Choosing Healthier Menu Options

Awwww man, you forgot to pack your breakfast, lunch, or dinner!

Now you’re putting the car in gear to go grab some food at one of your favorite places.

Tips for avoiding major nutrition damage when ordering your next meal 

First, it is best to have some idea of what your daily nutrition goals really are, so that you can fully assess what your best choice is.

Knowing your daily nutrition goals allows you to plan accordingly for the day or the meal and keeps you in control. Your choice may be based on calories, sodium, fat, types of fat, protein, sugars, allergens, etc!

For example, if you’re following  an 1800 calorie per day eating plan and you see a meal that’s 1200 calories without any sides or beverages, you know that this does not align with your goals, especially if this is lunch and you had a bigger breakfast. However, what if you had a lower calorie breakfast, then ordered a half portion, or split it with someone, or put half in the refrigerator or your cooler for later? Then it may be something that can fit into your day.

Consumers that use nutrition information, via nutrition resources, are better equipped to make healthier choices and avoid many wrong nutrition assumptions. Below are a few to get you started. 

Dining Out Nutrition Resources

1.     If there’s time before you order, hop on the restaurant’s website and see if the nutrition information is available for what you plan to eat.

2.     If you didn’t have time, many places have this information available at each site, so just ask and they’ll usually provide it.

3.     Avoid mishaps by assumption. For example, one restaurant I looked at had a 6-inch lean roast beef sandwich, without cheese, that was approximately 200 calories less than the 6-inch tuna salad sandwich. Many people would assume that the beef sandwich was not the healthier option but, it was due to the full fat mayonnaise in the tuna salad.

4.     If the nutrition information is not available, or too difficult to find, on the restaurant’s website or at a location, I recommend, but not endorsing, the following website. It’s called Fast Food Nutrition, has a compilation of nutrition information for many restaurants, and a nutrition calculator to allows you to build your entire meal order and view nutrition facts for:

5.     Another great resource is Healthy Dining Finder, which I have blogged about before. You can search for healthy food options by location, dietary choices and/or restrictions, and much more:

For a few nutrition information examples, take a peek at the table below. You’ll see that I used resources listed above to get the nutrition facts.  For a few lunch items on P.F. Chang’s I went directly to their website and for Burger King and McDonald’s breakfast items, I used the Fast Food Nutrition website. 

The results were both interesting and terrifying. You can see that I color coded them as green= lesser of all evils, yellow= proceed with caution, and red= really think about it!

No Planning Time?

Key Menu Words to Steer Towards or Away From



Healthier Options




Baked, Grilled, Broiled, Blackened, Charbroiled, Stir-Fried, Roasted, Braised

Lunch portion, half or whole size serving choices (choose half), Children’s serving

Lean beef (roast beef), Chicken and Turkey (white, without skin), Lean pork (tenderloin), Fish (not fried on bun), Seafood (not fried), Vegetarian, Egg, Tofu, Beans, Lentil, Hummus

Whole grain pasta, Whole grain bread, Whole grain brown rice (plain not fried)

Fresh/dried vegetables and fruit (plain piece of corn on the cob in place of fries)

Dairy & Cheese: Part-skim, low-fat, reduced-fat, non-fat

Salad Dressings/Meal Choices/Cheese/Soups/Condiments: Vinaigrettes, Lower-fat, Low-fat, Reduced fat, Low-calorie, Reduced-calorie, Light, Low sodium, No sugar added

Whole grain non-fried corn tortillas (instead of fried corn taco shells)

Quinoa, Millet, Whole grain barley, Whole Oats, Oatmeal, and other whole grains

Whole grain English muffin (in place of a regular full-size bagel or croissant)

Side salad or fresh fruit (in place of French or any type of fries)

Plain water, Non-sweetened beverages, Diet soda, Low-fat or Non-fat milk, Diluted 100% fruit juice

Marinated (possibly depending on sodium restrictions and food allergies)

Salsa (many varieties with and without beans can add great flavor to many foods and be used as a salad dressing)

Real maple syrup (if available because there are no added sugars or sodium)

Open-faced sandwiches without top bread

Marinara sauce (in place of cream based or high fat/sodium meats like sausage)

 Major Negative Nutrition Bombs Ahead!

Double, Biggie, Value, Bonus, Extra-large, Baconator, Juicy, Supreme, Volcano, Supreme, Double stuffed, now I’m just being silly but, you get the point!

Creamy, Cream Sauce, Secret sauce, Special sauce, Alfredo, Buttery, Buttered,

Whole Milk, 2% milk

Crunchy, Golden, Fried, Crispy, Breaded, Tempura, Deep fried

Bacon, Sausages (unless healthy versions), Lard, Duck fat

Croissant, Pastry, Biscuit, Doughnut

Canned fruit in any type of syrups

Candied fruit and/or nuts

Most pickled foods due to such high sodium and nitrates/nitrites

White flour tortilla (unless it indicates whole wheat or whole grain)

White rice, especially fried

Au gratin, A la mode, Scalloped


Hopefully now you can quickly figure out which option would best meet your nutritional goals, even if you’re glancing at the drive-thru menu board at 20 m.p.h.!

Happy noshing!


Additional Resources:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

American Heart Association – Dining Out Tips by Cuisine

Eat This, Not That – 20 Healthiest Fast-Food Options for Crazy-Busy Days

Huffington Post – What Nutrition Pros Eat at Chain Restaurants

Self Magazine – 21 Healthy Fast Food Meals Registered Dietitians Love