10 Strategies for Healthier Restaurant Meals for Diabetics

By American Diabetes Association

Cooking healthy meals is an essential skill to make good diabetes management easier. But there are days when eating at home just isn’t in the cards. Maybe you’re planning to go out to dinner with a group of friends, or you’re working late one evening and you won’t have the time or energy to cook when you get home. Or maybe you’d just like to enjoy a meal at your favorite restaurant. It’s important to know how to navigate restaurant menus for occasions like these.

Dining out can be challenging for people with diabetes. When you prepare a healthy meal at home, you’re in the driver’s seat; you have complete control over the ingredients and cooking methods you use and the amount of food you serve yourself. You don’t have the same amount of control when you order food at a restaurant. But don’t worry! With a little advance planning and creative thinking, you can find a dish to fit your meal plan on almost any restaurant menu. In this chapter, we explore some tips and techniques to help you find the find the healthiest options when eating out.

Research Your Restaurant

Believe it or not, you can begin strategizing for your healthy restaurant meal before you even arrive at the restaurant. Take a few minutes before heading out the door to think about the restaurants in your area and select one that will make it easy for you to enjoy a healthy meal.

If you’re not sure what kind of food a restaurant offers, call the restaurant or see if its menu is available online. The Internet is a helpful resource when you’re trying to plan restaurant meals — take advantage of it! Many restaurants now provide their full menu online, and most even include nutrition information.

Ideally, you’ll want to look for a restaurant that offers a variety of different dishes featuring nutritious ingredients such as nonstarchy vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. If the restaurant you choose has nutrition information for its dishes available online, you’re one step ahead of the game! You can use this information to figure out exactly how different menu items will fit into your meal plan. It may be a good idea to identify a few options that will work for you before you leave home; that way, you’ll be less tempted to order unhealthy menu items when you get to the restaurant.

Ask Your Server

Even if you’re able to research the restaurant’s menu beforehand, you may have questions about the menu when you arrive. A dish may sound healthy on the menu, but there can be hidden sources of fat and calories in the dish that aren’t mentioned in the description of the item. Don’t be afraid to ask your server exactly what’s in the dish and how it’s prepared. Your server may not know all the ingredients or the cooking method offhand, but he or she can check with the chef.

Knowing what goes into the dish you’re about to eat will give you a better understanding of how that dish will fit into your diabetes meal plan. If it sounds healthy on the menu, but it’s cooked in butter or has a lot of added sodium, you may want to look for another option. Communication with your server is important. If you’re having trouble finding good choices on the menu, he or she may be able to steer you in the right direction.

Make Special Requests

If you find a dish on the menu that sounds very appealing but has some less-than-healthy ingredients, feel free to make special requests and ask about substitutions. A few small changes to a dish can make all the difference when it comes to eating healthy, and most restaurants will be happy to accommodate your needs.

If your dish comes with a choice of side items, look for the healthiest options available. That may mean choosing brown rice over white or fried rice, or steamed vegetables instead of mac and cheese. If you have more than one choice, why not double up on nonstarchy vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, or a side salad. Even if the menu doesn’t offer a choice of sides, you can request to replace starchy sides like fries, potatoes, and rice with healthier options.

Many restaurant dishes are made with healthy ingredients but are cooked in a lot of fat or are topped with high-calorie sauces. Request that the chef leave any heavy sauce off your dish. Or ask the server if a dish can be steamed, grilled, or sautéed in a small amount of olive oil instead of fried or cooked in butter. If you’re watching your sodium intake, ask if your meal can be prepared without added salt.

Don’t forget about condiments! Many condiments are sources of fat and carbohydrate. Request mustard on your burger instead of mayonnaise, or skip the dipping cups of barbecue sauce or ranch dressing. Ask your server if the restaurant has low-fat salad dressings that they can substitute for the full-fat version on your salad.

Be respectful of your server, but don’t be shy about asking questions and making special requests. Be direct and polite and the restaurant should be able to accommodate your needs.

Helpful Substitutions

Swapping out some of the less-healthy ingredients in a dish for more nutritious options is a great way to enjoy the menu item you’re craving without disrupting your meal plan. There are a few common restaurant foods and ingredients that you’ll want to request substitutions for whenever you can. Here are a few common substitutions to get you started:

Instead of … Try …
Alfredo sauce Marinara sauce
Cheese and/or bacon (on sandwiches) Extra fresh vegetables
Cream-based soup Clear broth soup
Flour tortillas Corn or whole-wheat tortillas
Fried chicken strips Chicken kabobs or satay
Fried mozzarella sticks Caprese (mozzarella and tomato) salad
Fried rice Steamed brown rice
Heavy sauces Sautéed mushrooms or onions
Mayonnaise Mustard
Meat pizza Veggie pizza
Pan, deep-dish, or stuffed-crust pizza Thin-crust pizza
Refried beans Black beans
Sour cream Salsa
Tempura meat or vegetables Steamed or grilled meat or vegetables

Skip the Extras

Even if you order a nutritious restaurant dish that fits into your meal plan, it can be easy to get off track when the free bread basket or chips and salsa arrive at the table. These items can contribute a significant amount of extra calories or carbohydrate to your meal. If you have the self-control to have just a bite of bread or a few chips, that’s fine. If not, you may want to skip these foods altogether and ask your server not to bring them to the table.

