It's estimated that the average person eats one in every six meals out of home and adding in snacks and 'grab and go' food, men consume about a quarter of their calorie intake when eating out, and women around a fifth. This means that the choices you make when eating out can potentially have a big impact on your health. Some people who are very active and a healthy weight may not need to worry about their calorie intake but, with 62% of adults in the UK now overweight or obese, most people need to be aware of how many calories they are consuming. Of course there are some occasions when eating out is a special treat and an opportunity for some indulgent options but, when eating out or on the go more frequently, it’s important to make healthier choices.
Although it may seem difficult to eat healthily outside of the home, there are now many healthier options available. The tips in this section will equip you with the knowledge you need to make healthier choices when on the run, buying ready meals from a supermarket, ordering fast food or takeaways or enjoying a sit down meal in a restaurant.
Tips for eating in fast food places, coffee shops and sandwich bars
When eating out in a coffee shop or sandwich bar, there may be a wide range of sandwiches, salads, hot foods, treats and desserts as well as hot and cold drinks. If you’re having a meal then think about the food you choose and the ingredients it contains. Go for wholegrain or wholemeal breads, protein rich foods like lean meats, chicken, eggs and pulses and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Where possible, avoid higher fat ingredients such as sour cream, butter, mayonnaise, coleslaw and cheese in sandwiches and wraps instead opting for salsa, balsamic vinegar or a small amount of guacamole, which is made with avocados that contain vitamin E and monounsaturated fats. If choosing a salad, many outlets provide the dressing separately so you can add just a little or none to keep the calorie down. Don’t forget about the calories in drinks, as some hot and cold drinks can contain a lot, especially large-sized milky, hot drinks and big servings of sugar-sweetened, cold drinks. Instead, you could go for skinny or filter coffees or tea and choose diet cold drinks or water, which will help avoid the extra calories.
Fast food outlets often have different sizes available and in some places they prepare the food in front of you. When this is the case, there is much more choice about what gets added to your meal. Be careful with high fat extras like cheese, bacon, sour cream and mayonnaise on burgers, wraps and salads and avoid larger portion sizes.
Avoid ordering fried sides and sugar sweetened drinks, as this will quickly increase the calorie content of your meal. If you do fancy a fizzy drink then select a diet version. If your meal does not come with vegetables or salad, order some on the side, or ask to swap a higher fat side such as chips for an undressed side salad or fruit bag instead.
Many fast food restaurants, coffee shops and sandwich bars now have the nutrition information of their menu on display, so you could make use of this to choose options with fewer calories, saturated fat, salt or sugar.
For tips on choosing a healthy lunch when eating out, take a look at our healthy packed lunches page here.
Tips for buying ready meals and other prepared foods in a supermarket
Checking the nutrition information displayed on the front and back of pack can help you to identify healthier choices in the supermarket. Try looking for meals that are labelled as ‘low’ in saturated fat, salt and sugar on the front on the packaging, as these will generally be healthier choices. If the supermarket uses a traffic light labelling scheme, then choose those products with more ‘green’ and ‘amber’ nutrients and fewer ‘red’ nutrients for a healthier choice. Further information about nutrition labelling can be found in the Healthy Living section of our website here.
Try and choose well balanced meals that contain foods from each of the major food groups, as illustrated in the eatwell plate. Look for those that are based on starchy foods (e.g. rice, pasta, couscous or potatoes), especially wholegrain or high fibre options, and include at least one portion of fruit or vegetables (or serve with a portion), as well as some protein (for example lean meat, fish, seafood or vegetarian sources of protein such as beans and pulses). Look for those with the term ‘Lighter’ in the title - these are at least 30% lower in fat than the standard supermarket version. Try to avoid meals with a cream or cheese based sauce and opt for those that contain a vegetable or tomato-based sauce instead.
Meals containing a lot of pastry (e.g. double crusted pies, quiches and tarts) are high in fat, particularly saturated fat. Instead, if you do fancy pastry go for ‘top crust’ pies with just a pastry lid.