Dining out on a diet - our guide to guilt-free restaurant choices

Siski Green / 26 March 2015

Treating yourself to a meal at a restaurant needn’t mean breaking your diet rules – with our advice, you can really have your cake and eat it!



Poring over a restaurant menu to find a dish you can eat without blowing your daily calorie limit can seem impossible.

Few restaurants list the calorie content for good reason – a lot of restaurant food is high in fat and calories.

Luckily there are plenty of choices for anyone watching their waistline, you just need to know how to recognise the healthy options.

Best healthy choices at a British carvery or pub

Nothing quite beats a pub lunch on a warm afternoon and the good news is that with some considered choices you can enjoy it without worrying about your waistline.

The first thing to do is to sink a pint before you start – a pint of water, that is (flavoured with a cordial if you prefer). Not only will that prevent you from becoming dehydrated or from drinking alcohol too quickly to quench your thirst, it’ll also help create a feeling of fullness before you start eating.

On the menu, opt for roast meat but remove the skin which is fatty, or even better, grilled fish, and ask for boiled potatoes rather than fries. Watch out for sides such as stuffing, garlic bread or onion rings as these won’t fill you up but will dramatically up your calorie intake.

“It is also important to consider portion control,” says nutritionist Mel Wakeman, programme director health and wellbeing at Birmingham City University, UK. “Eating out is often a time when we might be drinking and distracted by the nice social situation, so we ignore the signals that are telling us when we are full.”

Best healthy choices at an Indian restaurant

Delicious aromatic spices wafting from other tables can send your taste buds into a state of excitement leading you to want to order everything on the menu but take your time and order carefully and this is a treat you can enjoy more often without worrying about your waistline.

First, ditch the fried poppadums which won’t fill you up on anything but fat-based calories, similarly it’s best to avoid samosas and pakaras which are fried. Instead, ask for chapattis, dhal-based dishes (with lentils), and tomato-based, fish or vegetable-based main courses.

Steer clear of those creamy dishes – korma, passanda, tikka massala. And finally, opt for boiled rice instead of fried.

Best healthy choices at a Chinese restaurant

There are plenty of healthy choices on the Chinese menu as long as you steer clear of the sugary sweet and sour sauces.

Go for stir-fried veg or lean meats such as chicken, fish, or steamed vegetables. And finally, tuck in to dim sum which is steamed, and noodles or boiled rice.

If you do decide to opt for duck and pancakes – and frankly, who can resist? – load up each pancake with lots of spring onions and cucumber which will fill you with digestion-friendly fibre. And remember that the spicy plum sauce that goes with it is as sugar-laden as ketchup, so use it sparingly to add flavour.

Best healthy choices at a Thai restaurant

This is a treat that you can mostly enjoy without concern. Thai food is heavy on vegetables and often contains lots of tasty spices as well as chilli, which will satisfy your taste buds and help curb your appetite.

Coconut-based sauces and dishes are best avoided if you’re trying to reduce your fat or calorie intake, but feel free to load up on boiled noodle dishes with vegetables or chicken, as well as some of the delicious soups, and stir-fried vegetable dishes.  

Best healthy choices at a Mexican restaurant

Beans are your friend when it comes to Mexican as they feature heavily in this cuisine and they’re fibre-rich and heart-healthy too. With spicy fish, flame-grilled chicken or vegetable dishes to choose from, you can view this eating-out treat as part of a healthy diet.

If you do go for vegetable fajitas, though, warns Wakeman, go light on the sour cream. Similarly, with burritos and enchiladas, check the filling as they are often loaded with high-fat high-calorie foods or sauces.

Best healthy choices at a French restaurant

While French women are renowned for their slim figures, French food might not seem the best choice when you’re trying to lose weight.

Rich and creamy sauces, everything cooked in butter, few, if any, vegetables – it might seem tough to find something ‘healthy’ on the menu. But actually it’s fairly easy to order – choose the dish you’d like, but ask for sauce on the side so you can choose how much to eat (if any) and ask for your meat or fish to be grilled rather than fried.

Avoid pastry-based dishes and instead go for an omelette filled with vegetables or mushrooms, and of course there’s always seafood dishes to choose from which are usually healthy.

Best healthy choices at an Italian restaurant

While the Mediterranean Diet has a lot going for it in terms of health – plenty of olive oil, fresh sweet peppers and tomatoes, not to mention lots of fish and salads – an Italian menu will likely feature dishes from other parts of Italy, where rich, creamy sauces and pizzas might not be so heart-healthy.

The most important thing to do at an Italian is to avoid the starters and ask not to be brought any bread – when you’re hungry you tend to tuck into the white bread, adding up calories without getting much appetite-slowing fibre or protein.

Go for grilled chicken or fish, a vegetable-based lasagne or tomato-based pasta dish, and always choose a thin-base pizza with vegetable, chicken or tuna toppings. For dessert, try to steer clear of the creamy tiramisu and opt for a sorbet instead.  

Best healthy choices at High Street restaurants

Not all high-street eateries serve only burgers these days – there’s Nandos serving Portugese-style chicken, Pret-a-Manger selling gourmet sandwiches and soups, and even McDonald’s has several fish-based and salad-based choices.

But with some burger chains making the headlines for the high calorie content of their ‘healthy’ salads, how can you tell what’s best to eat?

The key here is to inform yourself and make a plan. “Often the calorie information is available online so you can always checkout the menu before you go,” says Wakeman. “If you are familiar with the lower fat, lower calorie options, it becomes easier to make a healthier choice at the table.”
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.