How to eat whole foods at restaurants

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Since we started our 100 Days of Real Food pledge eating at restaurants has become quite a challenge, but we have also learned a lot from the experience. Below are some tips and suggested meals if you also want to try to stick to whole foods while eating out.

General Tips:

  • Avoid bread items such as rolls, breadcrumbs, tortillas, pasta, breading, crusts, etc. Unfortunately even if something is called “whole-wheat” it is rare to find items that are truly only made with 100% whole-wheat (unless the restaurant can confirm the ingredients for you).
  • If the waiter/chef doesn’t know (and can’t find out) the ingredients of an item then they probably don’t make it fresh in house which means it likely has all sorts of stuff (like sweeteners and preservatives) in it you don’t want or need.
  • If they don’t know where the meat came from then I can guarantee it is not from anywhere special (like a grass-fed local farm).
  • For children do not order off the kid’s menu. The kid’s menu is almost always processed foods or foods made from processed ingredients (like pasta from white flour, factory made chicken nuggets, corn dogs, french fries, etc.). Instead attempt to put together a plate of adult side items that you think your child would eat (like a baked potato, fruit, vegetable, and nuts or cheese you see offered on a salad).
  • Always ask questions when it comes to sauces and ask for them to be left off when appropriate. It seems as though everything under the sun (including lots of sugar) can be hidden in the most surprising places when it comes to sauces, dressings, and marinades. For salads opt for some oil and vinegar instead of pre-made salad dressing (unless they can confirm a simple list of dressing ingredients for you).
  • If time allows do some research and look at menus in advance to help you make the best restaurant selection and menu choices.

Suggested Restaurant Meals that follow our real food rules:

Generic Meals

  • Seafood
  • Higher end restaurants sometimes offer locally raised meats and poultry
  • Breakfast egg dishes such as scrambled eggs
  • Side items such as potatoes, vegetables, beans, fruit, and brown rice
  • Salads
  • Simple soups (always ask what is in it first)

Chain Restaurants

  • Chipotle Mexican Grill: (update Feb 2012 – some locations now have brown rice)

    • Burrito bowl with black beans, fajita vegetables, corn salsa, guacamole, sour cream and grated cheese (with no white rice or tortilla)
    • Salad with no meat or vinaigrette
  • Ruby Tuesday:(only place I called that has brown rice!)
    • Salad bar
    • Asian Salmon Spinach Salad with no glaze, wonton strips or dressing (use olive oil and vinegar instead)
    • Santa Fe Chicken or Southwestern Beef Salad with no meat, tortilla strips/chips or dressing
    • Avocado Shrimp salad with no crispy wontons or dressing
    • Creole Catch (just the way it is!)
    • Herb Crusted Tilapia with no bread crumbs
    • Asian Glazed Salmon with no glaze or peanut sauce
    • Any of the following side items: creamy mashed cauliflower, baked potato, mashed potatoes, steamed brocolli, portabella mushrooms, sugar snap peas, brown rice pilaf
  • Chili’s:
    • Fajitas with no meat and no soy sauce in the marinade (you could add shrimp or mushrooms to the veggie mix) with no tortillas
    • Side item plate including mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, black beans, and/or seasonal veggies
    • House salad with oil and vinegar for your dressing
    • Asian salad with no vinaigrette, no peanut drizzle and no crispy wontons (you could add salmon and oil/vinegar for dressing)
    • A custom combination including Spicy Garlic & Lime Grilled Shrimp (with no margarita marinade), Grilled Salmon, seasonal vegetables and mashed potatoes
  • Cracker Barrel: (almost all of their vegetable sides – even ones that look as innocent as corn, carrots, and green beans – have sugar in them at this restaurant):
    • Oatmeal with Pecans, Raisins, Fresh Sliced Bananas and/or 100% Pure Maple Syrup
    • Eggs and fresh fruit
    • Grilled Catfish with mashed potatoes and fruit (strawberries/banana)
    • BLT Salad with no bacon and no croutons
  • Applebees:
    • Cajun Lime Tilapia with baked potato or mashed potatoes instead of white rice
    • Grilled Shrimp & Island Rice with no BBQ sauce and potatoes instead of white rice
    • California Shrimp Salad with no bacon and oil and vinegar instead of dressing
    • Grilled Shrimp ‘N Spinach Salad with no bacon and oil and vinegar instead of dressing
  • Carrabbas:
    • Shrimp scampi appetizer
    • Grilled salmon with vegetable side, mashed potatoes and/or whole-grain pasta
    • Most pasta entrees can be ordered with whole-grain noodles so just inquire about the sauce before ordering

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53 comments to How to eat whole foods at restaurants

  • Alexandria

    We love to go to BD’s Mongolian Barbecue (http://www.gomongo.com/) where they cook the food in front of us. The veggies and things are not organic, but they do offer all of the nutritional information and ingredients on their website for all of the sauces. It’s basically a stir fry full of veggies and goodness. They offer brown rice and lettuce wraps in place of flour tortillas and white rice.

