Cut lunch calories at restaurants eating out with friends

You can still eat healthier and reduce calories eating out for lunch, by keeping it light and walking after your meal. Depending on your work situation, you may be forced to grab lunch on the go. If you’re able to navigate the large portions of high-calorie foods served by most restaurants, you can cut calories when you can and enjoy a nice lunch out with friends or coworkers. Pair that with a nice walk after eating and you’ll improve your digestion and get some steps as well.

By making some simple food swaps, focusing on your favorites and cutting calories around the edges, you can have a great meal and stay healthy too.

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Avoid these 3 calorie traps

Liquid calories

Woman drinking an unhealthy soda
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Sugary, calorie-filled drinks like soda are the first thing you should cut when eating out. This is a small, simple, easy tip to save a lot of calories. Soda is high in calories and sugar, doesn’t make you feel full, and usually doesn’t add to your enjoyment of your meal. Instead, swap out your soda for water when possible.

This advice extends to most beverages you can choose from when eating out. Smoothies and alcoholic drinks are fairly high in calories, as are many fruit juices and sweetened iced teas. Dessert drinks, like milkshakes, can have 5,00-1,000 calories which could take you 2-3 hours to burn off walking. Even coffee drinks (other than black coffee) are often high in calories and sugar. You’ll be better off focusing on your favorite dishes and skipping the liquid calories. It’ll also save you a bit of money as well.

Fried foods

Oil is extremely calorie-dense, which means french fries, fried chicken, or other deep-fried items are loaded in calories from all of the oil. Even a small serving of french fries is about 365 calories, almost all of which are fat and carbs. While restaurant foods don’t have to be fried to be unhealthy, skipping fried foods and opting for grilled, broiled, or sauteed items can save you a fair amount of calories.

Sugary (and fatty) desserts

While everyone enjoys a tasty dessert, keep in mind that desserts like ice cream, dense cakes, and cheesecakes are also extremely high in calories. Many large desserts can have the same calorie count as a main course. They also tend to either give you a sugar high, which will cause you to crash and feel low energy when you get back to work, or feel heavy in your stomach. Try to skip dessert, or opt for smaller portions if possible.

Keep your lunches light (and walk after)

Light chicken avocado wrap - lunch concept
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It pays to keep your lunches light, especially if you need to go to back to work after you finish eating. It can be hard to stay energetic and alert when you’re digesting a large, fatty meal. Eating a large lunch also makes walking after eating much more difficult.

Walking boosts your energy, and it also can help digestion. In fact, a short walk can give you as much energy as drinking half a cup of coffee. Eating a lighter lunch makes it easier to take a short, brisk walk when you’re naturally feeling tired in the early afternoon.

Share or take away big restaurant portions

Pasta salad in a takeaway box
Sinisa Drakulic / Shutterstock

Restaurant portions are often 2-3 times the size of actual recommended portions, and cleaning your plate is a sure way to accidentally overeat. Many restaurants cater to health-conscious people by offering smaller portions or half-servings of dishes. If there are no smaller portions, save half for later or share with a friend or coworker. You’ll save money and calories while sticking to your healthy eating plan.

You can use the second-half of your dish as a quick and easy dinner if you’re running late, or if it’s something that stores well you can save it and eat it for lunch the next day.  Sharing with a coworker is a great way to avoid wasting food and ensuring that everyone stays healthy. You’ll want to choose easily partitioned and shared dishes, like sandwiches, over something like pasta that’s hard to split up into 2 servings.

Eat slowly, so you can stop when you feel satisfied and not miserably “stuffed.” Drinking water with meals is a zero-calorie option that fills up your stomach and helps you feel more full. Listen to your body and be mindful of how you’re feeling as you eat.

Walk after eating

While eating slowly is important, try to save some time to take a nice walk after eating. This can be as simple as walking around the office when you arrive back to work. Knowing that you plan to walk after your lunch can motivate you to eat a lighter meal. It will also encourage you to choose fewer courses, which generally leads to fewer calories eaten. Try not to rush your meals, which can lead to overeating.

