10 Simple Substitutions to Make Restaurant Meals Healthier

by | Aug 1, 2012
Photo by basheertome

Photo by basheertome

I pity the fool who puts health over pleasure every time they enter a restaurant, but if you eat out often all those French fries could get the better of you.

When nothing on the menu perfectly fits my preferences (particularly at low to mid-range places more tailored to the Standard American Diet crowd), I don’t hesitate to swap out whatever I don’t want with something better.

Whether it’s to avoid processed foods or simply add vibrance and color to my plate, here are 10 simple swaps to make the most of your restaurant meals.

10 Simple Substitutions to Make Restaurant Meals Healthier

1. Mixed greens instead of ice burg or romaine lettuce

I enjoy cobb salads, but for some reason they’re usually served with boring industrial lettuce. Most places these days carry mixed greens or spinach as well, and are usually happy to make the switch.

2. Fruit instead of toast

I’m not sure why breakfast spots think you need two giant pieces of toast on top of your potatoes, eggs and pancakes, but if you don’t want it they’ll often offer you fruit instead. This is one of the best upgrades you can get away with.

3. Salad instead of potatoes

Speaking of potatoes, while they are real food and have their place in a healthy diet, they’re so often fried in rancid industrial oils that it’s best to skip them. Swapping them out for salad or cooked greens is rarely a problem.

4. Avocado instead of mayo

Real mayonnaise, the kind made from egg yolks and olive oil is perfectly healthy (and delicious). Unfortunately that isn’t what most places are putting on your sandwich. Instead commercial mayos are typically made with soybean or canola oils, AKA hyper-processed industrial oils. It may cost a little extra, but avocado is a fantastic alternative to gooey up your lunch.

5. Cheese plate instead of dessert

One of the things I love about France is that it’s perfectly acceptable to have cheese after dinner instead of sugar. If everyone is ordering crème brûlée and you don’t want to be a party pooper, get the cheese plate instead. Good cheese is healthy.

6. Brown rice instead of white

I don’t mind white rice in small quantities, but if I’m stuck eating somewhere I know the food isn’t very healthy I swap out my white rice for brown (and order as many vegetables as possible) if the option is available.

7. Drink wine instead of cocktails

Dinner often starts with a drink selection. While wine certainly has calories, cocktails usually have hundreds more thanks to the liqueurs and syrups typically used. Mixed drinks have their place, but if you’ll also be eating  a few hundred calories then wine is a better choice.

8. Beans instead of rice

If I see beans or lentils anywhere on the menu I’ll often ask if the kitchen can use them instead of one of the faster digesting starches on my plate. Your waiter may be confused, but he’ll usually do it if you ask.

9. Olive oil and vinegar instead of sugary dressing

At some point in the past 20 years salad dressings started being made with ridiculous amounts of sugar and salt, probably to cover up the completely flavorless vegetables from the industrial food chain. Good ol’ fashioned olive oil and vinegar is a better choice, and most kitchens have them.

10. Anything instead of American cheese

Have you ever looked at the ingredients for American cheese? Besides water, the first ingredient is usually trans fat. The second is cornstarch. All the way at the bottom it says, “Contains: Milk.” Replacing it with real cheddar, gruyere, provolone, or even nothing would be healthier.

What are your favorite restaurant substitution tricks?

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7 Responses to “10 Simple Substitutions to Make Restaurant Meals Healthier”

  1. Another great option is to use lemon juice and olive oil as a salad dressing. Most places will swap it for you as it is a cheaper alternative.

  2. chuck murray says:

    Very nice indeed. Keep up the great articles!

  3. Dee says:


    When I’m on the road, For breakfast, at the omlet station, instead of taking the extremely greasy cheese laden 5 egg omlet, i ask the cook to cook the baby spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes – i dont trust raw -i would accompany this with 1 egg equivalent and a slight sprinkle of cheese, toast.

    For dinner, I always choose the broccoli over the potato, dessert is champagne – yes I save the alcohol as dessert after Dinner. With meat, i do the opposite to healthy, I would choose the fine lean cuts of beef, or lamb or pork tho instead of chicken or salmon – just because I rarely eat them (and never tried cooking them – to date) and of course most of that meat is shared at the table or packed to go.

    My mindset on eating at restaurants has changed. Since I’ve started cooking regularly at home, I no longer buy food/ eat out because I’m hungry and need something to eat now. Eating at restaurants is for the purpose of socialization, relaxation and tasting superb food

  4. Nam Hu says:

    If you’re not skipping the bread, you can replace the butter by dipping in olive oil. And always make sure that the veggies won’t be drowning in butter. And fresh fruit works as a dessert too.

  5. Good to know the alternative, healthier choices… You can also ask for half or lunch sized portions… I’ve noticed a few places around Orlando have half sized portions available

  6. I live in the UK and travel a lot on the Continent for work, where *generally* the restaurants tend to be a bit better regarding quality of ingredient and appropriateness of portion size (I am American btw). But still, we can all do to make substitutions, especially if eating out is an occupational hazard, and your tips are spot on. The hardest thing in Italy is resisting the homemade bread and complimentary Prosecco or whatever is the drink of the region. It is easy to resist standard freebie bread but when you now they have made it from scratch an hour before – man that is hard! But I am a great believer in eating a bit of what you want (eg. splitting desserts or cheese plates rather than not having anything if you really want it) and balancing out any quasi blow outs at nice restaurants with restraint the following day or two. Even still, the old ordering dressing on the side and dipping the fork in before taking a mouthful of salad is always a good one, no matter what.

  7. Julia says:

    Great article, thanks for making this post.

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