Restaurants get a bad rap on the healthy eating front. Yes, it is easier to control your intake of calories, salt, sugar, fat, and more when you're making what you're putting in your mouth—and one recent study even found that independent restaurants and small-scale chains average more than 1,300 calories a meal. But restaurant food isn't inherently evil—and you don't have to become a hermit to eat right.
It's completely possible to order something at least fairly healthful at most restaurants. So we tapped several of our favorite nutritionists to find out what they choose when they're staring down a menu. Let their go-to orders inspire your decision the next time you're out with friends:
"Salmon with grilled asparagus. You can count on most restaurants to have a salmon dish on the menu. I love this option because it's rich and flavorful and doesn't need to be dressed up as much as other options. Meaning, if you eat it plain, you still get some flavor and don't feel deprived. Plus, it's loaded with omega-3s, which help reduce inflammation throughout the body and are good for your skin. Asparagus is a winning side dish because it usually isn't coated as heavily in oils as some other sautéed veggies; instead, it's often grilled with a touch of olive oil and its packed with vitamins and antioxidants galore. I usually do double veggies instead of veggies and a starchy side.
"Entree salad with the works! Loads of vegetables, grilled chicken, avocado, some cheese (adds great flavor so you can use less salad dressing), and oil and vinegar on the side (allows me to minimize the oil and load on the vinegar). If it's a diner-stye restaurant, bring on an egg white omelet stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions, with fresh fruit on the side. And please send the waiter over to apply extra fresh ground black pepper on my salad or omelet!"
The RIGHT Way to Eat Out with Friends While Dieting
"My go-to meal at our usual Italian restaurant is shrimp marinara over sautéed spinach! I love eating seafood for the protein and the omegas, which make it so filling. Topping spinach with marinara makes seem like a pasta dish without any unhealthy carbs. Sometimes I love to add some hot pepper for an extra kick."
"I love trying lots of small dishes, so I tend to stick to a few small apps—or I share. I particularly like oysters, ceviche, mussels and clams, grilled octopus, bison steaks, roasted chicken, poached eggs with greens, and root veggie mashes" —Katie Cavuto, M.S., R.D., and the dietician for the Phillies and the Flyers
"Being from the coastal south, I love seafood. I push aside those 'carb-y' appetizers (breadsticks) for my love a great dish—shrimp cocktail. It's a huge plus if the restaurant serves the dish in a cocktail glass with avocado/lettuce/lemon. If that's the case, I order two!" —Shelly Marie Redmond, R.D.
"I always look for seafood/shellfish items that are either part of a raw bar or cooked using moist heat (i.e., boiled or steamed), such as shrimp, oysters, and mussels. They're an easy go-to at trusted seafood restaurants because they avoid the added calories from butter, oil, cream, and/or breading that tend to rack up calories quickly when dining out. Seafood is traditionally low in total calories but high in protein. They're also rich in minerals (zinc, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron), which are important for immune function, cell signaling (nerve conduction, muscle contraction), blood pressure regulation, and fluid-electrolyte balance (i.e., bloat-beating!).