Tips for Dining Out on a Low-Carb Diet

How to Navigate a Restaurant Menu and Reduce Carbs

Rack of Lamb and Vegetables
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Changing dietary habits or adopting a new style of eating can be challenging in the beginning, especially when you are learning to include different foods in your daily regimen. It can seem even more overwhelming when you are dining out because restaurant menus can seem like they are out of your control.

But, the good news is that if you have decided to follow a low-carb eating style, there will always be something on the menu for you. Simply follow a few tips that will help you navigate the menu and the service. You will leave the restaurant feeling satisfied and happy with your choices.

Getting Started

Healthy eating when you're out on the town is easier when you follow a few basic techniques.

Plan Ahead

Decide what to eat before you arrive at the restaurant. The more decisions you make ahead of time, the fewer choices will confront you when the waiter hands you the menu. Most restaurants have their menus available online, so this is easier than ever. In fact, if you peruse the online menu at home after you've eaten (when you feel full and satisfied) you're more likely to stick to your goals when deciding what you'll order at the restaurant.

If the menu is not available online, make choices based on the type of cuisine. Scan the different recommendations below and choose meals that fit into your overall dietary plan.

Order With Confidence

Most meals can be made without higher carbohydrate foods and substituted with extra vegetables. Even pasta dishes can be made on a bed of zucchini noodles or on top of steamed broccoli. And rice bowls can often be made on top of vegetables. Don't be shy when making requests like removing the bun or substituting a baked potato with a salad. Higher carbohydrate foods aren't bad for you, but when you are following a low-carb meal plan they will contribute more carbohydrates than other foods.

Restaurants are accustomed to special orders and want to make customers happy. If your request simply doesn't work, ask if they can help you find something else.

Advance planning can help you stick to your eating plan when you dine out. If you choose a healthy restaurant and check the menu online before you go, you're more likely to make smart choices.

Dos and Don'ts

Restaurant menus vary, but there are some tricks you can use with many of them to reduce the number of carbs you eat. These easy lists of dos and don'ts will help you order an enjoyable meal that keeps your eating plan on track. You can also use the tips listed for each course of the meal.

Dos
  • Skip the bread basket

  • Fill up on vegetables

  • Choose entrees without breading

  • Ask about side dish alternatives

  • Share a spoonful of dessert

  • Take home food for a later meal

Don'ts
  • Eat large amounts of snacks before dinner, such as chips, pretzels, crackers or bread

  • Order entrees that are breaded

  • Overdue it on salad dressing that includes honey or sweetener

  • Order pasta as a main dish

  • Eat mashed potatoes with gravy as a side dish

  • Deny yourself of your favorite foods if you don't feel like sticking to your eating plan when going out

Appetizers

In the best case scenario, ask to hold the bread basket or chip bowl. It is nearly impossible to avoid these foods when they are placed right in front of you (especially when hungry). But there may be times when your dining mates would like to partake. In that situation, keep the food as far from your seat as possible.

Once slice of Italian bread, for example, depending on the size has about 75–100 calories and between 15–20 grams of carbohydrate. If you eat that with some olive oil or butter you could be eating around 200 calories or more before dinner starts.

If you are looking for a low-carbohydrate appetizer consider sharing one and aim to choose ones that contain vegetables and protein. Some examples may include:

  • Shrimp cocktail, oysters, other raw bar items
  • Mozzarella and tomato
  • Salad with lots of vegetables
  • Guacamole with fresh vegetables
  • Grilled meat or fish with artichokes, mushrooms, or peppers
  • Roasted nuts
  • Sautéed olives

Salads

Meal salads can be very tasty, satisfying, and are also likely to be low-carb friendly. Just be sure to clarify what the salad includes. If your salad is served with croutons or other fried toppings, ask for them to be served on the side or simply omit them.

If your salad contains dried fruit or candied nuts, these items can be high in sugar and carbohydrates, especially if they are sweetened. You should ask for these items to be removed or placed on the side.

