Restaurants get a bad rap on the healthy eating front. Yes, it is easier to control your intake of calories, salt, sugar, fat, and more when you're making what you're putting in your mouth—and one recent study even found that independent restaurants and small-scale chains average more than 1,300 calories a meal. But restaurant food isn't inherently evil—and you don't have to become a hermit to eat right.
It's completely possible to order something at least fairly healthful at most restaurants. So we tapped several of our favorite nutritionists to find out what they choose when they're staring down a menu. Let their go-to orders inspire your decision the next time you're out with friends:
"Salmon with grilled asparagus. You can count on most restaurants to have a salmon dish on the menu. I love this option because it's rich and flavorful and doesn't need to be dressed up as much as other options. Meaning, if you eat it plain, you still get some flavor and don't feel deprived. Plus, it's loaded with omega-3s, which help reduce inflammation throughout the body and are good for your skin. Asparagus is a winning side dish because it usually isn't coated as heavily in oils as some other sautéed veggies; instead, it's often grilled with a touch of olive oil and its packed with vitamins and antioxidants galore. I usually do double veggies instead of veggies and a starchy side." —Keri Glassman, R.D., Women's Health contributor
“Entree salad with the works! Loads of vegetables, grilled chicken, avocado, some cheese (adds great flavor so you can use less salad dressing), and oil and vinegar on the side (allows me to minimize the oil and load on the vinegar). If it's a diner-stye restaurant, bring on an egg white omelet stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions, with fresh fruit on the side. And please send the waiter over to apply extra fresh ground black pepper on my salad or omelet!" —Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., the nutrition and health expert for NBC's TODAY Show and founder of NourishSnacks
"My go-to meal at our usual Italian restaurant is shrimp marinara over sautéed spinach! I love eating seafood for the protein and the omegas, which make it so filling. Topping spinach with marinara makes seem like a pasta dish without any unhealthy carbs. Sometimes I love to add some hot pepper for an extra kick." —Brooke Alpert, MS., RD., founder of B Nutritious
"I love trying lots of small dishes, so I tend to stick to a few small apps—or I share. I particularly like oysters, ceviche, mussels and clams, grilled octopus, bison steaks, roasted chicken, poached eggs with greens, and root veggie mashes" —Katie Cavuto, M.S., R.D., the dietician for the Phillies and the Flyers
"Being from the coastal south, I love seafood. I push aside those 'carb-y' appetizers (breadsticks) for my love a great dish—shrimp cocktail. It's a huge plus if the restaurant serves the dish in a cocktail glass with avocado/lettuce/lemon. If that's the case, I order two!" —Shelly Marie Redmond, R.D.
"Curating healthy dishes from the best restaurants—it's what I do every day as the director of nutrition at Zesty. My go-to meal depends on the cuisine and the type of restaurant, but as a general rule, I always opt for lean protein, complex carbs, healthy fats, veggies, and fermented foods whenever possible. The super-mix of protein, healthy fat, and fiber promotes fullness—and the fermented foods provide the necessary probiotics for gut health. My favorite combo at a Japanese restaurant, for example, is sashimi, buckwheat soba, and gomae (steamed spinach with sesame), tempeh, or natto (fermented soybeans)." —Michelle Davenport, Ph.D., R.D.
"I probably order pasta the most when I dine out. Shocking, I know! First and foremost, I always start with a simple mixed green salad with dressing on the side—it's low in calories but helps to fill me up. Then I will choose a pasta dish, typically not in a creamy sauce or with meat, mainly to help keep the calories down as far as pasta dishes go. And then I order a veggie on the side, such as broccoli or spinach sautéed in garlic and oil. I'll eat all of the veggie, so it is a lot easier to not eat my entire pasta meal. If I'm eating a lunch meal, then I'll almost always get an egg white omelet with spinach and feta. No potatoes, sliced tomato instead. And two slices of dry 100 percent whole-grain bread." —Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet
"I always look for seafood/shellfish items that are either part of a raw bar or cooked using moist heat (i.e., boiled or steamed), such as shrimp, oysters, and mussels. They're an easy go-to at trusted seafood restaurants because they avoid the butter, oil, cream, and/or breading that tend to rack up calories quickly when dining out. Seafood is traditionally low in total calories but high in protein. They're also rich in minerals (zinc, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron), which are important for immune function, cell signaling (nerve conduction, muscle contraction), blood pressure regulation, and fluid-electrolyte balance (i.e., bloat-beating!). They're also a great source of anti-inflammatory omega 3-fatty acids and low in saturated fat. And as a rule of thumb: The fewer 'add-ons' used to cook/prepare the food, the more likely it is to be a healthier choice." —Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D., senior clinical dietician at Mount Sinai Hospital
— Robin Hilmantel