  • Susan

    I try to follow the real food concept…but I travel all over south Texas, and it’s hard to find “real food” in McAllen and Corpus Christi. My fav is Jason’s Deli. Most of their food is “real”. and there is always their awesome salad bar! I can find a Jason’s in many towns around the country.

  • Pam

    We are planning a trip to DISNEY this fall and now that we are eating real food I am wondering how we will eat there. We have been many times but never where we were watching what we are eating. Has anyone done Disney and requested special food, I do know that they go above and beyond to cater to special diets such as gluten free etc.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Pam. We did Disney last November and I would say they were very helpful. I think the key for us was that we always made a reservation for our meals at a sit down restaurant (no counter service) and we brought in all of our snacks (fruit, lara bars, muffins (you can put them in the freezer and by the time they’re ready to be eaten they are defrosted), bottled waters). We ate breakfast at our condo each morning, so, that just left us with 2 meals. Obviously, knowing what to order is helpful too (check out this post http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2010/07/12/how-to-eat-whole-foods-at-restaurants/). Good luck and HAVE FUN!!!!! Jill

  • Cracker Barrel’s syrup is no longer 100% Pure Maple Syrup ALTHOUGH it is still listed as such. When they bring out the bottle, the ingredients are corn syrup and maple syrup. It’s very misleading. I e-mailed them about it and never got a response.

  • Staci

    You recently mentioned Passion 8 Bistro as a restaurant you enjoyed. Are there other restaurants in the Charlotte area that you have found it easier to find real food dishes? Honestly I’m not sure I would be comfortable quizzing servers about dish ingredients especially if out with a group. Hopefully I will get over this but it would be easier to patronize restaurants that embrace natural local healthy eating.

    • Hey Staci – Sorry for the late response. In just about any restaurant you’ll want to analyze the menu and make the best choices, but here are some local places off of the top of my head that typically have some good options. Of course this list is not all inclusive…again just off the top of my head:

      Passion 8 Bistro
      Upstream
      Luna’s Living Kitchen
      Custom Shop
      Halcyon
      Sante
      Carpe Diem
      Rooster’s

      • Molly L.

        Thank you for this list! I am visiting Charlotte this weekend for a wedding so I searched “Charlotte restaurants” on your site to see if I could find anything. We have reservations now for Rooster’s. I’m very excited :)

  • Anna Coe

    Well, Easter is coming and my 7 and 10 year olds expect something. I would like to go candy free. Got any suggestions? I’m thinking gift cards but that gets expensive quick.

  • Becca

    Well I caved. I have really tried to change the way we eat. I have four boys ranging from 14-6 and Easter to them is candy and scavenger hunt. My husband was out of town and so I had to do Easter morning with help from my 14 yr old. I put a few candy items in their baskets and I wasn’t planning on doing our traditional jellybean trail, but my 14 year old said, “Mom, you have to do the jellybean trail, it’s not Easter without it.” sigh… plus he said that he wants me to hide plastic Easter eggs filled with candy for the scavenger hunt. another sigh.. So without my husband being here to back me up, I caved. I went to the store on Saturday night at 8:30pm and got jellybeans and nestle crunch eggs (my favorite :) and my 14 yr old helped me do the jellybean trail for his younger brothers. I was suppose to try the 10 day pledge starting on Monday, but with the Easter candy that the kids got, I think I have to wait maybe another week before I start. My kids get frustrated with me when I tell them I don’t want them to drink a gaterade or any drink with high frutose corn syrup. But I explain to them that I am responsible to educate them on what they put in their bodies and why certain foods/drinks can cause bad things to their bodies. But it is their choice what they decide when I’m not around and I just hope they make the right choices. I will continue to frustrate them if I have to. I just don’t know how to manage four boys eating the right foods when we are on vacation or at a restaurant.

  • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hello Becca. Give yourself a break. :) All you can do is your best and we all fall off the wagon from time to time. (My kid’s baskets this year were much improved but not entirely sweet free.) It is fine to put off the pledge until you know you can give it your all. Sounds to me like you are educating your kids well about the choices they make. You have to accept your lack of control when they aren’t within your reach or in any circumstance when other choices present themselves. When choosing places to eat out, try to choose those that you know offer “better” options for your kids. I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, “Don’t allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good”? Just do your best and give yourself a big pat on the back for every step forward. I would, however, hold on to the hard line with the sports drinks. ;) Let us know when you are starting the pledge and we will be cheering you on!! Best of luck. ~Amy

  • [...] home when you know you will be on-the-go.Lisa Leake (100 Days of Real Food) has a great article on How To Eat Real Foods At Restaurants. I was so excited to see that Chipotle’s Burrito Bowl made the list! It’s gluten-free [...]

  • [...] Leake (100 Days of Real Food) has a great article on How To Eat Real Foods At Restaurants. I was so excited to see that Chipotle’s Burrito Bowl made the list! It’s gluten-free [...]

  • Kim

    Was visiting Charlotte a few weeks ago and discovered ‘Fuel Pizza’ It seems like their pizza might fit into your rules. Are you familiar with the restaurant and their menu?

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Kim. I keep hearing about it but have not. I tried to get on the website to peruse the ingredients but couldn’t dig deep enough. ;) We’ll have to check it out. ~Amy

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