to your favorite egg dish.
  • As a side dish to complement your entree, choose a cup of fresh fruit or a small bowl of oatmeal instead of home fries or grits.

Healthier Picks

  1. Vegetable Omelet
  2. Oatmeal with Fruit (without brown sugar)
  3. Eggs, Whole-Wheat Toast and Fruit

Juicy, red steaks and potatoes doused in cheese and sour cream can turn a traditional American favorite into a fat- and calorie-laden meal in no time. Try out these simple tips the next time you dine at a steakhouse for a healthy spin on some American classics:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat (Think: filet mignon, flank steak or tenderloin) instead of fatty cuts of meat such as a rib-eye or T-bone.
  • Keep portion size in mind. Bigger isn’t always better. When ordering steak, consider choosing a portion of 3-6 ounces.
  • Pair your steak with a baked potato, brown rice or a house salad. Avoid scalloped potatoes, potatoes au gratin or wedge salads. The latter options are often prepared using cheese, oil and cream-based sauces, leading them to be higher in both fat and calories.
  • Use butter, sour cream and cream-based sauces sparingly, and always ask for these condiments to come on the side.

Healthier Picks

  1. Filet Mignon and Baked Sweet Potato
  2. Grilled Salmon with Steamed Broccoli
  3. Burger (without a bun or cheese and all condiments on side) with Baked Potato and Side Salad
  4. Grilled Chicken with Steamed Mixed Veggies and Brown Rice

Italian restaurants are known for plates of spaghetti stacked a mile high, never-ending bread baskets and creamy Alfredo sauce. Dodge the barrage of calories, refined carbs and excess fat with these tips:

  • When ordering spaghetti, tortellini or other pasta dishes, ask your server whether whole-grain pasta is available. If so, opt for the whole grains instead.
  • Choose a tomato-based sauce instead of a cream-based one such as Alfredo. Vegetable-based sauces will usually be lower in fat and calories than cream-based alternatives.
  • Italian restaurants often offer a variety of fish and shrimp options. Choose a grilled seafood dish for a boost of essential fats.
  • Skip the unlimited bread baskets. Complement your entree with a side salad (dressing on the side) or small piece of plain whole-grain bread.
  • Ask for grated cheese on the side so you can sprinkle it on yourself, or just omit it altogether.
  • Ask your server whether small “lunch” portions are available. Or, order a regular entree portion, and place half in a to-go box before eating your meal.

Healthier Picks

  1. Minestrone Soup and House Salad
  2. Chicken Marsala
  3. Grilled Fish and Vegetables with Marinara over Whole Wheat Pasta

Creamy mashed potatoes, fried chicken and cornbread can satisfy almost anyone, yet these Southern classics quickly become calorie-dense, high-fat meals. Enjoy your traditional Southern favorites the lighter way using these healthy tips:

  • Choose grilled or roasted meat instead of heavier meats like fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, fried pork chops or fried shrimp.
  • Order a salad or side of freshly cooked vegetables like green beans, collard greens or stewed okra. Avoid fried vegetables and heavy starch-based sides like fried okra, potato salad, macaroni salad, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato soufflé or mashed potatoes.
  • If your entree comes with gravy or other heavy sauces, ask for them on the side so you can control exactly how much to add.
  • Drink unsweetened tea or water with a lemon to avoid the added sugar and calories that come from drinking sweet tea, lemonade or soda.
  • Order the kids meal. If you’re craving the pulled-pork sandwich, get the smaller portion off the kids menu, which is usually served with only one side.

Healthier Picks

  1. Pulled Chicken with Baked Beans and Collard Greens
  2. Smoked Turkey with Green Beans and Corn on the Cob
  3. Beef Brisket with Stewed Okra and Coleslaw

Keep these tips in mind for a healthier experience the next time you dine out!

Love to dine out? We’re thrilled to announce that MyFitnessPal now has a special Restaurant Logging feature—an even easier way to stay on track with your health goals when you dine out at restaurants! To celebrate the launch of this new feature, we’ve teamed up with Panera Bread® for an amazing sweepstakes. Enter here for a chance to win Panera for a year!


  • Ruth

    Excellent guidance for the different dining types. I will use this information to educate my patients at the clinic, as this topic often arises.

  • Girl Friday

    Ive always had problems staying with my healthy eating routine when I eat out. These r great ideas. Thanks.

  • Maria Schrodi Miller

    Although a good article asking for the changes suggested at a Mexican restaurant you will just get a strange look. If you don’t want to eat Mexican food the way it is meant to be eaten, eat at home making it healthier. To occasionally go out and enjoy a traditional Mexican food isn’t bad as long as it is in moderation.

  • Michelle Ozuna Ovalle

    Never seen brown rice in any Mexican restaurant… I guess skipping that side order!

  • steve4nlanguage

    If I’m too bothered to stress about counting the calories in a restaurant meal–especially when I want to just enjoy the time with others–I simply eat only half of what I order, and save the rest to take home for another meal.

  • Glenn Nelson

    This Saturday I went to a German restaurant for a friend’s birthday. This food is so calorie intense! In fact, I really don’t like German food during the summer( it gets hot here is Las Vegas) because it is so heavy. I ate half of my dinner of bratwurst, fried potatoes and red cabbage. The number of calories was way over what I normally eat. And to top it off, I had the other half for dinner the next night. It definitely showed on the scale today. But as this week progresses I will be back to eating my normal diet. Hopefully I will be able to loss the extra weight gained from this restaurant experience.