The Best Restaurant Meals for Weight Loss, According to Nutritionists
Whether you love Mediterranean, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants, we've got you covered with slimming lunch and dinner ideas.
Yes, you can eat out
If you’re trying to lose weight, cooking at home is an easy way to control calories. Consider that a whopping 92 percent of meals from chain and local restaurants have more calories than the average person should eat in a single meal, according to a Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study. But never going out for a meal isn’t really an option, either.
You can stay on the straight and narrow with help from nutrition and diet experts: We asked them to tell us about their favorite weight loss-friendly restaurant meals. From pasta with veggies and shrimp to a Chinese dish that only sounds indulgent, and everything in between, these are their most mouth-watering recommendations. (And while you’re thinking about your diet, don’t miss these six foods skinny people eat all the time.)
At Zoës Kitchen: Salmon Kabobs with seasonal fruit
Zoës Kitchen is a Mediterranean chain restaurant with locations across the nation. While they have many healthy selections, Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios is a fan of the Salmon Kabobs and suggests pairing them with a side of seasonal fruit, steamed veggies, or wheat pita chips.
“This meal is relatively low in sodium, high in protein, has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids from the salmon, and is filling without being overly caloric,” White says. “This makes it an ideal option for people trying to eat healthier or lose weight.” (Beyond eating well, here are some more things skinny people do every day.)
At a farm-to-table restaurant: Soup, salad, roasted veggies, and a lean protein
“I’m a fan of farm-to-table restaurants because they get their food from local sources which means you’re getting more nutrients in every bite,” says Miriam Jacobson, MS, RD, CNS, CDN, functional medicine dietitian and co-founder of Our Health Tribe. “While selections will change seasonally, a healthy meal might consist of a vegetable-based soup, some kind of salad, and an entrée that combines a roasted vegetable with a lean meat like pasture raised chicken breast or grass-fed steak.”
Meals rich in vegetables contain fiber, a nutrient that can aid weight loss efforts, and the protein from the meat fuels muscle recovery which is key for those who are hitting the gym hard to make the scale budge. And next time you’re whipping up a salad at home, consider trying one of these 12 delicious kale salad recipes you won’t be able to turn down.
At an Italian restaurant: Whole wheat pasta with shrimp, tomatoes, and feta
Carb lovers, rejoice! Eating pasta and losing weight are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Elisa Zied, MS, CDN, author of Younger Next Week, suggests whole wheat pasta topped with veggies and a protein next time you’re ordering at an Italian restaurant. “I recommend fiber-rich whole wheat pasta with six jumbo shrimp, sautéed tomatoes, and a light sprinkling of feta cheese, which adds great flavor and a little calcium. Even if it’s not on the menu, any Italian restaurant should be able to create something similar to this.”
Zied stresses that the key to eating pasta while trying to slim down is portion control. “Restaurants tend to give you more food than you need, so a good rule of thumb is to share or eat a half-portion and bring the rest home for a meal the next day.” Check out these portion control tips if you need inspiration.
At Thai restaurants: Lime-chili sauce steamed fish with a side salad
Although certain fats can be healthy, it’s hard to know which type was used to cook your food at a restaurant. For this reason, Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, the founder of Family. Food. Fiesta., suggests picking a protein-rich dish cooked in minimal fats when dining out. “Proteins that are broiled, baked, steamed, or poached tend to be less caloric than those that are fried or sautéed, making them smart choices for people trying to lose weight,” Koszyk explains. “With this in mind, I suggest ordering steamed fish with lime and chili sauce at a Thai restaurant.”
Pair it with an appetizer-sized salad to round out your meal and sneak in some additional vitamins and filling nutrients including fiber and water. Check out these ways to eat more protein.
At Le Pain Quotidien: Lentil and Avocado Salad with chicken
Going hungry just because you’re trying to lose weight is actually a bad idea—those pangs can lead to a binge down the road. By choosing meals rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats—three nutrients that are super satiating—you can keep stomach rumbles at bay, says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition.
One of Smith’s favorites the Le Pain Quotidien’s Lentil and Avocado Salad with chicken. “Thanks to the lentils and the veggies, the dish is a source of healthy fiber that’ll keep you full. It doesn’t come with chicken, but you can ask to add the protein-rich topper for an additional cost, which will help keep you feeling satiated even longer.” By the way, here are seven reasons you shouldn’t go to bed hungry.
At Chinese restaurants: Mu Shu Chicken with Vegetables
Chinese takeout may be known for its salt and grease—the opposite of good nutrition—but Koszyk insists it’s possible to enjoy the cuisine without dinging your diet. You just need to know what to order. “Mu shu chicken with vegetables is one of my go-to Chinese restaurant orders because it’s veggie-rich and has protein-packed chicken and a bit of carbs from the thin tortillas.” (If you’re following a Paleo or low-carb diet, simply skip the tortillas and enjoy the meat and veggies.)
The best part: The vegetables are the main attraction in this dish, according to Koszyk, which helps keep the meal on the lighter side. Don’t miss out on the 10 healthiest vegetables you can eat.
