dish on white ceramic plate
Photo by Jay Wennington

The DAO of ordering at restaurants

I have seen a lot of my colleagues who travel frequently marvel at how the period we have been working from home has produced effortless weight loss. Well, not really. One big factor at play is that we have been taken out of the traveling and associated wining and dining. Restaurant meals are a trap for the unwary, because they are under pressure to make food taste amazing to justify paying twice the amount you need for groceries for a single week at a meal. 

Unfortunately, that means adding sugar, salt, oil, butter and heavy cream to – everything. And as I reviewed in my condiment calorie bomb post, that can totally negate an otherwise healthy dish. Not to mention, there is so much eye candy on menus and FOMO. 

Before you go 

Case the joint 

We now live in the age of no surprises. You can google a menu to basically any restaurant, even internationally. Usually on the day of the dinner event, I check out the menu online and decide my order for appetizer, entrée and dessert – even if I don’t eat an appetizer or dessert, it’s always good to have the choices for the different scenarios of dining that we will go through below. 

My decisions will also vary based on WHO I am dining with. If I am going out with friends, I focus more on the appetizers because friends usually order and split them. In that case, I will opt for a lighter entree and probably skip dessert. For business dinners, entrees are usually the main part of the dinner. People usually order appetizers, and you don’t want to be sitting there without any food while others eat – it’s just awkward. So look for cold appetizers which usually don’t have added oils or are not fried. Commonly good choices are tartares, appetizer salads, or mezze platters. If my companions or family or my bae, I use the 80/20 rule – either splurge on an appetizer, extra cocktail, dessert, or carb-loaded entree. This is still allowing me to enjoy the experience and have some more variety from eating at home. 

sliced fruits
Photo by S’well


In my “pre-DAO” life I would starve myself the entire day before going out to eat, reasoning that I probably would consume all of my allotted calories for the day at the dinner meal. That never turned out well. It was so hard to concentrate on anything but food that it almost ruined the experience of socializing with friends. And almost inevitably, I would end up eating probably twice as much as I would have when I did not arrive so hungry. 

In my post on intuitive eating, we reviewed the hunger scale and how it would be useful to assess when you should eat because of hunger and when it is a good stopping point for society. As a quick recap, 1-2 on the hunger scale is hangry, and between 3-4 is the lightly hungry “you could eat” state. You want to be between 3-4 on the hunger scale by the time your food arrives at the restaurant. So a light snack 30-45 minutes before is ideal, because that will factor in the time to digest, get to the restaurant, get settled at the table, and start ordering / waiting for the food. 

person in blue denim jeans holding white paper
Go for the jeans, not the yoga pants when picking out your outfit. Photo by S O C I A L . C U T.

Dress for success

This is not the time for yoga pants even though now they increasingly pass as acceptable dinner attire. You want to opt for clothes that zip or button down. This will make you naturally more conscious of how much you are eating and deter you from eating past the point of being full

Healthiest choices, broken down by part of meal 

selective focus photography of sliced bread
Photo by Jude Infantini

The Bread situation

So many of you may not know this about me, but my first job receiving a paycheck was a hostess and part-time busser at the elegant establishment Ruby Tuesday’s. Yes, folks, that was me, and I started at a minimum wage of 4.25 cents an hour. After 3 months, I negotiated a raise to $6.00. Pretty good for a 17-year old. That ruthless hardball would come in handy in my career later. 

One important lesson from that experience, besides carrying to-go wings over to Blackstreet’s limo, was that the breadbasket is not what you think it is. The basket rarely is actually emptied, right – so what do you think happens to all those extra untouched pieces? They find their way back into the bread oven and into the next basket. And this isn’t just particular to mid-range price restaurants – it’s pretty common.

In normal places, you are getting cold, stale, white pieces of bread so why waste the calories. If you are at a place where the bread is piping hot, moist, and has olive tapenade baked in, then you could consider splurging, but as your “20.” And watch out for the places that offer dipping in Olive oil instead of butter. Because the bread soaks it up like a sponge, you could end up soaking up 300-400 calories even before the appetizer! 


For soups, go for broth and not cream-based. It’s ok to have to ask, but most soups that are “bisque” or “chowder” are creamy, whereas Asian style soups are usually broth based (like Pho, Tom Yum, hot and sour, and miso). The more vegetables and legumes, the better.

Raw bar is almost always a safe bet. Oysters, shrimp, and crab legs will not be pre-cooked in any kind of oil or butter. There is usually sugar in cocktail sauce, but as long as you don’t drown your shrimp in them, it is usually minimal. The fried versions of these apps, on the other hand – butterfly shrimp, fried oysters, or crab cakes – will definitely be on the heavier side in both fat and calories. They are usually breaded and come with mayo-like sauces – which definitely are condiment caloriebombs.

Watch out for salads with hidden calorie bombs like candied nuts, croutons, crispy noodles, and cheeses. Lean more towards salads like heirloom tomato, kale, or rocket (i.e. arugula) salads, and order dressings on the side.  The two most common high-calorie salads are the Cobb and Iceberg wedge. You may think these are healthy because Cobb has avocado and egg and the Wedge has iceberg, which is the lowest calorie green. The harsh truth is that Cobb is one of the highest calorie salads because of its additional unhealthy bleu cheese and bacon toppings, and Iceberg wedge usually has no nutritional value and is smothered in bacon and bleu cheese. Similarly, salads with dried fruit like cranberries will often use the kind with added sugar and with quite the heavy hand of it! 

