Tips for Dining Out on a Low-Carb Diet

Learn How to Navigate a Restaurant Menu and Reduce Carbs

Rack of Lamb and Vegetables
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Changing the way you eat and following a new diet is difficult enough when you eat at home. But what happens when you go out to eat? It can be easy to fall prey to temptation and order something that sounds delicious, even if it's not right for your low-carb diet.

The good news is that it's entirely possible to enjoy a good restaurant meal that fits your low-carbohydrate lifestyle. Simply follow a few tips that will help you navigate the menu and the service. You'll leave the restaurant feeling guilt-free and satisfied because you made healthy 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 now have their menus available online, so this is easier than ever. In fact, if you peruse the online menu at home after you eat a meal (when you feel full and satisfied) you're likely to make smarter choices.

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.

Choose Location Wisely

Visit a restaurant that is likely to have menu selections consistent with your food plan. For example, on a low-carb diet, you might want to avoid a pasta restaurant or the local Mexican restaurant that is known to serve chips and salsa immediately when you sit down.

Of course, it is possible to make healthy low-carb choices at almost any restaurant, but it may be difficult at first. So make your life easy and choose a location that won't be too tempting.

For now, think about restaurants with easy and natural low-carb choices. Places where things come separately (like steak and salad) are easier than cuisines that emphasize dishes with lots of ingredients.

Also, give special consideration before visiting fast food restaurants. Generally, it's best to avoid these restaurants. With practice, you can learn to spot their low-carb menu items. But in the beginning, it is likely to be a challenge. The good news is that many fast food restaurants are making low-carb dining easier.

Order With Confidence

Don't be shy about (respectfully) asking the waitstaff for what you need. Either ask for low-carb recommendations or request special preparation methods.

Remember that restaurants are accustomed to special orders. If your request can't be accommodated exactly as you suggest, it is likely that the chef or waitstaff can help you to find something that works.

It's also good to remember, however, that the more casual the restaurant, the less likely this is to happen.

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

  • Sit near chips, pretzels, or crackers

  • Order entrees that are breaded, crispy, or crusted

  • Load up on sugary salad dressings

  • Eat potatoes as a side dish

  • Deny yourself a sweet treat at the end of your meal

Appetizers

In the best case scenario, you should ask for no bread basket or chip bowl. It is nearly impossible to avoid these foods when they are placed right in front of you (especially when you are 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.

Next, consider skipping the appetizer altogether, as many are high in both starch and fat. If you see something on the menu that looks healthy and delicious, think about ordering it as an entree. Many times appetizer portions are more in line with recommended guidelines than oversized entrees.

Salads

Meal salads are quite popular and can be very tasty and satisfying. They are also likely to be low-carb friendly. Just be sure to clarify what the salad includes. Stay away from croutons and other starchy or fried toppings like wontons or tortilla strips.

Next, ask about fruit in the salad. Many creative chefs combine sweet and savory flavors to make the salad tasty. But dried fruits (like raisins or cranberries) can be very high in carbs.

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 scanning your main meal options, look for fairly plain meat with vegetables. Avoid meat, poultry or seafood that is breaded. There may be several different terms that indicate that bread is part of the meat or seafood preparations. Entrees that are fried, deep-fried, breaded, crispy, or panko-crusted will be higher in carbs.

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, mushrooms, etc. Have fruit on the side instead of the toast and home fries.

Side Dishes

Many entrees come with rice or potato on the side. Sometimes other starchy side dishes are offered as well. Always ask for extra veggies instead of those choices.

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.

However, if you are at a Tex-Mex restaurant, you may find it harder to navigate. Avoid combo platters that usually come with rice and beans. Fajitas can be a smart option if you limit (or avoid) the tortilla and focus on the meat and veggies.

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 you can't 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 almost always a salad (without croutons), but if that is not offered, look for a grilled sandwich, such as a grilled chicken or steak sandwich. Then remove half of the bread and enjoy the meat and veggies in the middle.

A Word From Verywell

While you might want to eat 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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