At Panera Bread: Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Cage Free Egg
With their robust menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches, Panera is a safe haven for health-conscious folks who need a meal on the go. Even dietitians allow themselves to indulge in the chain’s delicious, waistline-conscious dishes. “During the cold winter months I stop in my local Panera Bread for a bone-warming, umami broth bowl,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert, and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook. “The quinoa and lentils are filled with satiating fiber, and the protein-filled eggs complement the flavor beautifully. Just thinking about it makes me crave a bite!” If you’re looking for more healthy lunch options, don’t miss these 14 best nutritionist-approved eats at Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A, and Panera,
At a salad joint: Make your own salad with veggies, chicken, and pulses
Most people feel like they can’t go wrong at the salad bar—but mistakes are still made, thanks to creamy mixes (mac-and-cheese, potato salad) and caloric toppings (bacon, croutons). Try Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT approach: She likes to build her salad with veggies, chicken, and beans. “To create a craving-busting, antioxidant-packed, weight loss salad, I suggest combining chicken breast with kale or spinach, a scoop of pulses (like chickpeas or lentils), California prunes, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, lemon juice, vinegar, and a teaspoon or two of oil.”
Lakatos Shames says this 300-calorie, protein- and fiber-rich meal is a win not only because it’s slimming, but because it’s overflowing with health-boosting nutrients “The dark leafy greens, pulses, and prunes provide anti-inflammatory nutrients that help to fight off damage to the body and neutralize toxins.The lemon helps to promote the activity of a liver enzyme that converts harmful, toxic substances to less harsh chemicals, while the vinegar adds great flavor and may help with controlling blood sugar, so you feel more satisfied.”
At Peruvian eateries: Ceviche with a side salad
About 60 percent of chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association for its 2018 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast identified Peruvian cuisine as a growing trend. Thankfully, for folks looking to trim down, Peruvian eateries have plenty of healthy options. Ceviche—raw fish cured in citrus juices—for example, is a cornerstone of coastal Latin American cuisine and a go-to for Koszyk when she’s dining out: “With minimal oil, and lots of protein and flavor, ceviche is a winning dish for the restaurant world,” Koszyk says. “Pair an order of ceviche with a salad to get a complete and well-balanced meal.” Just make sure you watch out for the eight fish you should never order in a restaurant—and what to eat instead.
At Mexican restaurants: Guacamole with raw vegetables and two soft shell tacos
Mexican cuisine gets a bad rap, says Stephanie Middleberg, RD, founder of Middleberg Nutrition, but it actually offers some nutritional and flavorful dishes. “I suggest ordering two soft shell tacos filled with grilled fish or a different lean protein and pairing it with an order of guacamole.” Instead of dipping chips into the guac, Middleberg recommends using jicama, radish slices, or other raw veggies as a vehicle.
Another thing to keep in mind is portion size. Sure, guacamole serves up satiating, heart-healthy fats, but it’s also caloric. “If you’re trying to lose weight, stick to a three-tablespoon serving. For a visual reference, that’s what would fit inside a shot glass.” Obsessed with avocado? Don’t miss these five avocado-themed restaurants to add your bucket list.
At Pret a Manger: Souvlaki Chicken Salad
Savory flavors, healthy fats, and lean protein make this salad a weight loss win. “This is one of my favorite salads to order—and it’s under 400 calories,” Smith says. “I especially love that it has olives. They’re tangy and also great for your heart, hair, and skin, and they help you stay fuller for longer.” Check out all the amazing benefit of olives and olive oil.
At a Mediterranean restaurant: Chicken shawarma with roasted vegetables
“I love eating out at Mediterranean restaurants because it’s so easy to piece together a healthy meal,” says Jacobson. Instead of ordering pita chips, hummus, and fried falafel, Jacobson suggests ordering a variety of fiber-rich vegetable dishes and enjoying them along with a lean protein—a nutrient that’s key to muscle recovery and satiety.
“Order a side salad along with a sabich platter complete with eggplant, tomatoes, hummus, tahini, and egg for a bit of protein. Or keep things simple with the chicken shawarma and an order of roasted vegetables,” she suggests. “Both of these meals are filled with fiber and vegetables, and light on empty carbs that can make losing weight more challenging.” Find out how scientists have finally figured out why fiber is so good for you.
At Chipotle: Salad with extra romaine, chicken, brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, fresh salsa, and guacamole
From overstuffed burritos to chips drowning in queso, it’s easy to blow your diet at Chipotle. But the chain has healthy offerings, too—like their salad bowls. To create a healthy dish that will last you not one, but two meals, follow White’s winning combination listed above. “This salad packs on the protein and fiber, two vital nutrients for weight loss. It also has adequate sources of vitamins A, C, and iron,” says White. “While eating this entire dish would be far too high in sodium, if you eat half and save the rest for lunch the next day, you will be staying on track with your nutrition goals—and getting more bang for your buck.
On a plant-based weight loss plan? Ditch the chicken, and you’ll save 180 calories, and still get 15 grams of filling protein. If you’re still looking for more options, don’t miss these 10 nutritionist-approved eats at Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and Chipotle.