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Dining Out: Do Your Homework

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Even though people are dining out today less often than in the past, according to a recent Zagat survey, the average person still eats out 3.2 times per week (previous statistics were 3.3 times per week). While it can be easier to cook a healthy meal at home, knowing what all of the ingredients are, it's still quite possible to eat well at a restaurant as long as you do some investigating before going out. Most restaurant websites have the nutrition information for their menus. Waiting until you get there is a recipe for disaster, as you can easily choose with your stomach instead of your brain. We'll look at a common situation many of us face each week.

As we were getting our morning started, my wife got an email from a friend inviting her to lunch at Red Robin, a burger restaurant here in the Twin Cities. Actually, they're all over the country. To make sure she didn't sabotage her nutrition plan, she got on their website and did a little homework prior to going out for lunch.

A Typical Scenario

When invited to go out, many people won't consider what they're going to eat until they get to the restaurant. The smell of the food, the pictures on the menu, the descriptions of the menu options can all lead to diet sabotage. Since my wife was planning to go to Red Robin, we'll use that menu as an example.

Let's say you wait to get to the restaurant to decide what to order. If you wait, it's much more likely you'll go with what your stomach is telling you. Here are some of the menu options, and their associated nutrition information.

Royal Red Robin Burger with Fries (no soda): The "It's the weekend. I'll eat whatever I want" meal: 1625 calories, 101 g fat, 108 g carb, 66 g protein

California Chicken Burger: The "It's got chicken on it so it must be good for you" meal: 946 calories, 57 g fat, 49 g carb, 55 g protein

Caesar's Chicken Wrap: The "Wraps are healthy" meal: 852 calories, 43 g fat, 69 g carbs, 40 g protein

Fajita Fiesta Pollo Salad: The "I need to eat more salads" meal: 1000 calories, 62 g fat, 59 g carb, 51 g protein

Onion Rings: The "I barely ever order them so I'll treat myself" side dish: 724 calories, 54 g fat, 62 g carb, 7 g protein

The menu is pretty extensive, and contains a LOT of great tasting items, too many to include in these examples. The point is, it's pretty easy to eat half or more of a day's worth of calories in a single meal. Doing that 3.2 times per week, even with an otherwise healthy diet can quickly halt or even reverse the results of a sound nutrition plan. Now, let's look at this with a little bit of planning. Fortunately, at Red Robin, like many other restaurants, you can customize your menu item of choice. Their website shows you what it does to the nutrition information to exchange or replace ingredients in any of the menu items.

My wife was looking for a salad, which is pretty typical for a lunch meal for her. The Cobb Salad sounded good. The Cobb Salad with Ranch dressing looks like this:

1156 calories, 82 grams of fat, 44 grams of carbs, 8 grams of fiber, 56 grams of protein

Can you eat a salad without dressing? Absolutely! This one has blue cheese and avocado on it too, so there's plenty of extra flavor without the need for dressing. When you drop the dressing, the meal looks like this:

736 calories, 38 grams of fat 42 grams of carbs, 8 grams of fiber, 54 grams of protein (A reduction of 420 calories!)

That's a lot better! What else could be done? Well, she was not going to be super-active today, so the focaccia bread really wasn't necessary. She also doesn't care for black olives or tomatoes, although they certainly could have been left on if she did. Without the focaccia bread, tomatoes or olives, the salad still had grilled chicken breast, one ounce of blue cheese crumbles, avocado (healthy fat), hard-boiled egg, crumbled bacon and salad mix. The nutrition information now looks like this:

495 calories, 27 grams of fat, 14 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fiber, 49 grams of protein (Another reduction of 241 calories!)

Not bad at all! Plenty of healthy protein, a reasonable number of calories, healthy fat from the avocado and not a ton of excess carbohydrates that would leave her drained of energy later in the afternoon.


Dining out can be an enjoyable experience and does not need to be one of the reasons for not managing weight. With a little bit of planning, you can enjoy a great meal at your favorite restaurant. A couple of additional reminders for the next time you eat out are:

  • Skip the soda. Drink water, unsweetened tea, milk, even a glass of wine, which can all be a lot less calories that soda.
  • Ask for extra steamed vegetables or a salad instead of the fries, coleslaw, onion rings, etc.
  • Go for grilled chicken or fish, but check on how it is prepared. If you're going for steak, get the filet, as it is much leaner.
  • Skip dessert. You REALLY don't need it, and, half an hour after you leave the restaurant, you'll be glad you skipped it. The ten minutes of satisfaction while you eat it won't be worth the extra hour or more you'll need to spend doing intense cardio to burn it off.

The most important part of all of this is to ask your server to prepare it the way you want it. If you wait until the meal comes and you plan to remove the ingredients you don't think you should eat, or plan to leave the focaccia bread on your plate, you'll be battling the will of your stomach. Before the meal is finished, you may find the dressing and bread are no longer on your plate, and it won't be because someone else ate them for you. Plan ahead and enjoy your meal.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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