If you simply don’t have enough time on a lunch break to eat and walk, try to take a 5-minute walking break as soon as possible after lunch. Just knowing in the back of your mind that you’re supposed to be getting active soon can lead to better food choices during your lunch.

Focus on your (one) favorite dish

Family sharing pizza - hands reach for slices
Ruslan Huzau / Shutterstock

Remember that you don’t have to order one of every course when you eat out. You may be used to ordering drinks, appetizers, a main course with a heavy side and dessert. By the end of the meal, you may feel so full that you can’t even appreciate your favorite part of the meal.

Instead, build your order around your single favorite dish. This could be a main dish, like a steak or burger, a special appetizer or even dessert! Choose lower-calorie options for your other orders, or skip them entirely. If you know you’re getting a burger, skip the appetizer and see if you can get a side salad instead of fries. If it’s a really big burger, take half for later. Appetizers are often unhealthy, but you can still build a meal arond them by ordering them as a main course. Even desserts can be the star of a meal if you order a small, lower-calorie main dish. If you find you’re frequently building meals around unhealthy options (like desserts), you probably need to find a different lunch spot that’s a better compliment to your walking routine.

Save calories on the side dishes

Salad vs fries health food vs fast food concept
Vezzani Photography / Nitr / Shutterstock

Your main course is more likely to be the star of your meal, so let that dish shine and order lower-calorie side dishes, like steamed veggies or a plain salad. While it’s easy to mindlessly munch french fries, mac n cheese, or mashed potatoes, they’re usually not what you came out for lunch to eat. If you do need or want to eat starchy carbs as side dishes, make them as healthy as you can Try swapping fries for a baked potato, or asking for any toppings on the side. Use butter or sour cream as sparingly as possible.

Baked potatoes are healthier than fries as they’re not deep-fried and drenched in oil. A little bit of butter or olive oil adds a bit of fat and flavor, which can help you feel more full. You can even add broccoli or another veggie on top with some salsa. You’ll be satisfied and not feel like you’re missing out.

Know before you go

Calorie count of a meal on notepad
nunawwoofy / Shutterstock

Before you even step foot into the restaurant, do your research first. Most restaurants have their menus online for you to check out. Look into healthy dishes with lower calories such as grilled items, salads, and vegetables. Make sure to be aware that just because a dish is called a “salad” or “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s not actually stuffed with calories. Once you get to the restaurant, stick to your decision and order first so you’re not tempted to order something that someone else is getting.

Restaurants will almost always accommodate special requests if they’re reasonable. Ask for sauces on the side, getting burgers without cheese and ordering your favorite appetizer as a meal are also a few great calorie-saving options. The key is identifying elements of your meal that don’t really make you happier, but do add additional calories.

3-bite rule for treats

3 bites calorie cutting concept chocolate mousse cake
suriyachan / Shutterstock

If you just have to order a high-calorie dessert, practice the “3-bite rule.” Limit yourself to 3 bites of your dessert, and commit to taking the rest home or sharing with a friend. You’ll usually find that the first bite of your dish is the best, and each additional bite is less amazing than the first. Take the 3 bites slowly, so that your stomach has time to let your brain know that it’s getting full.

If you find it’s difficult to stop once you take those 3 bites, try sharing your dessert with a friend. Pass it away after your 3 bites so the temptation is removed. Or ask for a takeaway box for your dessert before you order. After your 3 bites, box it up so it’s out of sight.

If you know going into the restaurant that the dessert is what you’re craving most, order a smaller or lower-cal meal and skip the appetizers. If you’re considering a high-calorie main dish, consider choosing one or the other – dessert or main – and deciding ahead of time. Being strategic with your choices can be fun, and helps you get that dish you love while feeling less guilty.


Next time you’re out to eat remember these 4 helpful calorie-saving tips. You’re spending your hard-earned money on a nice dinner, so put your smartphone down and relax. By being mindful of what you’re putting into your body you’re likely to enjoy it that much more.

Saving calories doesn’t have to be stressful or ruin your social life. Putting some thought into your choices and avoiding automatically piling on excess calories really adds up. Simply incorporate small changes into your current lifestyle and you’ll reap the benefits in the long run.

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