I can never go out to eat again! That is the number one complaint I hear from people when they are first told they must adhere to a low sodium lifestyle. In fact, during one of my hospital stays (I had many in my journey to a heart transplant), my room mate, a 50 year old truck driver, broke down crying when he was first told. He lamented to me; “All I will ever be able to eat again is oatmeal!” He had no clue where to even start when it came to changing his diet and what he could or could not eat in the future.
Many heart patients struggle with this when they are first told. They assume salt is in everything, or at least in everything that tastes good. People assume that this command to go low sodium is a sentence of only being able to eat bland and tasteless foods for the rest of their lives. Once they begin to dig into the facts of what they eat, and learn the rules it starts getting easier to do, and soon they find they can control sodium in the cooking that they do at home. But what about when they are away from home?
Let’s face it, for the low sodium life to work in real life, you have to be able to to do real world things, and that includes eating out at restaurants. It requires some changes to your behaviors. There are some restaurants where you might not find a low sodium friendly dish on the menu at all. Like anything else in this low sodium life it takes some creativity and common sense when dining out.
Low Sodium Survival Tips For Dining Out
I have created this list of Low Sodium Survival Tips For Dining Out to help you navigate eating out at restaurants and adhere to your low sodium life:
Read the Menu
- Many chains are required to post the nutritional information about the items on their menus. Some Fast Food (think McDonald’s etc.) or Quick Service Restaurants (like Chipotle, Panera Bread etc.) may have printed information sheet. They may direct you to a website online to find the information. If you take a few minutes to look that over, or look it up on your mobile device, you can find the information needed to make selections that will work for you.
- There are words on the menu that can help guide your choices. Words like grilled, steamed, baked, broiled, and poached are all healthier forms of cooking. Avoid dishes that have as descriptions of their preparation as; cured, smoked, fried, creamed, buttered, and marinaded, as those preparation styles tend to involve more sodium.
- Many items being shipped to restaurants are frozen, so look for fresh choices. Typically that means that the food has been soaked in a saltwater bath prior to freezing. You should try to order fresh choices. Fresh fish, poultry, and lean cuts of meats typically contain the lower amounts of sodium than their frozen versions. You may want to choose restaurants where they source the food locally and cook it fresh daily than resorting to chain restaurants.
- Leaner cuts of beef are usually the following cuts that would be listed on a menu: sirloin, tenderloin, and filet.
Control What You Can Control
Choose smaller portions. Not only is this a healthier choice calorie wise, it will help reduce the amount of sodium in the dish. You will eat less of the dish, and therefore take in less sodium than would be in the whole dish. You can also split entrees to get a smaller portion. If you are dining alone, ask your server to package half of your entree in a to go package.
- You should always remove any skins from poultry you are eating. Most restaurants season the outside of the skins. If you remove the skins, you are removing at least part of the damage.
- Ask to replace sides with healthier choices. Rather than french fries or potato chips, ask if you can replace with a salad, fruit, or vegetables.
- Ask for sauces, dressings, and spreads to be on the side. This can allow you to control the amount you eat as well.
- If looking for a dessert, look for healthier choices. Fresh fruits, sorbets, frozen yogurt, or angel food cake without cream or frosting are all healthier choices.
- When in doubt of how a menu item is prepared, ask your server. If they don’t know, they can go and ask the chef.
Communicate with the Chef or Staff
Chain restaurants have the least amount of leeway to customize a menu item, or to create a dish for you. In better restaurants, my best advice is to talk to the staff and meet the chef if possible. In my twenty years working with the hospitality industry, I learned that many chefs do care about the dietary needs of their guests. A frustration many chefs have expressed to me, is that the guests don’t know they need to communicate what they do like. Most people will only tell their wait staff or Chef all that they cannot eat, and not give an idea as what they do like.
If you present the Chef or staff with some ideas for what you do like, I guarantee that you will have a better dining experience than if you just tell them what you can’t have. I like to let them know that I am on sodium restrictions do to a heart related illness. Then I also share that I do enjoy fresh herbs and spices and would love it if the chef could come up with a fish or chicken dish that could meet my needs. Finally, I tell them that I like some heat to my spices as well. If the chef or staff is accommodating of your needs, please tip accordingly. It will help you build a great relationship for the next time you visit their restaurant.
Can I Eat Low Sodium at Restaurants?
By popular demand, I started crafting guides to what we can eat at certain restaurant chains. You can find all of those guides by clicking on the Can I eat low sodium at Restaurants (here, or by clicking button on the top of this page). We also have a list of Restaurants with High Sodium Menus to Avoid, where they have no low sodium options that would make a meal for us. We are constantly adding to both lists. I have also asked some dieticians for advice. Here are a Dietitian’s tips for Low Sodium Dining Out and a Dietitian’s tips for dining Low Sodium at Chinese Restaurants.
What tips do you have for dining out? What are some of your favorite dishes at some restaurants that you have tried and that are low sodium? Please mention them in the comments below.