Eating Out on a Low Carb Diet

December 20, 2019
By Anna Welcome, MD

Many people who are just starting out eating with eating low carb may find it difficult to know what to eat when dining out. With so many high carb foods on the menu, how do you make good choices and stay on your eating plan when dining out? How do you eat at Mexican or Italian restaurants and not go “off the rails”?

Sometimes we want to socialize with friends or family over a meal, sometimes our work requires going out to eat or traveling. In those situations, we generally don’t want to draw too much attention to our eating choices and don’t want to put a damper on the choices of our dining companions. How do we make good food choices without making a big deal out of it?  It is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. If you feel that you must explain your choices to your dinner companions, say it is for health reasons (allergies, stomach issues if details needed). Your health should always come before “fitting in.”

Some general rules for eating out while on a low carb diet should be followed:

  1. MAKE A PLAN! Deciding beforehand can really help you to stay on your eating plan. Try to decide where you are going to eat as soon as possible and look up the menu options. Decide what you will eat and drink before you enter the restaurant. Trying to make a good decision when you are already hungry and ready to eat will make deciding more difficult. If you really feel vulnerable, eat something low carb BEFORE going out.
  2. AVOID STARCHES. When looking at the menu, look at appetizers, sides and entrees. Look for combinations of protein and vegetables and avoid starches. If a starch is part of a plate, get comfortable with asking the server for substituting the starch for extra vegetables or salad instead. It is very easy, and most restaurants are happy to make these accommodations for their patrons. Consider eating a meal out of appetizers as there are often multiple low carb options on that menu. It is much easier to not eat the starch if it is not on your plate to begin with. If you are dining alone, ask to not have bread or chips brought to the table, if you are eating with others, try to relocate the basket at the other end of the table instead. If you feel the need to eat something when others are eating bread or chips, order a salad, vegetable or other appetizer instead.
  3. Keep an eye on sauces and condiments. There might be sugar or starchy thickeners in it. If it tastes sweet, assume that it is sugar. Even Ketchup has a fair amount of sugar in it. Ask for condiments on the side so you can taste it beforehand and control the amount used.
  4. Watch your alcohol intake. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and may make it easier to give in to foods we are trying to avoid. Set a limit and pace yourself. Alternate alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic drinks to avoid getting buzzed. Choose dry wine or distilled liquor (mixed with seltzer or diet mixers if desired) for a low carb choice. Even better choices are water, sparkling water, tea or coffee.
  5. For dessert, consider a cheese plate or fruit. Or, have a coffee.

Here are some examples of low carb choices you can make at several types of restaurants:

American Bistro/Pub/Steak House: Burger without bun or wrapped in lettuce.  Salad topped with meat, chicken or fish. Chicken or Fish with veggies/salad on side. Steak with veggies or salad.  Buffalo wings are great if unbreaded.

Diner/Breakfast: Eggs and breakfast meat. Substitute bread/toast and potatoes for fruit cup, cottage cheese, sliced tomatoes or a side salad.

Italian/Mediterranean: Meat, Fish or Chicken with veggies/salad. Consider a Frittata if available. Mediterranean food has some of the best tasting vegetable preparations known. Caprese salad is very tasty as is a Greek Salad with Gyro meat.  Avoid pasta and bread.

Mexican: Try Carne or Chicken Asada, Carnitas or Fajitas. Instead of tortillas, chips, rice or beans choose vegetables or salad to accompany. Have some salsa, guacamole and Pico de Gallo on the side. Try huevos rancheros. No problemo!

Asian: Ask for dishes with meat, chicken or fish stir-fried with veggies in oil or hot oil. Avoid breaded meats or sweet sauces. Ask for fresh or sautéed cabbage or extra veggies instead of rice or noodles. Some places are starting to offer cauliflower rice these days. If you have Pho, ask for no noodles. Hot pot or Korean barbeque but avoid sweet sauces. Cabbage rolls instead of Egg Rolls are a good substitution.

Pizza: Pizza happens. Consider getting a salad and eating the topping, cheese and sauce off slices of pizza. Leave the crust, you won’t miss it (too much).

Sandwiches: Consider having the sandwich filling on a salad or lettuce wrapped sandwich instead. Make sure to add lots of tasty veggies.

Seafood: Have boiled, grilled, broiled fish and seafood and avoid fried or breaded versions. Consider soup or stew.

Fast Food: Sometimes fast food HAS to happen. Get a burger or chicken sandwich and skip the bun. Instead of fries get a side salad or sliced apples. Many fast food places now offer some version of a dinner salad with chicken or other meat. Avoid breaded chicken in favor of grilled. Drink water or unsweetened iced tea instead of soda.

French: Have soup, green salad and charcuterie. Salade Nicoise is delicious. Have quiche but avoid the crust. Roasted chicken or Beef Bourguignon are great options. Avoid dishes with bread or pastry. Bearnaise or Hollandaise sauces are low carb.

Indian: Consider chicken, lamb, fish or paneer with veggies in a creamy sauce such as korma, butter sauce, or tikka masala. Tandoori cooked meats and curries are also delicious. Instead of rice, consider these on a bed of cabbage or cauliflower rice if available.

Sushi/Japanese: Consider miso soup, salads and sashimi. Avoid tempura, teriyaki, rice and noodles.

Salad Bar: A low carb dream! All kinds of veggies and proteins without having to chop it yourself! Avoid croutons and sweet dressings.

Coffee Shop: Please be aware that many coffee drinks contain sugar. Iced coffee contains simple syrup unless you ask that it be left out. Milk does contain milk sugar (lactose) so go easy on these drinks. Consider Almond or Coconut milk if available, they are low carb and make tasty lattes.

This should be enough to get you started.  You don’t have to be a hermit to eat low carb, you just need a plan beforehand.

Bon Appetit!