The Whole9 Guide To Navigating a Restaurant Menu

For most people, your first few weeks of a Paleo-style diet (or the Whole30®) will involve at least one attempt – successful or not – to navigate a restaurant menu. When you’re new to this way of eating, dining out can be challenging, and often stressful. In an attempt to convert any normal restaurant menu into appropriate Good Food fare, we’ve outlined some tips in It Starts With Food, and created  this handy Dining Guide to help you make the most of your restaurant experience.

Today, however, we’re expanding upon our dining out recommendations, in the hopes that your next business lunch, family dinner, or special occasion celebration is easier (and more delicious). Ready to order?

Embrace the Awkward

 The first step to navigating a restaurant menu is accepting that you’re going to have to be “That Person.” You know, the one who asks questions about everything, makes about a thousand substitutions, and then still has to send something back? Yeah. That might be you.

But if you’re going to venture out and stay your healthiest, you’re going to have to do your due diligence. Instead of feeling self-conscious about the requests you’re making, take ownership! Let your servers know that you a) understand that you’re being specific about your food, b) are willing to wait patiently while they ask the kitchen or the manager about anything they don’t know, and c) really appreciate their help (make sure you show your appreciation, too, if you know what I mean). If you’re patient and respectful with the restaurant staff, they’ll show you the same courtesy.

Do Your Homework

 If you’ve got any advance warning, do a little research about the restaurant. The more time you have, the more you’ll be able to find out. (And if you’re able to choose the restaurant yourself, even better!)

  • 5 minutes: Browse through their menu online, take note of any table-side specials (like warm bread or chips and salsa), and note any special policies – no substitutions could be a problem for you in this situation.
  • 10 minutes: Give the restaurant a call. Ask about their cooking fats, if they offer an allergen – or at least gluten free – menu.  Let the host(ess) or manager know you’re coming and that you’ll have some specific food requests.
  • 15 minutes: While you’ve got a manager on the phone, take a couple of minutes to ask about how their ingredients are sourced. Do they purchase from local farmers or through a wide area distributor. Are their meats pasture-finished or conventionally farmed? The manager may not know the answers to these questions . That’s okay, but their ignorance probably answers your questions anyway. Most restaurants that feature local, organic, or appropriately raised ingredients are proud as punch of their commitment and are happy to share that information.

Prioritize Your Proteins

This seems like as good a place as any to talk about which proteins are your best choices* when dining out. (Hint: it’s not always the burger.)

*For the record, these are our personal recommendations, based on what we know about the factory-farming system, and the effect of this system on the health of the animal, and the health of the meat. If you disagree about our ranking, we’re okay with that – at least it shows you’re thinking about this stuff.

If you discovered during your research that the restaurant serves any form of responsibly-raised meats (grass-fed, pastured, organic), you have our permission to do an embarrassing happy dance in your seat, and choose whichever responsibly-raised “best choice” protein options sounds best to you.

If they don’t have a grass-fed burger, but they do have an organic, free-range chicken, prioritize the health of the animal (and your health) over your taste preference and order the chicken. Make sure to use your common sense, however – organic fried chicken is still not a healthy choice, because of the breading and the frying oil.

If, like most restaurants, the meat is conventionally sourced (factory-farmed), you’ll have the make the best of a less-than-optimal protein situation. Use this hierarchy to help you decide what to eat:

  • Good choice:  The best protein options on a restaurant menu are steamed or grilled fish or seafood, or lean cuts of red meat (like sirloin steak). Remember that toxins consumed by factory farmed animals can be stored in their fat, so choosing a very lean protein and trimming all visible fat will help you avoid some of these.
  • Okay choice: Look for grilled chicken (without the skin), or fattier cuts of red meat (like ribs or a ribeye steak). The standard burger-no-bun falls in this category too – not your best choice, because of the cooking method and oil.* Eggs fall here too – a better choice for breakfast than your traditional meats.
  • Avoid: We cannot recommend the consumption of factory-farmed pork in any form (especially bacon and sausage), anything fried (especially in batter), skin-on chicken (like wings or drumsticks), or meat swimming in mystery sauce. We’re not even going to discuss conventional hot dogs here. These are your least-healthy choices, so even if you like bacon on your burger, we strongly encourage you to do without.

*You’ll often have no choice but to consume vegetable oils when dining out, as even high-end restaurants cook with them. But if you can choose a healthier option that requires less (or no) oil, that’s your best bet.

