How to make good choices when eating out

Eating healthy when eating out can be a challenge. This post will help.

As you make a plan for making your diet work in your whole life, a really strategic exercise is to research the menu of your favorite place ahead of time, and find one or more dishes that suit your boundaries. Then keep a list on your phone or planner.

Here, I’ve gathered up some general tips for eating anywhere, as well as links to helpful info for a few popular casual-dining restaurant chains.

General guidelines

If you’re trying to avoid all sugar, always ask for NO SEASONING SALT in restaurants. Sugar is often added to this; MSG too.

When you see the following adjectives on the menu, ask questions and be prepared to pass on foods that don’t meet your standards:

  • Battered
  • Breaded
  • Candied
  • Coated
  • Crispy
  • Croquettes (coated with breadcrumbs)
  • Deep fried
  • Dumpling
  • Fritter (may contain or be coated with flour or breadcrumbs)
  • Glazed
  • Meatballs/Meatloaf (probably include breadcrumbs)
  • Sauced — ask if there’s dairy (if you’re avoiding it) or sugar in the sauce
  • Sausage
  • Vinaigrette — ask if it contains sugar, honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup

Best and worst places

Very Well Fit offers this list of best and worst places for gluten-free dining:

“Your best options for gluten-free fast food include:

[Jana’s note: this list is just about gluten; it doesn’t consider sugar, dairy, or over-refined oils.]

  • Arby’s
  • Boston Market
  • Chick-fil-A (offers gluten-free buns and gluten-free french fries)
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill
  • Five Guys (offers gluten-free fries)
  • In-N-Out Burger (offers gluten-free fries)
  • Shake Shack (offers gluten-free buns)
  • Sonic Drive-In (offers gluten-free fries)
  • Wendy’s
  • Zoe’s Kitchen

“Your best options for gluten-free table service dining out include:

  • Bonefish Grill
  • Carrabba’s Italian Grill
  • Cheeseburger in Paradise
  • Chili’s Bar and Grill
  • Old Spaghetti Factory
  • Outback Steak House
  • P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
  • Uno Chicago Grill

“Note that Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s and Taco Bell are among the worst choices for gluten-free fast food, as they have extremely limited options and the risks for gluten cross-contamination are high.”

General restaurant tips

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Ask!

Never be afraid to ask about certain ingredients in a dish, or to ask for substitutions. For example, if a chicken or fish dish is normally served on pasta, I ask if I can have it over sauteed spinach. The answer is almost always yes.

For the most part, today’s restaurant owners are well aware of food allergens, especially gluten. The best ones train their servers to be gracious and knowledgeable about this, too.

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Burger places, or any place that serves ’em

Almost every restaurant has a burger on the menu, so this can be a handy go-to.

Ask to have your burger served bunless (yes, you’ll need a fork and knife). Or ask if they offer it lettuce-wrapped. At nicer restaurants, the toppings on their specialty burgers will make it interesting enough without the bread. If you usually have a plain burger, try having it topped with grilled onions and mushrooms. Add jalapenos, if that’s how you roll. Or guacamole. You may also ask to have your burger patty served on or beside a salad.

Get a side of broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or sweet potato (fries), if available. Yeah, the fries may be fried in not-so-healthy oil (ask, if you’re concerned), but they do have a whopping amount of beto-carotene.

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Mexican places

Go local, if possible, not chain. It’s not a slam-dunk, but there’s likely to be fewer processed ingredients in a mom-and-pop place.

Ask for no chips when you’re seated. If you order carryout, specify no chips. If the others dining with you aren’t on board, ask to have the basket placed out of your reach.

If you’re avoiding dairy, ask if there’s cheese in the guacamole.

Ask if you can get veggies to replace the ubiquitous rice and beans.

Fajitas; skip the tortilla, sour cream and cheese. Just pick up the goodies with your fork and dip it in salsa.

Order a corn tostada topped with meat of your choice, guacamole, salsa, lettuce, tomato, and/or onions. Eat everything but the tortilla.

A taco salad is usually a pretty good choice, too, if you ask them to leave off the tortilla crispies some places sprinkle on top, AND don’t eat the shell.

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My personal tips

I’ve also recorded some short audio files giving tips for eating healthier. You can find those here.

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Chains

The first time I created this list, I looked up specific dishes at each restaurant. However, companies change their menus — and even the ingredients in the same dishes — so often that it would be a monster task to keep this updated. Also, these days most companies are on top of providing info about allergens, especially gluten, and make this available on their website. So I’m providing links to each chain’s nutrition info pages and encourage you to do some research on your favorite places.

If you’re avoiding wheat and dairy — even if you’re not allergic to them — the allergen menus are very helpful.

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Applebee’s

If you’re mainly trying to avoid grains or gluten, here’s the entire Applebee’s gluten-free menu.

Here’s their allergen-free food finder. Note that they use soybean oil in their fryers.

