Start Your Restaurant Meal off Right!

The Lark DPP mission has, so far, brought up tons of strategies for eating healthy at restaurants. Hopefully, the message is clear that it is possible to eat well and eat out with a little (or a lot) of awareness.

The most recent check-in brought up part of the restaurant experience that may not always get much attention, but that can change the course of the whole meal. The starters or appetizers and beverages served before the meal warrant serious attention if you are to come away from the restaurant without feeling weighed down.


Why Worry about Apps?

Appetizers and starters were originally intended to whet the appetite, but restaurants have taken them to new levels. An order commonly has 500 to 1,000 or more calories. Though they may be shared amongst everyone at the table, it is still easy to down a high amount of calories in just a few bites because they tend to be calorie-dense (a lot of calories in a small serving) because of their fats and starches. Cocktails can add 100 to 200 each.


Beware the Auto-Eating

Food may enter your mouth without you even thinking about it as soon as you sit down. Sometimes, it happens before you sit down, if the restaurant offers peanuts or other snacks to customers who are waiting for a table. Once seated, and without being asked, the server may bring a chips with salsa, bread or dinner rolls with butter or breadsticks with oil. A small serving may have 200 calories, but it is easy to eat more since these foods are delicious, within reach, and unlimited.

The surest way to avoid these bottomless calorie pits is to keep them away by asking your server not to bring them. If your table mates insist on having them, ask them to allow you to place them out of your reach so you do not automatically reach for them and eat them for the 10 to 30 minutes before your first course comes. A glass of ice water can help keep you occupied during this time.


Safe Bets

There are some choices for appetizers that are not laden with fat and carbohydrates. In general, pure proteins and natural vegetables are the best bets. These are some items to seek at a classic family restaurant.

  • Shrimp cocktail

  • Raw vegetables with salsa, hummus, or guacamole

  • Boneless wings with marinara sauce

  • Roasted brussels sprouts or artichokes

It is often possible to make something good out of a starter that started off, well, less good. Many dishes have something good about them. If you would rather not order a starter but your eating companions insist, you may be able to make do by:

  • Eating the chicken or beef without the bun in the slider.

  • Removing breading from shrimp, artichokes, or mushrooms before eating them.

  • Asking for raw celery or other vegetables to dip instead of pita, chips, or bread.

  • Picking out the vegetables and olives from an antipasto platter.


Choices to Limit

The list of unhealthy appetizers is long. Signs of trouble may be fried foods, battered foods, cream dips, fatty meats, potatoes, and too much cheese. These are some common menu items that can be high in calories and pretty bad for health.

  • Fried chicken wings and buffalo chicken.

  • Creamy dips, including ranch, buffalo sauce, and spinach and artichoke.

  • Potato skins and potato wedges.

  • Onion rings, onion petals, zucchini sticks, and battered mushrooms and cauliflower.

  • Mozzarella sticks.

  • Pigs in blankets.

No matter what, size matters. A single buffalo wing, pig in blanket, or mozzarella stick may have only 80 calories, even though it has little in the way of nutrition. Whatever ends up on your table, you can have a taste without doing damage to your entire meal.

Type of Restaurant Go! No!
Chinese, Thai, or other Asian
  • Crispy green beans
  • Steamed edamame
  • Seaweed salad
  • Chips
  • Egg rolls
  • Dumplings and potstickers
  • Ceviche
  • Salsa or guacamole with vegetables
  • Chips
  • Nachos
  • Quesadillas
  • Olives
  • Artichokes
  • Mushrooms
  • Bruschetta (without the bread)
  • Breadsticks
  • Antipasto and other cured meat platters
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Hummus with vegetables
  • Eggplant caviar
  • Stuffed grape leaves (dolmades) - just 1
  • Falafel
  • Stacks of pita
  • Kibbeh
  • Tabouleh
  • Chicken tandoori
  • Raita with roti
  • Papadam (small serving)
  • Naan and garlic naan
  • Samosa
  • Bhaji
  • Pakora

Soup or Salad as an Alternative

Soup or salad can be a good choice if the rest of your party wants to order apps but none of the starters listed on the menu are suitable for you. The server should be willing to bring out your soup or salad while the others are eating their appetizers.

A small green salad can be a low-calorie choice. The classic iceberg, lettuce, and cucumber salad can have fewer than 50 calories, and fewer than 100 calories if you get light dressing or order dressing on the side and use only a small amount. Caesar salad with romaine and shredded parmesan can also work. Skipping the croutons can save 50 to 200 calories.

A thin or chunky soup can not only be satisfying, but may also aid in weight loss as people who start a meal with chunky soup tend to eat fewer calories overall at that meal. Opt for broth-based soups over those with cream or cheese to save on calories and fat, and know that pureed potato soups are high in carbs.

