What to Order at a Restaurant: the Healthiest Options

Sunday Aug 16 | BY |
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salad bar with vegetables in the restaurant healthy food

Eating at a restaurant can be a disaster, health-wise!

However, with some planning, you can “limit the damage” while enjoying yourself.

A few basic principles:

  • In general, American sit-down chain restaurants (TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Applebee’s, etc.) tend to have the worst and unhealthiest food, disguised in an appearance of wholesomeness.
  • Next are regular fast food chains (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, etc.).
  • Your best bets are family-owned or non-franchised ethnic restaurants.

What to Order at Restaurants – Some Tips


I usually have a good time at Mexican restaurants. You can often make your own soft tacos and they often have a bar to add your own condiments.

  • Order soft corn tortillas, which are baked instead of fried. Soft corn tortillas are better than burrito tortillas, which contain oil.
  • Don’t eat the fried corn chips they serve for free. They are fried in large quantities of unhealthy oil.
  • Order the guacamole
  • Order black beans, even if they are not on the menu. They always have them.
  • Order fresh salsa


Although delicious, Thai cuisine outside of Thailand is generally unhealthy. The coconut milk they use is not fresh and therefore is extremely high in saturated fats. Oils are used abundantly. Here are some creative Thai ideas.

  • Order Summer Rolls. They are not fried, and are filled with veggies and rice noodles.
  • Order Tom Yum soup made with mushrooms, broth, and lemongrass. You can often get this with tofu or with lean meat or fish.
  • My favorite meal at a Thai restaurant is the Green Papaya Salad served with sticky rice. It’s spicy so make sure they make it to your liking!


I am afraid of the raw fish served in sushi restaurants, and you should be too! A 2008 survey of Manhattan restaurants found “at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.” That is, for tuna used in Sushi. The Times noted that “sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market.” And the problems go beyond just the Tuna found in sushi. However, you can still find some tasty and healthy options at Japanese restaurants.

  • Order the vegetarian rolls (avocado, cucumber, yam, vegetarian, etc.)
  • The sushi containing salmon appear to be safe
  • The udon noodles (with vegetables) are good too
  • Order edamame (green soy beans served whole)
  • Order miso soup (I know this goes against my “soup” rule but it’s still a great choice!)


Dishes in Vietnamese restaurants tend be steamed and usually include rice or noodles. They also contain lots of vegetables. Here are some tips for making healthy choices at Vietnamese restaurants.

  • Order the vegetarian Pho soup (or with lean protein if you prefer).  The Pho soups (made with broth from fish, meat, or vegetables) typically come with a side of fresh greens, herbs, and bean sprouts, which you can add to the broth as you eat it so that they gently steam.
  • Don’t order the imperial rolls.
  • You can often get grilled vegetables on skewers
  • The rice and vermicelli noodles are not fried, therefore fine to eat


Many people think of Greek food as healthy, but you still have to pay attention to what you order. Many Greek restaurants saturate foods in butter and cook with high-fat red meats. Here are a few of the healthier choices you’ll see on the menu.

  • Horiatiki Salata is the name for Greek garden salad. When you order a Greek salad, you can ask for no feta, and dressing on the side.
  • If you are not vegan, you can order whole grilled fish. It’s going to be the healthiest type of meat on the menu.
  • If you find bean soup on the menu, order it! It’s delicious.
  • Melitzanosalata is a dip of ground eggplant, tahini, garlic, and olive oil. Ask for extra veggies on the side for dipping.
  • If you must have dessert, order the kourabiedes (a type of almond cookie) which is 150 calories per serving versus almost 500 for baklava!

Middle Eastern

Middle-Eastern cuisine would be very healthy if it were not for the oil that they tend to put in everything. But still, it’s very plant-based friendly otherwise. Who doesn’t love hummus? And besides, you’ll find a ton of great options. There’s not much you’ll be able to do about the oil there, however.


Although delicious, Indian food is generally unhealthy because of the high amounts of oil and dairy they use (even in vegetarian dishes).  Here are some tips.

  • Try Gobhi Matar Tamatar, a vegetarian dish composed of cauliflower, peas and tomatoes.
  • My favorite dish at an Indian restaurant is the Masala Dosa — a sort of Indian flat pancake (much like a French crepe) made with lentils and filled with a spicy potato mixture. It sounds strange, but you must try it!
  • Avoid fried or fat-soaked breads. Many of the bread options at Indian restaurants have been fried or soaked in fat, such as kulcha, poori and and roti. You can choose healthier breads, like naan, which is typically baked, or chapatti, which is cooked on a dry griddle.
  • Avoid papadam that usually comes out with the appetizers is bread made from fiber-rich lentils. It can be baked, but at restaurants it is generally fried.
  • Items flagged tandoori have been cooked in a tandoori oven. The tandoori oven cooks foods at high temperatures in a way similar to a traditional Italian pizza oven.

Traditional Italian

Let’s be honest. When we think of health-conscious cuisine, not too many of us would put Italian food at the top of the list. Many people think there are no healthy foods in Italian restaurants. But there are, so keep reading! Here are some tips:

  • Authentic Minestrone soup is a good way to start out a meal in an Italian restaurant. I think with Italian food it’s really a matter of HOW the food is prepared, and Italian restaurants in general are very amenable to preparing your food any way you like it. It’s easy for them!
  • I know you are going to order the pasta. You’ve been lusting after it ever since your friend announced a gathering at the Italian restaurant, right? After all, what’s the point of going to an Italian restaurant if not to eat pasta? There are so many varieties of pasta, pasta sauces, and fillings for ravioli that I’m sure you can find something you’ll enjoy. Just remember the basics: avoid creamy sauces, Alfredo, large amounts of cheese.
  • Risotto, unfortunately, contains huge amounts of butter and oil.
  • For dessert, you can ask for fruit (berries) and they’ll generally accommodate you.


Most other restaurants that are popular are either French or have a French-inspired menu. Any chef working in a non-ethnic restaurant in America or most of Europe (and, in fact, the rest of the developed world) will have been trained at a cooking school, and most cooking schools are based on French cuisine, which has been the most influential in the world. French cuisine can be delicious and very refined, but it is generally not healthy, with all the heavy sauces, extreme amounts of butter, and small portions of concentrated, fatty food. That’s why ethnic restaurants are generally safer and healthier options.

I know that I didn’t cover many other types of restaurants. I will try to do it in another article on the same topic, but first, I want to hear your tips! 

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

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