Dining Out Tips for the Low-Carb Lifestyle

If you are carefully watching your carbohydrate intake, or sticking to a strict low-carbohydrate diet, dining out can present a unique set of challenges.

I have been eating low-carb to optimize my type 1 diabetes management for almost four years now and have learned a lot about my best practices, as well as pitfalls, when it comes to eating out.

The good news? Over these last few years, I have noticed more and more restaurants offering up low-carb-friendly choices and being happy to make accommodations.

Here are my top tips for dining out successfully while sticking to the low-carb plan:

Breakfast Choices

Eggs are the low-carb superfood of breakfast and brunch! Omelets or poached or fried eggs with a side of bacon or sausage always hits the spot for me. Also, I often substitute avocado and berries for the more carb-heavy sides.

At Starbucks, I often purchase string cheese and avocado dip. Also, I recently discovered Moon Cheese there, which is delicious (and addictive)! They also sell sous-vide egg bites, some of which are relatively low on the carb count, but they do contain potato starch, so may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Also, some on-the-go breakfast places have wonderful “bowl” options. For instance, I had a great breakfast experience at Currito, a burrito joint, at Boston Logan airport!

Photo by Maria Muccioli; Scrambled eggs, chorizo, bacon, guacamole, salsa and cheese.

Don’t forget the coffee!

Fast Food Picks

Whether at McDonald’s or Burger King (or a similar on-the-go place), I tend to opt for a burger and skip the bun. The salads aren’t usually very tasty in my opinion, although I sometimes also get a garden salad to go with my burger. I feel pretty satisfied with ample protein from the burger and eat some veggies on the side. Hold the ketchup! Consider mayo, hot sauce, or mustard on the burger to keep the carbohydrate count down.

Photo by Maria Muccioli

Some places, like Red Robin and Five Guys, actually offer the choice of a lettuce wrap. No matter where you are, it doesn’t hurt to ask if they will do that — after all, you don’t really feel like you’re eating a burger unless you’re using your hands!

When at Subway, I always opt for a salad with protein on top. My go-to order: salad with all the veggies (except hots) topped off with guacamole and a choice of tuna, chicken and bacon, or steak and cheese. The cold cuts on top are a fun option, too. Yum!

We have an entire article on the subject: The Healthiest Choices at the 10 Biggest Fast Food Chains.

Dining Out

When choosing an appetizer, you can look for protein or veggie options. My favorites include charcuterie boards (skip any bread or honey), roasted or fried Brussels sprouts or cauliflower, oysters, bacon-wrapped scallops, and mussels (don’t overdo it on tasting the broth and skip the bread)!

Photo by Maria Muccioli; Buffalo-style cauliflower with blue cheese dressing

Photo by Maria Muccioli

At one restaurant in my college town several years ago, a favorite of mine was “tofu fries”. They were not breaded, surprisingly crispy, and served with a spicy garlic mayo — absolutely delicious with a round or two of drinks!

When it comes to the entrée, I tend to choose my protein (be it steak, salmon, shrimp, or scallops) and then pair it with low-carb sides, such as cauliflower mash, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, seasonal veggies mix, asparagus, etc. Check the menu or ask the server about what is available, and don’t be afraid to ask about the ingredients if you are unsure of the carb count (creamed spinach or cauliflower casserole can sound promising unless you learn that there is flour and breadcrumbs involved).

Photo by Maria Muccioli; Salmon with mixed greens and sprouts.

Also, it’s a good idea to ask for the sauce on the side or consult your server about how it’s made. That way, you can limit how much you have or choose to skip it entirely if it does not align with your carb intake goals.

Also, I love buffets! You can see exactly what you’re getting and that’s just awesome! Check out these options I found at the press office at the American Diabetes Association (ADA) Scientific Sessions conference!

Photo by Maria Muccioli

Photo by Maria Muccioli

Excitingly, more and more restaurants are offering low-carb options, so you don’t even need to make changes to your order! Just the other day, I was at restaurant that offered a “paleo” section that had several attractive options. Another place nearby is serving up cauli-rice with coconut aminos and zoodles — impressive!

Common Pitfalls

Look out for these common offenders that can throw a wrench in your low-carb diet:

Breading: Whether around your chicken tenders or hidden in your burger meat, ask the server ahead of time if you’re unsure whether breadcrumbs or flour is involved.
Stuffing: Something like cheese-stuffed mushrooms may sound appetizing and low-carb-friendly, but more often than not, stuffing of any kind contains flour and/or breadcrumbs. Always double-check!
Pancake batter (in your eggs!): In theory, nothing is safer than eggs when it comes to following a low-carb eating plan. But, did you know that some hotels and restaurants actually add pancake batter to make the eggs “fluffier” (and perhaps to save money)? When in doubt, check with your server and ask for “freshly cracked eggs”.
Salad dressings: Some house-prepared or commercial salad dressings are actually low-carb, while others have a ton of sugar. Ranch and Thousand Island, in particular, are commonly higher on the carb count. You can always ask for oil and vinegar to be extra safe!

Bottom Line

You’re paying money for your food and dining experience. There is no need to be shy about asking questions or for substitutions to suit your lifestyle. Find the places and choices that work well for you and enjoy delicious food while not worrying about a blood sugar roller-coaster!

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