Lower-Calorie Soups Higher-Calorie Soups
  • Minestrone (if no sausage)
  • Vegetable soup
  • Hot and sour soup
  • Egg drop soup
  • Wonton soup
  • Tom yum vegetable soup
  • Chicken noodle or rice (may leave the noodles or rice if there is too much)
  • Potato or loaded potato soup
  • Cream of mushroom, asparagus, tomato, chicken, or anything else
  • Clam or corn chowder
  • Broccoli cheese soup

Smart Beverages

The same automated response that leads you to say “yes” when the server asks if you want a breadstick can lead you to say “yes” when the server asks you if you want a drink before the meal. Cocktails and aperitifs can have 100 to 200 calories each. Not only that, but the alcohol in them can lead you to let down your guard, encouraging you to eat more and choose less healthy items than you might normally choose when not drinking.

Ice water and unsweetened tea or coffee (consider decaf in the afternoon and evening) are great ways to start your meal. They are not only calorie-free, but can help fill you up so you are likely to eat less at the meal. Plus, they give you something to do, so you can sip your drink instead of reaching for another egg roll.

Eating a healthy appetizer can help put your restaurant meal on the right track. It is entirely possible when you are ready to order well from the moment you set foot in the restaurant.


Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health

Healthy Home-Cooked Meals to Prevent Diabetes

Eating better is one of the best ways to lower risk for type 2 diabetes, and surprises can certainly put a damper on things. Ordering at a restaurant or picking up a prepared meal at a supermarket can lead to a meal that is shockingly high in calories, carbs, and fat due not only to portion size, but to extras such as cooking fats, heavy sauces, and hidden sugars and starches. 

The Lark DPP check-in hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the sure-fire way to know exactly what is in your food is to prepare it yourself. You do not have to be a gourmet chef or set aside tons of time to put together a healthy meal. Here are a few ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.



A high-protein breakfast can get you through the morning with plenty of energy. Many breakfasts are high in added sugar, such as in sweetened cereal, pastries, syrup, or jam, in starches from bagels or pancakes, or in unhealthy fats from sausage or bacon. Your breakfast does not need to be!

The general formula is to have some protein, a serving of vegetables or fruit, and possibly a whole grain or some healthy fat. These are a few easy ideas.

  • Scrambled egg whites with spinach, tomatoes, feta cheese, avocado, and oregano.

  • Omelet with cheddar cheese and zucchini served with whole-grain toast.

  • Peanut butter and berries in a whole-grain pita pocket.

  • Unsweetened shredded wheat and ½ sliced banana in milk.

  • Plain oatmeal made with almond milk plus sliced almonds and strawberries.

  • Buckwheat pancakes with cottage cheese and cantaloupe.



The choice of lunches can make the difference between being lethargic and productive in the afternoon. Greasy fast food and too many carbs, such as in large sandwiches or fried rice, can lead to sleepiness and a real struggle to get through the rest of the day. Healthy fats and antioxidants can keep your brain clear, while fiber and protein can again keep your belly full.

These options can be just as easy as going to the nearest drive-through.

  • Baby carrots with peanut butter, plus an apple.

  • Whole-grain crackers with tuna, and an orange.

  • Whole-grain pita pocket with pureed avocado, cooked chicken breast, and lettuce and tomato.

  • Romaine lettuce with garbanzo beans, clementine wedges, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, vinaigrette, and shredded cheese.

  • Quinoa salad with tomatoes, red peppers, celery, chicken or tofu, and olive oil.

  • Fat-free refried beans, salsa, and cheese over a bed of lettuce.

  • Veggie or turkey burger naked or on a whole-grain bun, with mustard, lettuce, and tomatoes.

  • Chili

  • Lentil or split pea soup made with low-sodium broth.

  • Soup made with low-sodium broth and onions, carrots, and parsnip plus any other vegetables, plus leftover cooked beans, chicken, fish, turkey burger, or tofu, plus sweet potato, brown rice, barley, or bulgur (make a big batch on the weekend if you want!).



Dinner can be such a great end to the day, or such a bad one! A good dinner can lead to better sleep and a smaller waistline, while a dinner that is less well-chosen can keep you up at night while adding unneeded calories. In general, a few whole grains, not too much fat, and a bit of protein can set the stage for good sleep tonight and good energy tomorrow.

These are some quick and easy options.

  • Fish (e.g., tilapia, halibut, or salmon) with asparagus or other vegetables and sweet potatoes, baked in foil packets in the oven.

  • Chili with beans, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and (optional) ground turkey or vegetarian soy protein.

  • Whole-grain or bean pasta tossed with olive oil, basil, and cooked garlic, tomatoes, onions, and zucchini.

  • Baked salmon topped with a sauce with yogurt, curry powder, pepper, lemon juice, and diced onion, served with brown rice and steamed broccoli.

  • Skillet meal with a base of ground turkey or chicken, olive oil, and vegetables, and a starch. Try it Mexican-style with bell peppers, tomatoes, corn, black beans, and taco seasoning, Italian-style with zucchini, green beans, whole-grain penne, and Italian seasoning, or Thai-style with peanuts, snow peas, carrot slices, broccoli, bok choy, and light soy sauce.

  • Stewed chicken with olives, artichoke hearts, and eggplant.

It is not that hard to make a healthy meal at home, and the benefits can be far-reaching. Not only can you save money by cooking for yourself, but you can choose exactly what is in your food. By selecting your own ingredients, you can have better control over your blood sugar and weight, and experience better energy and sleep patterns.


Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health