Healthy eating out

If you're eating out at a restaurant or cafe, you can make choices to ensure that your meal is healthy and balanced.

It's all too easy to have more saturated fat, salt and sugar than you realise when you're not cooking your own meal.

You can also end up eating more than you would have done if you'd served up your own portions.

We often indulge in sugary and high-fat foods when it's a special occasion. But many of us are eating out more often, and this means that it's important to think about healthier choices.

The first tip to remember is that whatever and wherever you're eating, you don't need to clear your plate. Instead, eat slowly and stop when you're full.

Healthier menu choices

Simple steps can help you make sure that you make healthier choices when eating out in restaurants or cafes.

Food swaps

These swaps can make your restaurant or cafe meal healthier. Choose:

  • pulses or chicken without the skin, lean meats such as ham, and fish (not fried) instead of pies, bacon and sausages
  • tomato and vegetable sauces instead of ones based on cream and cheese  
  • rice that's steamed or boiled instead of fried, such as pilau rice and egg fried rice
  • potatoes with their skins on that have been baked or boiled without added salt, butter or oil, instead of chips or creamy mashed potatoes
  • fruit salads or other fruit-based desserts and lower-fat, lower-sugar yoghurts instead of cakes, chocolate or creamy puddings, biscuits, sweets and ice cream 
  • vegetables and salads served plain, not served with butter, oily dressings or mayonnaise  
  • salad dressing on the side, so you can add only as much as you need
  • a glass of water or fruit juice instead of alcohol or a fizzy drink – but remember, even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so limit yourself to 150ml of fruit juice or smoothies each day. It's best to drink it with a meal, as this can reduce the impact it has on your teeth. You could also try diluting it with still or sparkling water.

Be menu-savvy

More and more restaurants are putting the number of calories contained in their food and drink on their menus or websites. 

This can help you decide which dish to have and keep track of the number of calories you're eating.

On average, a woman needs around 2,000 calories (kcal) a day, and a man needs around 2,500kcal, depending on how active you are. 

Find out more about understanding calories.

Remember, if you can't tell from the menu how a dish is cooked, you can always ask.

Other healthy tips when eating out include:

  • Ask for salt not to be added to your meal during cooking or preparation.
  • Say no to bread or other nibbles before your meal arrives, as these are likely to increase your overall calorie intake.
  • When you're ordering a variety of dishes to share, make sure you don't order too many. Ask the staff how many dishes they would recommend.
  • If your meal doesn't come with vegetables, order some as a side dish or have a salad with your meal. This can be instead of a starter.
  • Wait until you've eaten your main course before you order a pudding. When you've finished the main course, you may be full.
  • Choose standard or smaller portion sizes, and avoid "large" or "super-size" versions.

Choose healthier puddings

If you'd like something sweet, there are ways to choose a healthier dessert option. For a start, you could opt to share one pudding between two.

Fruit is a good choice and can count towards your recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. Learn more about how to achieve your 5 A DAY.

The good news for pudding lovers is that fruit baked into puddings, such as rhubarb crumble or apple pie, also counts towards your five fruit and veg portions. For a healthier pudding, choose fruit-based puddings instead of puddings with cream or chocolate fillings.

Cream and ice cream can both be high in saturated fat. If you're ordering a dessert that comes with cream or ice cream, ask staff if you can have one of the following options instead: 

  • fruit purée
  • lower-fat, lower-sugar yoghurt
  • custard made with lower-fat milk

Healthy lunch on the go

Many of us eat lunch out and about, whether it's from a sandwich shop, cafe, supermarket, or the work canteen. The right choices can ensure your lunch is healthier.

Remember, if you make your own lunch, you know exactly what's in your lunchbox – and you can save money.

Lunch salads

Salad can make for a healthy, filling and tasty lunch on the go. If you make them at home, you can eat healthily and save money, too.

Salads that contain some starchy foods – such as rice, pasta, potatoes or couscous – are more filling.

Add grilled chicken (without the skin), prawns, sardines, cottage cheese, lower-fat mozzarella, or strips of lean ham for protein options that are lower in saturated fat.

Then choose a variety of veg. You could add roasted peppers and courgettes, spring onions, salad leaves, tomatoes, radishes, grated carrot or green beans, or a small amount of avocado.

Watch out for salads that contain a lot of mayonnaise or other high-fat dressings. This often includes coleslaw, potato salads and some pasta salads.

Pre-packed salads often have a nutrition information panel on the label, so you can check how much total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt they contain. Go for salads that are lower in fat, especially saturated fat, sugar and salt (or sodium). 

Learn more about food labels.

Lunch sandwiches

Whether you're making your own sandwiches or buying them from a shop or staff canteen, here are tips to help you make healthier choices:

  • Choose brown, wholemeal or higher-fibre breads.
  • When buying pre-packed sandwiches, look at the nutrition information. Choose a sandwich that is low in fat – 3g or less per 100g, and 1.5g or less of saturated fat per 100g. Watch out for the salt content, too – food is high in salt if it contains more than 1.5g salt per 100g, and low if it contains 0.3g or less per 100g.
  • Have your sandwich without butter, spread or mayonnaise, especially if the filling is moist. Or have a small amount and go for lower-fat mayonnaise or fillings.
  • Go for a sandwich with salad in it. Ask for extra if the sandwich is being made for you in the shop or cafe.
  • Choose healthier sandwich fillings such as lean meats (ham, beef, turkey and chicken without the skin), tuna, reduced-fat hummus and a hard-boiled egg.
  • If you want cheese, go for edam, emmental, gruyère, mozzarella and lower-fat cream cheese. They are usually lower in fat than other cheeses. Bear in mind that many cheeses can be high in salt, so check the label if you're buying from a shop or supermarket.

Hot food

If you prefer hot food for lunch, you can still make healthier choices:

  • Baked potatoes are a good lunchtime choice, especially if you eat the skin, but cut out the butter or use lower-fat spread. Healthier fillings include baked beans (choose those with reduced sugar and salt), cottage cheese and ratatouille. Avoid ready-mixed fillings that contain lots of mayonnaise, as these can be high in fat.
  • Pasta can be a healthy choice, but avoid dishes with a creamy or cheesy sauce, or mixed with lots of oil, as these can be high in fat. Tomato or vegetable-based sauces are a healthier choice and will count towards your recommended five daily portions of fruit and veg. Avoid adding cheese, or add only a little.
  • Soups can also help count towards your 5 A DAY if they contain vegetables. Try choosing a soup with chunky vegetables. To make it a filling meal, add a wholemeal bread roll. Or if you want to make soup at home to bring into work, check out our vegetable soup recipe.

Page last reviewed: 31/03/2015

Next review due: 31/03/2017

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