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Chik-Fil-a

Here is Chick-Fil-a’s nutrition and allergen chart. By default, it shows nutrition label info. To see allergens, click the red tab/button that says “Allergens.”

I notice that there are very few wheat-free items on the menu.

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Chili’s

Here’s Chili’s gluten-free menu. Remember to ask about dairy and sugar, if you’re avoiding those.

Here’s a pdf of their complete allergen information. Heads-up for old eyes: it has pretty small type! (If this link breaks in the future, just google “chili’s allergen menu.”)

If you’re avoiding soy, you should know this, which they state on the allergen document:

Many of our foods contain soybean oil and our fried items are prepared in 100% soybean oil. Under FDA regulations highly refined soybean oil is not considered allergenic and is exempt from labeling. Therefore, menu items that contain highly refined soybean oil will not be identified as containing soy on our allergen guide unless other forms of soy are present.

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Chipotle

Chipotle is a pretty clean place to eat, because they care about the sources of their food. They also provide great info about ingredients. (See last paragraph in this section.*) And because you customize your order, it’s easy to choose what works for you. Skip anything made with a tortilla; avoid or go easy on the rice and beans; and load up on veggies, guac, and meat.

For a shortcut to your eating style, check out their Lifestyle Bowls. Here are the ones that are low-ish carb:

  • Whole30® Salad Bowls: Supergreens; chicken, carne asada, or carnitas; fajita veggies; fresh tomato salsa; and guacamole
  • Keto Salad Bowls: Supergreens, steak or chicken, tomatillo-red salsa, cheese, and guacamole
  • Paleo Salad Bowl: Supergreens, chicken, fajita veggies, tomatillo-green salsa, and guacamole

Here’s more info from Very Well Health about food allergens at Chipotle.

*The Chipotle website also provides a super handy chart showing which of their foods have allergens in them. Click on the second tab to find a similar chart showing which foods fit into certain diets.

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Jason’s Deli

Here’s what they say about gluten:

Although we can’t guarantee that there will be no cross-contact/cross-contamination of gluten — Jason’s Deli is not a 100% gluten-free environment — we take special care to ensure that our gluten-sensitive products do not come in contact with gluten. [More info here.]

And about their food in general:

2005, we became the first national chain restaurant to remove partially hydrogenated oil – a source of artificial trans fat. Since then, we’ve taken nutrition even further:

  • 2008 – Removed artificial MSG and — except for a few fountain drinks — all high-fructose corn syrup from our food.
  • 2010 – Banned dyes and artificial colors.
  • 2015 – Removed artificial flavors.

Their website also provides a nutrition calculator to find out more specifics. It takes a few clicks, but it helps you sleuth out these ingredients:

Then you choose which category of dish. I chose to avoid milk, gluten, wheat, and soy, then look at salads, and here’s the result:

Find Jason’s Deli nutrition calculator here.

They do offer gluten-free bread/toast; you can ask for it on any sandwich.

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McAlister’s Deli

McAlister’s big thing is their giant baked potatoes with various toppings. Baked potatoes are very high starch — which converts quickly to sugar in your body — so I avoid them. They offer gluten-free bread in some locations.

Here’s their nutrition guide, which is like a giant scrollable nutrition label for every dish and beverage.

Their allergen finder.

(I haven’t been to McAlister’s in a few years, because I found it really hard to eat healthy there. The menu may be more friendly now.)

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Panera

Panera unfortunately 1) offers no gluten-free bread, and 2) makes it a pain to track down nutrition info. Here’s what they say about that:

Our bakery-cafe and catering menus may vary by location due to, among other things, market tests and local requirements. For a full list of ingredients for most bakery-cafe menu items, please go to the menu item listed on PaneraBread.com. If you have a question about ingredients in a specific menu item, please ask a manager at your bakery-cafe to check the ingredient listing for that item. 

For our US bakery-cafes, nutrition information for our standard bakery-cafe and most catering menu items can be found on our United States Nutrition Information Guide PDF on panerabread.com and our US catering page. For our Canadian bakery-cafes, nutrition information for our standard bakery-cafe and most catering menu items can be found on our Nutrition Information Guide PDF for Canada on our Canadian catering page.

The Greek dressing is the only sugar-free, dairy-free dressing. Caesar and Green Goddess are very low in sugar, but not dairy-free. You can request any dressing on any salad. I like the Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Greek dressing.

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Wendy’s

From the website:

Wendy’s does not currently offer a gluten free menu, nor do we have a gluten free guarantee. If you’re looking to avoid gluten-containing ingredients, we encourage you to view our menu on our website. A wheat allergen icon will indicate products that contain gluten from wheat, or you can view the product’s ingredient statement for the presence of other gluten containing grains.

There doesn’t seem to be a central place where you can look at everything in a list. If you order ahead on the website or app, however, you’ll be shown the allergen and nutrition info for each item you order.


updated 8/6/2020


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