Often, restaurant foods have choices high in saturated fat, calories, sodium and possibly lack the nutrients athletes need. (1)
We’ll cover some of the best options at different types of restaurants so you’ll have the information you need to make good choices.
Best meal timing for eating healthy at restaurants
The best meal timing for eating depends on how much time you have before your game. Check out our game day nutrition post for more information on meal timing.
So, you’ll want to choose nutrient dense high carbohydrate meals with moderate protein, color (fruit and/or vegetables) and healthy fats.
Additionally, as you get closer to a game, you may want to look for a lighter option at a restaurant, or opt for a pre game snack instead.
Perhaps you’ll wait to eat out until you’re ready for your post game meal.
Some of the options we recommend below that you eat “less often” would best be eaten after your last tournament game when you aren’t trying to reload for a game the following morning.
Menu tips for healthy options
Generally, our tips for eating healthy at restaurants include looking for these key words below for how food is prepared or the meal ingredients.
Choose foods more often that have healthy preparations like:
- Stir fried
Eat less of or avoid foods that have been prepared:
- Au gratin
- With gravy
Best types of restaurants for eating healthy
Eating healthy at restaurants has become easier these days. Since many restaurants have become accommodating of diet specific needs, you’ll likely find or be able to customize a menu choice that works with your athlete diet plan.
Generally, you can ask the server how the food is prepared, and request substitutions to make your choice a healthier option.
Sandwich shops and cafes
Soups and salads
- Choose broth based, bean and vegetable soups
- Pick less often cream and cheese based soups and chowders
- Pile your salad with veggies and limit the high fat extras like bacon and cheese
- Order dressings and sauces on the side
- Choose non cream based dressings or have oil and vinegar on the side
- Select prepared salads such as tuna salad or potato salad in moderation
- Opt for whole grain, whole wheat or rye breads and rolls
- Choose a wrap or pita with whole wheat
- Ask for biscuits, scones and croissants less often
- Choose lean cuts of protein such as turkey, chicken breast
- Pick a plant based protein option like tofu, tempeh or plant based protein slices
- Have less often ham, roast beef, bacon and pastrami
- Use cheese sparingly to add a little flavor to your sandwich
- Opt for choices like mozzarella, provolone and swiss which may be lower in fat
- Choose lower fat options like ketchup, mustard and relish
- Opt for healthier fats like avocado, pesto and olive tapenade
- Save the mayo and creamy sauces for occasional options
- Choose pretzels and popcorn instead of chips
- Opt for raw vegetables with hummus or salsa
- Select a baked potato with butter and sour cream on the side
Italian restaurants and pasta bars
- Choose pasta with a tomato or vegetable based sauce. Some pestos may be a good anti-inflammatory recovery food.
- Limit cream or cheese sauces
- Ask for vegetarian lasagna light on the cheese
- Select veggie based pastas like spinach or butternut ravioli
- Choose thick crust pizzas that have lots of veggies, light on the cheese, lean protein (chicken sausage or plant based sausage) and a tomato based sauce
- Opt for minestrone soup, salad and breadsticks
- Watch out for adding too much butter or olive oil to the bread at the table
Asian food restaurants
- Order items that are steamed, boiled, stir fried and served over rice or soft noodles
- Select lower fat soups like egg drop soup, wonton and hot and sour
- Choose foods like chicken chow main, steamed vegetables with protein and tofu
- Eat less of fried foods like egg rolls, wontons, pan fried noodles and fried rice
- Ask for sauces to be served on the side
- Use low sodium soy sauce
- Enjoy the fortune cookie
Hispanic food restaurants
- Choose fillings with rice and beans and lean protein like chicken, shrimp and plant based
- Ask for black or pinto beans instead of refried beans that may have added lard
- Opt for a meal like fajitas, chicken or seafood (grilled) tacos on soft tortillas
- Limit the endless baskets of chips and fried options like taquitos
- Order a burrito bowl with brown rice and pile on the salsa, veggies and lean protein
Indian food restaurants
- Choose tomato and spinach based sauce options with beans, vegetables and lean protein
- Ask for rice and naan to add additional carbs
- Limit coconut milk and cream based options
Mediterranean and Greek restaurants
- Opt for lean meats like chicken, braised lamb, fish or plant based options
- Choose sides such as rice, greek salad, lentils, hummus, cucumber and tomato
- Pick salads bursting with flavor and veggies like greek salad and tabouli
- Limit fried foods like a side of french fries
Options for dietary restrictions
These days it should be pretty easy to find restaurant options that are not only healthy but also meet any type of dietary restriction you have. From gluten free to nut allergies, restaurants have menu options to accommodate.
For example, you can find a good gluten free pre game pasta option, a healthy gluten free burrito bowl or a gluten free or vegan friendly mediterranean plate at fast-casual restaurants where you can customize your order.
Healthy dessert options
So many options for desserts may not be low in fat, but you should still enjoy them on occasion or order a few for the table and share. Some healthier sweets include:
- Fruit sorbet
- Frozen yogurt
- Gingersnap or oatmeal cookies
- Fruit or fruit salad
- Graham crackers
- Angel food cake
- Greek yogurt
- Vanilla wafers
- Gummy bears
Best drink options for eating healthy at restaurants
- Fruit or vegetable juice
- Skim milk or 1%
- Unsweetened ice tea
- Limit carbonated soda or diet soda
Putting it all together
Armed with the tips in this post, you should feel confident in making choices and asking how foods are prepared. You’ll want to focus on high carbs and moderate protein for your pre game or post game meals.
Check out our fast food tips for athletes for when you’re eating on the go.
What are your favorite tips for eating healthy at restaurants?
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 20 years in public health and nutrition experience. As a performance nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.