Also, be sure to ask for clarification over whether the salad is intended to be an appetizer or a main course. You often run into a situation where you order a salad and a main course, then the salad is huge and by the time the main course arrives, you are full, but force yourself to eat just because you ordered it.  Be sure you specify to bring the salad with the rest of the entrées so you won’t be eating the salad by yourself and then not have food when everyone else is eating. If the salad is bigger than you expected, ask for half of it to be boxed up so you can make room for the main course, or share it as an app with the rest of the table.

grilled fish, cooked vegetables, and fork on plate
Photo by Caroline Attwood


When it comes to the main course, focus on the proteins. Go for grilled, baked, broiled, roasted, braised: These cooking methods don’t require much added fat, so the dishes that are prepared this way may be healthier. Steer clear of pan-fried, crisped, or sauteed, which tend to use a lot of oil and butter to fry or deeply cook the food. Sauteed is especially tricky, because it sounds healthy, but usually is swimming in creamy and fatty sauces and reductions. Poultry is usually a pretty safe choice, including the ½ chicken or hen you can usually get at fancier places – just go easy and try to peel away the skin. 

For steak, stick with T-bone, sirloin, flank steak, strip steak, or filet mignon.  If you are going for a heavier, fattier meat, like a ribeye, short rib,  or a rack of lamb, definitely plan on eating half the portion of the meat max – usually one steak is about 1200 calories and 34 grams of fat. 

Also, get familiar with common sauce additions so you can know when to steer clear. For example, hollandaise sauce, which is popular on steaks and eggs in brunch settings, is basically whipped eggs and butter. Any wine sauce is usually going to contain butter. Pesto is essentially cheese, herb and olive oil, but restaurant recipes tend to really smother dishes in that and it clocks in at 260 calories for ¼ a cup, which is barely enough to even notice the taste. So with pesto, you are adding about 500 caloires just for the sauce.

For pasta and risotto-based dishes, you should order those as a side entree to split at the  table but not as your main course. In Italy, pasta is usually an appetizer. On its own it’s not that unhealthy, but there are two critical differences in the way that it is prepared traditionally that account for Italians staying svelte. First, since it is served as an appetizer, the portion size is usually no bigger than what you can hold in your fist. Second, the recipes are so much simpler – the alfredo, vodka and other creamy sauces are Westernizations of these dishes. These usually come dressed in no more than a little bit of olive oil and some spices. Thus, ordering an entire big bowl not only bastardizes the culture but it’s like eating five peoples’ worth of food with the portion sizes typical of most restaurants, even those that claim to be “Italian.” 

Side dishes 

Side dishes aren’t even usually necessary – your main meal often comes with a side. But if you are ordering a la carte or have a choice of sides, you can definitely make the right decisions so you don’t wipe out an otherwise healthy meal. 

Watch out for the brussel sprouts side dishes. Restaurants are always pushing these like street drugs, and for good reason, because they are super addictive and essentially as healthy as fried chicken. Normally we grew up hating brussel sprouts – I used to hold my nose when I had to eat them – but dang sure if my mama drowned them in lard and smothered them in sugar and bacon I would have been begging for them every night! 

Stick with roasted veggies, a baked potato, or sautéed spinach – not creamed spinach! – on the side, The rule of thumb is to skip the fried. Steamed or grilled broccolini asparagus is usually a good choice, too, because at most restaurants these are much bigger stalks than you find in stores and just eating a couple can make you full faster.

More healthy substitutions 

First, it’s ok to ask. Restaurants usually have to be specific and put it on their menu if substitutions are not possible. You just don’t want to be Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally:

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This movie teaches you everything you need to know in life! And Meg Ryan was so adorable. If you haven’t seen it, please do!

Veggie pasta or spaghetti squash – Many Italian restaurants are starting to offer zucchini, carrot or squash noodles as an alternative to linguine. It’s really all about the sauce in the taste! Opt for more tomato-based, rather than cream-based sauces 

Oil and vinegar on the side for regular salad dressing – Salads are actually pretty healthy choices until you start considering the dressing, which can alone contain more calories than the salad itself. Since many restaurants make their dressings in-house, it’s best to order a side of vinegar and oil and dress the salad yourself.  You can also request the dressing that comes with the salad on the side and lightly dip a few bites of the salad in it just to get the flavor. If you are in a Mexican restaurant, you can ask for salsa as a salad dressing. 

Steamed instead of grilled vegetables – Vegetable side dishes are usually dripping in butter, oil, or cream sauces. Ask for the vegetables to be steamed and usually chefs are happy to accommodate. If you need to blame lactose intolerance so it doesn’t come with butter. 

Side of greens instead of potatoes or fries- Even if I order a burger or a chicken sandwich, I opt to have the protein alone with the side of greens.  Also, do not be fooled by the halo effect of sweet potato fries – they are deep fried in oil and the nutritional advantage is de minimus. And besides, one thing to keep in mind is that they lose their taste so quickly the nanosecond that they are lukewarm!

Sashimi or hand-roll instead of Sushi – Sashimi eliminates the white rice which has no nutritional value. Many restaurants also have cucumber or seaweed wrapped sushi so it’s low carb. If you get a handroll, you usually get a larger protein-to-rice ratio and it’s more satisfying. 

Sorbet or fruit plate instead of cake or ice cream dessert – Dessert can be tricky but you don’t have to just say no. Sorbets are usually low in calories, and fruit plates are a healthy option that will fill you up because of the fiber. 

Key takeaway 

Restaurants are going to become more of a frequency for many of us instead of an unusual luxury. If you eat out more than twice a month, it’s not reasonable to always splurge and expect to stay on track. By following these strategies, you are making room for smart splurging that is consistent with your fitness goals. 

More resources 

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