Lastly, ask about the salad dressing. Some are made with sweeteners like honey or fruit juice. If you are unsure of the carb count, simply ask for olive oil or oil and vinegar.

If you don’t like any of the salad options, pick a sandwich that looks good and ask for the innards to be put on top of a green salad instead of a bun.

Entrees

When looking for a main entree, think about choosing a protein and vegetable combination. Proteins that are breaded or deep fried will be higher in carbohydrates due to the breading and flour. If the protein is crusted with nuts (like almonds or pistachios) the entree will be lower in carbohydrates.

Baked, broiled, steamed, poached, or grilled protein sources will be lower in overall calories, carbohydrates, and fat. Have your protein of choice (fish, steak, turkey, pork, chicken, etc.) topped with roasted vegetables or sautéed with vegetables in a light sauce. Many restaurants give you the option to order extra vegetables or a side of vegetables if you feel like you need more food.

If you choose a burger, steak, or seafood sandwich, order it without the bun. Some people prefer for their sandwich to be wrapped in lettuce while others simply eat the sandwich with a knife and fork.

If it’s a “breakfast all day” type of place, order an omelet for lunch or dinner with low-carb veggies such as spinach, peppers, and mushrooms. Have fruit on the side instead of the toast and home fries.

Side Dishes

Asking for extra vegetables instead of rice or potatoes can be a good option. You can also ask for a side salad or a side of a different vegetable that is on the menu.

Quite often, if you say “no potato” you will be asked if you’d like more veggies, or the chef may just fill out the plate with them.

Desserts

Most dessert choices will be very high in carbohydrate. But if everyone else at your table is ordering one, you might feel left out when you sit empty-handed.

If you're feeling dessert-deprived, taste your tablemate's selection. A small spoonful could be all you need to satisfy your curiosity.

You might also ask a tea or coffee and enjoy a warm cup while your dining companions eat dessert.

Types of Cuisine

Certain types of cuisine are more difficult to enjoy while you are adjusting to a low-carb lifestyle. For example, Tex-Mex fare is often quite starchy. And of course, family-style Italian restaurants are going to have menus loaded with high-carb choices.

Keep these tips in mind at different types of restaurants.

Mexican

Traditional Mexican restaurants will have plenty of healthy, delicious, spicy menu selections to keep you happy. Many serve grilled meat and seafood alongside peppers and other flavorful vegetables.

If you are at a restaurant that serves foods like burritos, rice bowls, or tacos, you may be able to find a lower carbohydrate option by eliminating the tortilla, asking for no rice, or having your meat and veggies served on top of a salad.

Asian

There are so many different types of Asian cuisine, but you can follow many of the same rules when you visit any of them. Most Asian cuisines focus on healthy fish and veggie-based soups, so there are definitely low-carb choices.

When in doubt, ask for entrees to be served without rice. Skip entrees that include the word "tempura" as these are breaded and fried. And if you are unsure about the names of different ingredients or entrees, just ask.

Italian

Traditional Italian fare (like Mexican and Asian cuisines) offers many nutritious meat, seafood, and vegetarian choices. In fact, on many Italian menus, pasta is simply a small pre-entree course, not a heaping plate-sized entree.

When dining at an Italian restaurant, look for beef, poultry, and seafood choices. Almost every restaurant will offer some kind of salmon, chicken, and steak choice. Skip the pasta and ask for a small salad on the side.

Fast Food

While fast food is not always the smartest choice for optimal health, there are times when it's tough to skip the drive-thru lane. On these occasions, avoid the combo meals and order a la carte. Combo meals always come with starchy sides that will send your carb count soaring.

Your best bet is to check out the menu. Fast food restaurants are required to provide nutrition information for their food items. Consider ordering a grilled sandwich, such as chicken, steak or a burger and eat only half the bun. Or if they serve salads or soup, you can try one of those. Choose broth-based soups like vegetable soup or a small order of chili.

A Word From Verywell

While you might want to stick with eating at home where you can control the menus when you're starting a low-carb diet, restaurants are not out of the question. Using these tips, you'll be ready to make those healthy decisions required to keep yourself on track.

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