It hits five o’clock and you realise you have nothing planned for dinner. Or you are rushing for work in the morning and didn’t prepare lunch the night before. These scenarios happen all too often and the easiest answer can be buying a meal out.
However, trying to eat a balanced diet while eating out can be difficult because you have less control over how the food is prepared. Portion sizes can be huge –what happened to the good old sandwich – now replaced by a giant panini? The soup looks good and the noodle dish tempting but how much fat, salt or sugar has gone into the preparation.
Here are a few tips and tricks that can help you choose a ‘healthier’ option when you’re stuck in the trap of eating out regularly.
General tips and tricks
- choose dishes that specify they contain vegetables in the description
- go for ‘steamed’, ‘grilled,’ ‘baked’ or ‘fresh’ items over ‘fried,’ ‘battered’ or ‘crumbed’
- order a small or entrée portion, or share a large portion with a friend
- when choosing a side, choose salad over fries more frequently
- look out for the word ‘creamy’ as this often indicates a higher fat content and more calories
- ask for sauce, dressing or gravies on the side of dishes to allow you to control how much of these you have
- tomato-based dishes or dressings often contain fewer calories and can provide a source of vegetables if plain tinned tomatoes have been used
- to avoid food wastage and over-eating, resist the temptation to ‘up size’ your meal 
Breakdown of specific eateries
- dry curries (vindaloo or madras) are a healthier option than saucy cream-based curries
- pappadums and roti are less energy dense than naan bread
- vegetable and lentil-based meals have less saturated fat due to their lack of meat
- fried entrees are often very high in calories, and something like grilled chicken skewers are a better choice
- stir-frys are often less energy dense than coconut-based curries
- choose vegetable-based dishes and add chicken or seafood if desired. Examples include chow mien, chop suey, gado gado, larb and most vegetarian mains
- steamed rice is a healthier alternative to fried rice
- chicken, lean red meats and seafood are a better choice than pork or duck options
- thin crispy base is a lower calorie option than deep dish or regular bases
- opt for chicken, seafood or vegetarian toppings rather than processed meat toppings
- eat a few slices of the pizza with an accompaniment salad or roast vegetables to increase your vegetable intake
- grainy or wholemeal bread options are a better choice than energy-dense pastries such as croissants
- smoothies often have just as many calories as a small meal, so think twice before ordering a smoothie in combination with a meal
- avoid salads or egg-based dishes with ‘creamy’ dressings (e.g. hollandaise), or ask for the dressing to be left off
- be aware that sweet extras such as bliss balls or slices can often be energy dense even if they are marketed as ‘raw’ or ‘healthy’
- water is the best choice
- opt for small sizes rather than large
- choose frappes, shakes, iced milky beverages without cream on top 
If eating out is a rare occurrence for you, then ordering a treat or energy-dense food is not a big issue. However, if you find you are catching up with friends and getting food weekly or even daily then more consideration may be required for what you order.
Making food at home is nearly always cheaper and better for you, but eating out doesn’t always have to be bad for your waistline if you follow some of the advice above.
1. Queensland Dietitians. Healthy Eating Takeaway Convenience Meals. 2016. PEN Database.