Restaurants: 4 Ways to Eat Healthier for Less

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We eat out to indulge ourselves, not for the health benefits. Even so, new research suggests we're getting more calories and less value than you might expect.

You probably know eating out isn’t very healthy. But did you know 96 percent of entrees at major U.S. chains have more than the daily recommended amount of calories, salt, and fat?

That’s one of several findings in a new study conducted by the RAND Corporation, which analyzed 245 of the top 400 chain restaurants based on sales – the only ones that provided complete nutritional info. The study also says most of the food studied (more than 30,000 menu items) doesn’t even fall within “restaurant industry-supported Healthy Dining and Kids LiveWell nutrition criteria”…

Up to 42 percent of main entrees, 39 percent of sides, 16 percent of desserts and 6 percent of appetizers might pass the Healthy Dining standards. Children’s menu items did not fare as well with Kids LiveWell standards, with a maximum of 11 percent of main entrees and 33 percent of sides passing, not taking into account ingredient criteria.

The study also says 82 percent of Americans eat out at least weekly. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests in the next seven days, 245 million of us are going to eat a meal that doesn’t provide enough nutrition to account for its salt and fat content. So hopefully, some of them will read these tips for finding healthier – or at least cheaper – fare…

1. Check the nutrition labels

Although nutrition info is becoming more widely available on menus thanks to a requirement added in the 2010 health care legislative overhaul, many still don’t include calorie counts. You can ask, or you can check online before heading to the restaurant. Look at the company website or search for the name along with variations of “nutrition” until you find listings.

Not sure where to eat? can help find what the name suggests at nearby restaurants. It’ll highlight dietician-approved dishes that “emphasize lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fats, and meet calorie, fat, and saturated fat criteria” by ZIP code.

2. Skip the appetizers

Pass on appetizers unless you’re splitting them across a group. They can cost as much as an entree – and cost even more to your health. That RAND study found just 6 percent of the appetizers they looked at met the industry’s own health guidelines – worse than desserts at 16 percent!

And you aren’t necessarily doing yourself a favor by substituting a soup or salad: Check out What You Don’t Know is Costing and Killing You for some eye-opening calorie comparisons.

3. Water, please

Alcohol is pricey and comes with its own calories. But in some ways, it’s better than soda, which often comes with free refills and encourages you to overindulge. But water is the best of both worlds: free and unlimited.

Studies show water makes you full faster too, so you’ll feel like eating less. That means leftovers, which means you’re getting multiple meals for the same price.

4. Set limits

People overeat or overspend because they don’t set boundaries for themselves. You can budget calories – or saturated fat, sodium, whatever you want – the same as money, and doing so encourages you to plan better and make compromises with yourself to get what you want most.

For instance, maybe you really want that juicy cheeseburger, so you’ll pick a healthier vegetable side instead of fries. Or you’ll skip dessert. To save cash, maybe you’ll limit eating out to special occasions or twice a month. Or share food more often.

Or maybe you’ll dine in at a fast food place more often than at “sit-down” restaurants. The prices and portions are smaller, and they’re healthier – although not necessarily by a huge degree – according to the Rand Corp. study: “Main entrees had significantly more energy, fat, and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.”

Want to save even more?  Learn How to Cut Your Restaurant Bill in Half or check out 30 Tips to Save on Food.

Stacy Johnson

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