An Athlete’s Guide to Healthy Eating Out

Time is of the essence. Sometimes, between the demands of training and the busyness of life, the convenience of a drive-through reigns supreme. Other times, opportunities arise to enjoy a meal out with family or friends. But that doesn’t mean making healthy choices to adequately fuel your athletic performance is out the window. The following is a list of recommendations for working through this seemingly dangerous situation: 

  1. Don’t Panic… you can find a healthy option at almost any place your friends or family members may choose. With a little planning, dining at a fast food restaurant can be nutritious.
  2. Memorize MyPlate… especially when you are choosing a la carte items from a fast food restaurant menu. It is possible to build a healthy plate (half of your plate fruits and vegetables, ¼ of your plate grains, ¼ protein and a serving of either milk, cheese or yogurt).
  3. Let Us Lettuce… fruits and vegetables will undoubtedly be the most challenging food group to find choices for at most fast food restaurants. Keep in mind that most restaurants are happy to add extra lettuce, maybe even tomato and onions, free of charge. Many fast food places serve fruit or fruit smoothies on the side and some offer salad bars as well.  
  4. Sauce on the Side… whether you order a burger, salad or Asian bowl, ask for the sauce or condiments on the side. You can determine how much you need for extra flavor. Salad dressings or special sauces can be especially dangerous, adding unwanted calories from fat. Most salads already have extra flavor toppings, come already dressed and won’t need the additional dressing.  
  5. Forget the Fries... or ask a friend or family member to share a side. While a fresh baked or boiled potato is a healthy choice at home, most restaurant deep-fried French fries are heavily salted and rarely can count as a true vegetable serving. Share a basket of fries as your dessert.
  6. Think Your Drink… save money and avoid empty calories by skipping the “meal deal;” order your entrée without fries and without a drink. If you want something more than water with your meal, milk, chocolate milk, 100-percent juice or real fruit smoothies are all better options than soda when eating out.
  7. Need Extra Calories? Many athletes that have high-calorie demands know fast food restaurants can provide extra calories. Even when your calorie needs are high, it is important to keep MyPlate recommendations in mind and include all Five Food Groups with your meals.

Here are a few quick tips for choosing healthy options at different fast food restaurants:


  • Choose soft tortillas over fried, crisp ones and whole-wheat or corn tortillas when possible.
  • Fajitas are a great choice for helping to build a healthy plate – you can even ask for extra fajita veggies.
  • Ask for salsa or pico de gallo as a topping.
  • Choose black or pinto beans instead of refried.
  • Sprinkle low-fat Mexican blend cheese on your favorite dish to add extra flavor and additional nutrients and protein.


  • Choose steamed rice instead of fried.
  • Choose dishes with vegetables.  
  • When possible, ask for sauces and dressings on the side.
  • Most Asian dishes are made without dairy products. Enjoy these dishes with a glass of milk.


  • Think of a pizza as a vertical MyPlate. One slice of thick crust covers about ¼ of your plate as a grain and 1.5 ounces of shredded cheese is a serving of dairy. Add a layer of protein, fruits and vegetables to complete the plate.
  • Hawaiian pizza with pineapples is a tasty way to add fruit to your pizza.
  • Order the salad bar or fruit on the side instead of breadsticks or dessert pizza.
  • Choose tomato sauce instead of BBQ or Alfredo sauce.
  • Use proper portion sizes.


  • Try broiled or grilled instead of crispy or fried options.
  • Look for “light” or “healthy” options on the menu.
  • Add cheese to your beef or chicken burgers, sandwiches or salads to ensure a serving of dairy at each meal.

Your commitment to healthy eating and successfully fueling your athletic performance is worth it. With a little planning, dining at your favorite restaurants with friends and family, or at a fast food restaurant when in a pinch, is an easy task while still meeting your body’s nutrition demands.

By Jenna Allen, M.S., RDN

Jenna is a registered dietitian with a passion for communicating science in an approachable way. She has been part of the Dairy MAX team since 2008. When she isn't working, Jenna is trying out new recipes with her three kids and working on her food photography. Learn more about Jenna.

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