Appetizers are another source of extra calories that you may want to avoid. If you’re really craving a certain appetizer, try to split it with others at the table so you only eat a small portion. Make sure you account for it in your meal plan. If you’re very hungry when you arrive at the restaurant, try ordering a side salad with low-fat dressing instead of ordering an appetizer or reaching for the bread basket.

Don’t Drink Your Calories

It can be tempting to order a regular soda, sweetened iced tea, or maybe even a cocktail with your dish, but these drinks can add a lot of calories and carbohydrate to your meal (which is likely already higher in calories than the meals you cook at home). Save those calories for the food on your plate. If you skip that 120-calorie serving of soda, you may have room in your meal plan to add an extra serving of nonstarchy vegetables to your plate; it’s the more satisfying and nutritious option. Remember that mixers in alcoholic beverages (besides diet soda) generally contain carbohydrate and calories as well.

Try to stick with zero-calorie beverages when you eat out. Water is always a great choice, but you can try diet soda, sparkling water, unsweetened tea, or black coffee.

Take Half Home

Another key aspect of healthy restaurant eating is portion control. Restaurants today often serve customers huge portions of food, much more than the average person needs to eat. It’s up to you to make sure you don’t overeat. This is especially important if you’re indulging in a less-healthy menu item — but the calories and carbohydrate still add up if you eat a large portion of a healthier dish.

If you’re concerned about the portion size of your meal, ask for a take-home container and pack up half of the food on your plate before you begin eating. You’ll be less likely to overeat if you have an appropriate portion of food in front of you. Out of sight, out of mind. Take the leftovers home and enjoy them for lunch or dinner the next day!

Get Creative with the Menu

When it comes to healthy restaurant eating, sometimes it’s helpful to think outside the box. Don’t feel pressure to order an entrée for yourself just because that’s what other people may be doing. Get creative with the menu! You may be able to build yourself a healthier meal using different menu options.

For people trying to reduce their portion sizes, sharing an entrée (or even just an appetizer) with a friend or loved one is an option. Or you can choose a few healthy side dishes as your main dish. Believe it or not, the side dishes are sometimes the most nutritious items on a menu. Most sit-down restaurants offer at least one or two nonstarchy vegetable side dishes, and in some restaurants you may find beans, whole grains, or even lentils in the list of sides. And portion sizes for side dishes are generally small. Try selecting one or two healthy side options and maybe pairing them with a small salad or broth-based soup as your meal.

Another idea for creating a healthy meal is to add extra nonstarchy vegetables to a dish. Add a side salad with light dressing to an entrée, for example, or ask to add extra fresh vegetables to a sandwich, wrap, or burger. Extra nonstarchy vegetables can add nutrients to your meal and may fill you up so you eat less of the other items on your plate. These are just a few ideas — don’t be afraid to take advantage of different menu option to create a meal that’s right for you.

Order Takeout before You’re Hungry

As with any restaurant meal, it’s important to make healthy food choices and watch your portions sizes when ordering takeout from a restaurant. But ordering takeout gives you added advantage: You can order your food before you’re hungry. It’s easier to choose nutritious foods and avoid overeating if you’re not starving when you order. If you know you’ll be ordering takeout, make a conscious effort to choose and order your food before you start feeling hungry. Some restaurants may even let you order a few hours in advance. Lock in your order early so you won’t be tempted by unhealthy options when you’re hungry later on.

Choose Fast Foods Wisely

Eating at fast-food restaurants can be particularly challenging for people with diabetes, so you may want to avoid fast-food restaurants when you can. But fast food may be a reality of your fast-paced lifestyle. There will be days when you’re extremely busy or you’re traveling and fast food seems like your only option. If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few tips that can help you make the healthiest possible choices:

  • Order regular-size or “junior” sandwiches from the menu rather than “double” or “deluxe” items, which are often much larger.
  • Avoid high-fat sandwich toppings like bacon, cheese, mayonnaise, and barbecue sauce. Opt instead for extra veggies and mustard.
  • Opt for grilled or broiled fish and chicken instead of fried proteins and beef. They’re leaner.
  • Avoid meal deals. They may seem like a bargain because you get more food for less, but what you’re really getting is large portions of fried foods and sugary beverages.
  • Substitute a side salad or fresh fruit for fries if possible.
  • Go bunless. Removing half or all of the bun from your sandwich can save you several grams of carbohydrate.
  • Choose water, diet soda, unsweetened tea, or black coffee as your beverage.
  • Remember that you can make special requests when ordering fast food, too! Don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant to accommodate your needs. Just be aware that it may take a few extra minutes for them to prepare a special order.
  • If you find a healthy order that works for you at your favorite fast-food restaurant, remember it so you can easily order it again when you need to.