How To Order Lean & Healthy Meals At Any Restaurant

/ 7.28.11 / Medically Reviewed

Living in New York City, the vast majority of meals I eat each week are at restaurants, or ordering in from a restaurant. Some of these restaurants are by no means “healthy” and usually offer mostly high calorie meals.

By far the most important strategy I implement when eating at restaurants is “meal customization”. If you eat out all the time, customizing your meals can make a BIG difference.

I have below an example of how to customize your meals when eating out, or ordering in from restaurants. Below I took a deep fried chicken platter and customized it into a healthier, lower calorie meal. I STRONGLY encourage you to customize your meals, even just a small degree whenever you order from restaurants…even the “healthy” restaurants.

High Calorie Meal Example: Chicken Cutlet Platter

Below is a popular chicken platter at a Greek take out restaurant around the corner from my apartment in New York City. I have tallied up all the foods that make up this meal, so you can clearly see how the calories can add up FAST when you eat what restaurants serve you. I don’t mean to bash restaurants, I just want you to be mindful that it’s not a restaurants job to care about the calories they serve you. Some restaurants make a point of caring, but these restaurants are very, very rare.

Nutrition Info: High Calorie Meal

Analysis: High Calorie Meal

The total calories for this popular meal is a whopping 1500 calories AT LEAST. Keep in mind that most men on a fat loss program should eat around 1800 calories in an entire day and women should eat around 1200 (assuming average height and 20-30lb overweight).
Notice how just the tahini sauce, olive oil, and deep fried oils in the chicken (250 calories) add up to 570 calories, which is enough for an entire lunch! Because fat has 9 calories per gram, the calories in foods that are high in fat add up fast. I approached one of the helpers at the restaurant and he had a grin on his face when I asked him about the hummus. He said they load it with tahini sauce, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of calories is DOUBLE what I listed for the hummus.

I also must point out that the pita + rice + hummus is a solid 100 grams of carbs. Unless you are carb loading for a marathon, eating that many carbs is not doing your body good. Personally, I try not to eat more than 50 grams of carbs in any meal, unless I’m preparing for some type of athletic event, or trying to bulk up.

Low Calorie Meal Example: Grilled Chicken Kebab Platter

Nutrition Info: Low Calorie Meal

Analysis: Low Calorie Meal

So what’s the difference between these two meals? I replaced the 1 cup of rice with 1 cup of lettuce, added 1/3 cup of beans/veggies, and kept the hummus but asked for no extra olive oil on top and decreased the portion to 1/3 of a cup (I asked for a “little bit” of hummus). I also did not take the pita they give me with the meal, or the extra side of veggies. The above meal is PLENTY!

Notice that the difference between the Chicken Kebab, which is grilled and the deep fried chicken cutlet is more than 250 calories. This is because the chicken is breaded and deep fried, which not only adds calories but very unhealthy hydrogenated oils.

I also would have considered half a cup of rice instead of the beans along with even less hummus. The carbs sources are not perfect, but keeping calories lower and carbs under control makes this meal a heck of a lot better than the deep fried chicken platter monstrosity that I used to call a lunch. This is a more major meal customization than normal, but I just want to give you some ideas.

3 Meal Customization Tips To Create Low Calorie Meals

Below I have 3 tips you can use as quick guidelines when you eat out at restaurants:

Low Calorie Meal Tip #1: Swap the Side

Most sides that are offered will be fries, chips, onion rings, or buttery mashed potatoes. Opt for healthier, less processed options like salad, rice, sweet potatoes etc.

Low Calorie Meal Tip #2: Get it Grilled, Baked, or Steamed

I used to live on deep fried foods and I used to wonder why my skin looked terrible and how I was putting on fat. Deep fried, battered, sautéed foods should be avoided, or at the very least eaten sparingly. This is how a seemingly healthy meal can become VERY high calorie. Choose grilled, baked, or steamed whenever possible.

Low Calorie Meal Tip #3: Ask for a “little bit”

I’ve talked to a lot of Europeans about their eating habits versus Americans and they always point out the portion sizes in the States are just HUGE. The reality is we just don’t need that much food to survive, feel energetic, while still maintaining muscle mass while promoting fat loss. Ask for “a little bit” of something if you know it’s high in calories. Portion control matters.

Hope this analysis was helpful for you to understand the importance of meal customization. Happy to do another one if you like, just let me know by leaving a comment.