Bring the Heat

In most restaurants, ingredients are prepared using a wide variety of cooking methods.  While some of them sound self-explanatory, a chef’s job is to make the food taste as yummy as possible, and sometimes that means adding not-so-obvious ingredients here and there.

Ask questions to make sure you’re satisfied with the description and process of each cooking method before choosing one. Also, many restaurants are happy to sub out a cooking method if you ask. If you see a protein listed as fried, ask for the protein grilled, steamed, or baked instead.

  • Grilled: Grilled foods (usually proteins) are cooked directly over heat, often on a metal rack. Many restaurants at a little fat to their lean grilled meats for the sake of flavor.  Sometimes proteins are cooked almost completely in a pan, and then finished on the grill.
  • Steamed: This one’s pretty obvious – foods that are steamed are cooked using hot water (steam). Again, this is usually applied to veggies, but it may also be used in relation to fish or seafood.  Steamed options generally show up in the “lighter eating” portion of the menu (ie: less fat), but that doesn’t mean you can relax here. Always ask questions. Sometimes these foods are more heavily seasoned to compensate for the lack of fat – make sure the seasonings don’t include wheat, soy, sugar, etc.
  • Sautéed: Sautéed foods are cooked in a small amount of fat. This is going to be the cooking method of choice for vegetable sides in most restaurants. Unless the menu states otherwise, you can assume your veggies are sautéed. You can request an acceptable fat option, or ask for your vegetables to be steamed or wet sautéed – cooked with water instead of fat – and served undressed.
  • Roasted: Foods that are roasted are cooked in a dry heat environment like an oven or over a flame. These foods are almost always basted with a fat (sometimes a different liquid) to enhance flavor and keep them from drying out.
  • Fried: Fried foods are almost always cooked in horrifically unhealthy, really hot fat, generally in the form of vegetable oil. There is no chance you’ll find an acceptable fried option at any conventional restaurant – and probably not at your fancypants downtown bistro, either. Moving on…

Read Carefully

This is the part where you begin to narrow your search and keep a mental list of questions you’ll want to ask the server.  Try to pick out three meals that appear to be primarily compliant and easily customizable.  Make sure they each include an acceptable protein and have the option of veggies as a side. Then, use the terms you just learned and the server’s (or manager’s) knowledge to help you make the best decision.

Keep in mind what you learned in your research about the cooking fats the restaurant has available, and do your best to keep your substitution requests reasonable. You can (and should) ask to swap out a baked white potato for a sweet potato, or ask the kitchen to leave off the rice and sub extra broccoli, but you shouldn’t expect the chef to make you zucchini noodles to sub for another form of pasta – get it?

Eat, Drink and Tip Merrily

Once you’ve ordered your meal, you can relax, knowing that you’ve done all you can do to keep your meal compliant.  Sometimes, though, something gets missed in the communication, and your meal will still come out wrong.

If it’s something simple like croutons on your salad (and you’re not highly sensitive to the food in question), just pick them off and enjoy your meal. If you do have to send your meal back, don’t assume it’s your server’s fault, and don’t make a scene. Chances are your order wasn’t simple. Many Paleo meals require substitutions or special requests that kitchens aren’t used to handling. Calmly and clearly explain what was wrong and thank your server for taking care of it. Treating restaurant staff with respect paints a great picture of our community (and keeps people from spitting in your food).

When the meal is over, show your appreciation by leaving a tip for your server and a glowing comment card for the kitchen staff. You may even want to thank the chef personally. This lets everyone know that their hard work was noticed and goes a long way toward improving tolerance of, and even acceptance of, folks whose eating plans fall outside the “everything in moderation” norm.

And with that, you’re ready to take your happy, healthy self out on the town! Do you have a favorite tip, trick, or dining out strategy to share with our new-to-Good-Food readers? Share it in comments!

For a handy guide you can take with you anywhere, check out the downloadable guide to Dining Out from It Starts With Food.

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  1. says

    Helpful! My strategy has been to just order a salad, no cheese, no croutons, olive oil & vinegar as dressing…always safe, but also makes eating out pretty damn boring. Thanks for this guide!

  2. Kari says

    Be careful! A surpsing number of restaurants just use canola oil in their olive oil bottle for salads!!! Make sure it’s really olive oil.

  3. Keturah says

    One of the restaurants I frequent all the time knows I’m paleo and fix food accordingly..they also grind their own burger meat from left over pieces when breaking down their steaks, a good restaurant will do this. You can always ask if the burger is mixed on site or pre-made. It’s not grass fed, but better than patties.

