Eating Out Healthfully: New Research from RAND Corporation

en:User:Rdikeman / Food Photos / CC BY-SA

Based on a recent study of the top 400 Chain Restaurants (by sales) published in the Cambridge University Press, it looks like eating out healthfully (at least at the most popular chain restaurants surveyed) is still a challenge.  But even where it’s hard to find a great choice, there are still some choices that are better than others.

Key findings

  1. Appetizers had more calories, fat and sodium than all other item types.
  2. Children’s menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages.
  3. As few as 3% of entrees were within limits for sodium, fat and saturated fat.
  4. Main entrées had significantly more calories, fat and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.
  5. Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request.

Better Bets

So, the message is to skip the restaurant if it doesn’t provide nutrition information.  Skip the appetizer. DEFINITELY skip the kids drinks.  And if you’re in a family-style restaurant, choose a veggie salad or share a main entree with others.

Better yet, skip chain restaurants altogether, and patronize a restaurant that offers clean, fresh, healthy food for your family – usually local establishments with owners truly invested in the health of the community they serve.

Or, cook at home, where you have full control of the ingredients.  For less than the cost of a restaurant meal, you can buy pre-prepped veggies that can be quickly steamed or sautéed  then tossed over quinoa or other grains … give a new herb or spice a try once a week or so to keep things interesting and add a boost of health!  If you’re looking for healthy, simple recipe ideas, check out list of Vibrant Health Recipes or (if you’re really out of time) our list of Super-Quick Meals and Snacks.


Study Cited:  Helen W Wu and Roland Sturm (2013). What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutrition, 16, pp 87-96. doi:10.1017/S136898001200122X.

Eating Out … Healthfully!

First off: eating out does not have to mean blowing your diet!  Even experimental foodies can enjoy all types of restaurants while keeping their commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Seek out high-quality restaurants that use fresh, organic ingredients, and keep the below  guidelines in mind when you order.

USDA_dinner.jpg / Foter / Public domain

Traditional “American”

  • Hold the:  fried foods, cheese, bacon, potatoes, huge meat portions, bread, gravy, and sweet desserts
  • Have the:  grilled chicken, salmon, salad, and fresh fruits

Mexican Restaurants

  • Hold the:  chips,fried foods, sour cream, and cheese or cream sauces (they often contain a lot of sugar, too!)
  • Have the:  guacamole,  broth-based soups, salsa, pico de gallo, salads, and grilled veggie or chicken fajitas

Italian Restaurants

  • Hold the:  fried cheese (or ravioli, or pretty much anything fried), pasta, bread and oily foods
  • Have the:  minestrone soups, tomato-based sauces, and salads

Chinese Restaurants

  • Hold the: fried rice, sweet sauces (like Mongolian beef) deep-fried meats and veggies
  • Have the: steamed veggies, steamed meats and fish, sauce on the side, and brown rice

Thai Restaurants

  • Hold the: coconut milk-based curries, fried noodles, and sweetened sticky rice
  • Have the: steamed or grilled fish, steamed veggies, and green papaya salad

Mediterranean Restaurants

  • Hold the: spanakopita, fried calamari, fried cheese, sausages, moussaka, falafel, and baklava
  • Have the:  hummus (with veggies), souvlaki, fish, nuts, beans, vegetables, and yogurt