  1. profile avatar
    patti Jul 28, 2011 - 11:56 #

    Yikes! I think I just gained 5 lbs watching the video – and it probably all went to my butt! Ha!
    Honestly, I enjoyed the message & video. I think most of us could benefit from more frequent reminders. You are so right about people being fooled by the so called ‘healthy’ restaurants – where we live there’s a “Nature’s ….” restaurant that serves ‘healthy’, homemade foods (which are by far an improvement over fast food), but much of what’s on the menu contains sauce or mayo-type ingredients and he portions are huge.

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Jul 28, 2011 - 17:56 #

      @Patti – That’s hilarious. Was laughing out loud when I read your comment. Happy you liked the video.

      @Hank – Thanks for your comment. I do agree after a large lunch I definitely don’t feel energetic.

      @Cristian Ruff – Appreciate it!

  2. profile avatar
    Hank Jul 28, 2011 - 12:23 #

    Hi. Too often I find myself not bothering to customize. Now I will remember. I was stunned by the difference in the chicken dishes. Over 1000 calories is nothing to sneeze at. Your comment of feeling “energized” after the meal as opposed to somnolent rang all too true.

  3. profile avatar
    Christiaan Ruff Jul 28, 2011 - 14:17 #

    Enjoyed the video!

  4. profile avatar
    jk Jul 29, 2011 - 06:49 #

    I use to never notice the calories and size of my meals when I’d go out to eat, but watching your video and going back and looking at the nutritional info online at some of the places I go has shocked me! Some of these meals have been upwards of close to 2000 calories!! You’d never know if you didn’t check into it!! Crazy!! thanks for the info!!

  5. profile avatar
    rachel Jul 29, 2011 - 17:25 #


    Thanks so much for this informative video and article. You are a joy to watch!

  6. profile avatar
    Patrick Jul 31, 2011 - 09:48 #

    Thanks, Mark – Keep up the good work. This piece was practical, short and to the point. Lots of take home stuff when eating out!!! Patrick

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Jul 31, 2011 - 20:25 #

      @Patrick – Thanks. Appreciate it. Definitely want to try to make videos that are short, but informative.

  7. profile avatar
    Mary Aug 03, 2011 - 17:09 #

    I loved the visual. It really makes you think. Thanks.

  8. profile avatar
    Shaun Aug 04, 2011 - 22:22 #

    Thanks for this Marc!! Well done! As a Chef I don’t eat out much but when I do frequent a familiar place; you don’t think of the caloric intake because we all eat w/ our eyes. Unfortunately the more we see the better it looks especially getting the best bang for your buck!! I’m glad you broke it down to something so simple!

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Aug 05, 2011 - 08:26 #

      @Shaun – Thanks for sharing your opinion. It’s great to get the perspective of a Chef!

  9. profile avatar
    Jessica Aug 17, 2011 - 10:29 #

    Thanks for tackling realistic diet topics on here Marc. We hear often how picking up and cooking your own food is the best and to just avoid take out…but really, many of us work far too much to even have physical energy, much less the time, to make every one of our own meals every day. Plus, take out is delicious…and how can you pass up good Greek food like that!

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Aug 17, 2011 - 17:07 #

      @Jessica – Thanks, I appreciate it. I agree there are so many strict diets out there, but at the end of the day, just making some smart choices can go a long way.

  10. profile avatar
    Joanna Apr 16, 2012 - 11:35 #

    I *LOVED* This article/video! It’s sooo hard to find low calorie food when I’m eating out! This was brilliant. Totally appreciate the work you put into it!

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT Apr 16, 2012 - 12:36 #

      @Joanna – Thank you for the kudos!

  11. profile avatar
    Jordan Aug 15, 2012 - 23:35 #

    Thanks Marc for empowering others to think for themselves with your food related articles! As a college student planning on becoming an airline pilot, this is a topic that I constantly ponder because there are very limited selections at airports and hotel restaurants to keep you fit to sit in the front seat.

    Here is some food for thought:

    While white rice and rice pilaf can seem somewhat less threatening compared to those golden fried foods, they could be just as calorie dense by weight. A common practice for restaurants to prevent rice from forming large-gooey-clumpy-blobs while staying warm is to load it full of butter or oil to keep each grain separate. The rice will soak in the oil instead of steaming itself to mush. Ever wonder why burrito joints always have fluffy rice even though it has been sitting in that steam tray for few hours? Or why when you show up at an Asian restaurant toward the end of service and the rice is a large-gooey-clumpy-blob?

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT Aug 16, 2012 - 08:35 #

      @Jordam – Interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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