Eating out is part of living, but when it comes to work lunches, social events, and family dinners, it often feels necessary to compromise nutrition goals in order to enjoy the meal. Even if you feel like eating out is a death sentence for your diet, it doesn’t have to be. 

You should be able to enjoy a meal out when the occasion arises without having to sacrifice your social life or give up on your goals. Eating the foods you enjoy should not require restricting, rationalizing, or feeling guilty. Learning how to navigate a menu in a way that fits with your goals and lifestyle can allow you to enjoy meals out while still working towards your health goals.

When navigating a restaurant’s menu, focus your meals around a lean protein and vegetables before adding in more calorie-dense sides, drinks, and desserts. 

Chicken breast
Sirloin steak
Tofu, lentils, tempeh
Side salads
Steamed or grilled garden veggies
Fresh vegetables
Greens, green beans, slaw Vegetable soups (broth based)

Tip: Ask for a to-go box to come with your order. When you get your meal, save half for later. This can help you spread your food out across and can keep you from feeling like you need to finish everything on your plate. 

Regardless of where you are eating, there will be menu items that don’t work with your nutrition goals. But there are ways to make small adjustments so that you are choosing the best option available. Here are some ways you can tweak typical menu items to match your nutrition goals:

Breakfast: Ask for your omelette to be made with egg whites in addition to eggs. Opt for a side of fresh fruit rather than toast, and ask for turkey bacon in place of normal bacon.

Salad: Order extra protein and ask for dressing on the side. Sub croutons or fried toppings with extra veggies.

Sandwich: Use only one slice of bread or one half of a bun if needed, and ask the chef to go light on any fatty dressings or spreads like mayo, aioli, or guacamole. 

Soup: Choose broth-based rather than cream-based soups. Ask for a side of veggies rather than bread if your soup is already carb-dense due to added rice or pasta. 

Sushi: Choose lean protein options like tuna, shrimp, or crab over tempura sushi rolls or too many high-fat creamy sauces.

Mexican: Order fajitas and eat either the tortillas or the beans and rice as your main carb source, and either sour cream or guacamole as a side to cut down on fat. 

Italian: Try to add a protein source to your pasta dish, and choose dishes with tomato-based sauces rather than cream-based ones.

Your health and nutrition goals should be focused on balance, and that means being able to enjoy a meal out every once in a while. There will be days where you have some extra greasy appetizers, unplanned desserts, or an extra drink or two—and that’s okay! Shake it off, move on, and just don’t let a “bad” day turn into a bad weekend, bad week, or bad month.

Kate Lyman, MPH, CHES is a Memphis-based nutrition coach who believes in ditching restrictive diet rules and building flexible eating habits so that you can eat the foods you enjoy while still working towards your goals. She provides personalized online nutrition coaching and creates resources that can help anyone improve their diet. Find her cookbooks, nutrition guides, and other resources at or on follow along at @klnutrition.