Dining Out? Try These 5 Easy Healthy Eating Guidelines

Use the "Five-A" strategy to keep portions and calories under control.

Posted Apr 14, 2019

My guest blogger today is Gayle Wilson Rose, a health coach in the St. Louis area.

Dining out can be a treat. Too often, though, our waistlines and general health can suffer, especially when eating out becomes a regular occurrence instead of an occasional pleasure.

Most restaurants prepare food with flavor as their major focus; health is low in priority if considered at all. To kick up the flavor, many chefs add unhealthy amounts of salt, sugar, and/or fat to the mix. Plus, oversized portions are common and are a major factor in unhealthy weight gain.

Image by Gayle Rose
Source: Image by Gayle Rose

A 2016 study from Tufts University found that 92% of restaurant entrées exceeded the recommended calorie range per meal of 500 to 700 calories. In fact, “In 123 restaurants in three cities across America, the research team found that a single meal serving, without beverages, appetizers, or desserts, sometimes exceeded the caloric requirements for an entire day,” according to the researchers. In ranking the most offending cuisine types, American, Chinese, and Italian topped the list of excessively caloric entrées at 1,556 calories on average; Greek cuisine ranked lowest with an average of 904 per entrée. When you pile on drinks, appetizers, or a dessert, you can really have a caloric catastrophe. 

When we cook for ourselves, we maintain control. But a delicious meal in a restaurant can feel too good to pass up. How can we get the best of both worlds? 

The Five-A Guidelines

Setting healthy intentions when dining away from home can mean the difference between diet disaster or staying on-track with your healthy eating plan.

The Five-A system can help:

1-A: Advance review of menu options. If you check out the menu beforehand, you are more likely to make informed and thoughtful decisions about what to eat rather than order on the spur of the moment when hunger and your primitive brain are influencing your choices. Fewer calories and better nutrition are typical outcomes of taking this action.

Most restaurants feature their menus on their websites; even Yelp and other restaurant-review sites post them. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare), as of May, 2018, restaurants with more than 20 locations must display calorie information for all standard menu items. If your goal is 500-700 calories per meal, you can calculate how you can stay within that limit. With calorie counts on menus, you are able to make a conscious and deliberate choice about what to order—and not order.

2-A: Ask your server. Before ordering, have your server tell you about cooking methods, portion sizes, ingredients, etc. Don’t be shy about asking for modifications to save calories. It’s better to be informed than surprised...and then tempted to overeat.  

And speaking of asking, if you find out that the meal is big enough for two, you might ask your dining companion to split an entrée with you.

3-A: Appetizers. Instead of focusing on entrée options, look to the appetizer section for an effective portion control method. Paired with a salad or veggie side dish, an appetizer can satisfy without excessive calories. Your wallet will take a smaller hit as well.

4-A: Avoid alcohol. If not avoided entirely, sticking to the recommended limit for alcohol (one daily drink for women, two for men) is helpful. Besides having zero nutrition and often high sugar content, alcohol consumption has been proven to have a negative impact on making healthy food choices.

5-A: Away box. To better manage oh-so-common oversized portions, ask for a take-away box for half your food before beginning the meal. You’ll save loads of unnecessary calories and have a second, ready-to-serve meal at hand for later enjoyment. Plus, you won’t mindlessly keep eating even though you are already full.

By following these Five-A guidelines, you can make dining away from home enjoyable without sabotaging your goal of maintaining a healthy weight. When we make small conscious and intentional choices for our health on a daily basis, it adds up to big positive changes over time.

Finding a place of balance and moderation with eating and exercise habits isn't easy, but it is possible. The health rewards are worth the effort.

© Health Coach Gayle LLC, 2019.

Gayle Wilson Rose heads up WhyPowered ® Whole Health Coaching in St. Louis. She is a Certified Whole Health Coach and Certified Personal Fitness Trainer. One of her favorite mottos is: “What we do most matters most.”


Gallagher, S. “Tufts researchers find meals at 92 percent of dining establishments tip the scales,” 2016.