  4. Michelle says

    I always start with “I am SO sorry to have to be that person!” This honestly terrifies the server (I know, I used to be one), but it works to benefit both of you because it tells them: A-You know you’re THAT person, and B-You’re not particularly thrilled to be that person. And you know that you have their full attention when you’re placing your order.

    Then when you’ve only got a handful of questions and make your aversion to all things gluten clear (I usually just tell them the truth-I can’t digest it. I don’t tell them they can’t either…), they are totally relieved because they were expecting the “low fat no fat sub that that that and that and everything needs to be on the side or I’ll die!” high drama high maintenance person. You are nice. You are not that person, so it’s no biggie that you’re still asking for as much as THAT person.

    And I want to emphasize the tip issue. Please please please be kind to your server. Making all the changes that you (kindly) requested is extra work for all. Servers live on their tips (most do not make even minimum wage). Tip accordingly!

  5. Adam says

    Great post! As someone new-ish to the Paleo style diet it’s appreciated. I have a question about hot dogs since you mentioned conventional hot dogs above…While my wife and I are pretty good about our diet, our 3 year old son is a little picky (shocker) and one of the only meats we can get him to eat is hot dogs…now, we do buy All beef, nitrite/nitrate free hotdogs, but still…I’m sure they aren’t a great example of a healthy meat. Are there are hot dog brands you recommend, that are ‘less bad’?

  6. Mark says

    This is a great guide for those on the Whole30! I’m not doing the Whole30 right now, but still using its guidelines for how I generally eat. From that perspective, here’s my $.02: For me, the social stress of interrogating the underpaid server and making my dining companion uncomfortable while I do so are just not worth it. I’ll take the burger as is and eat it with a fork, with salad on the side. And if it’s actually a good restaurant serving delicious things, I’ll off-road for something special.

    Since I don’t eat out much anyway, I’m willing to tolerate sub-optimal nutrition on these occasions in exchange for avoiding the cortisol spike that trying to maintain optimal nutrition would cause me. :)

  7. Emily says

    @Adam–we have four fairly picky kids, but luckily, US Wellness makes sugar-free beef franks that are just meat and spices, all things you can pronounce and know what they are. They look normal (important for our two- and four-year-olds) and taste good, too! Plus, that group is GREAT to work with, just really nice people. I order all our hot dogs and bacon from them, now. And no, I do not work for them. :-)

  8. Theresa says

    Great tips! I’ve been paleo for about a year now, not for anything serious but just to be healthier in general. Eating out was definitely a challenge at first! I usually just ordered a salad but overtime I began substituting some items on the menu (like potatoes, rice, beans) for vegetables. Having a collection of recipes saved me because I was used to cooking paleo meals with healthy ingredients so I know what to avoid when eating at restaurants. this site does reviews of some of the most popular paleo books around. I visit it sometimes when looking for new tips to help make my paleo ilfestyle easier.

  9. Marcus says

    Another one to beware is that some (particularly Italian) restaurants will coat meats in flour prior to cooking. This helps prevent sticking and gives a more attractive browning to the meat, but is obviously a W30 no-no. It’s often overlooked by waitstaff who may be less than familiar with what goes on in the kitchen and only look at gluten as a side of pasta or bread. Increasing your knowledge of cooking techniques can go a long way toward making better choices when out.

  10. says

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  11. Kathy S says

    We went Paleo about 8 months ago and eat out about once a week. We have a 10 yr old daughter that doesn’t always like to be Paleo. If we go to Red Robin or Five Guys we will order our burgers protein style. Or have an Avo-Cobbo Salad at Red Robin. Rainforest Café we order the ribs dry, no rice or potato and extra veggies. We don’t ask a lot of questions. We just say hold the chips, bread, potatoes and give us extra veggies. Or we go with a salad if nothing else looks good. We may have a few undesirable ingredients but it’s going to be in a miniscule amount we can live with for one meal.

  12. Angie C says

    I’m on day 10 of my Whole30 and have a lunch meeting at work next week. We’re ordering from Uncle Julio’s which I thought for sure there wouldn’t be anything I could eat. But I pulled up a copy of their gluten-free menu which I already had on hand and then used your dining guide to find the best possible option from there. Then I called the restaurant and spoke with the Kitchen Manager who kindly told me how everything was prepared and what ingredients were included. I’m really looking forward to the Mesquite Grilled Salmon on Tuesday. Yay! I don’t have to cook my lunch! And thanks to the help you provide here, I don’t have to be the odd person out at the meeting.