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Expert Tips for Healthy Dining Out

Easy ways to eat smart at restaurants.

Eating at a restaurant is one of life’s great pleasures, and Columbia has a diverse food scene, including a delicious list of locally owned spots, each one with its own ambience and iconic dishes. You may think that to enjoy a meal out — while being mindful of health and safety, of course —  nutrition must fall to the wayside. But what if we told you it’s possible to eat healthier meals at your favorite restaurants? 

When you’re not in charge of the menu or the cooking, it is harder to control the nutritional balance of your meal — excess calories, salt, fat, sugar, and other additives can sneak their way into your favorite dishes. According to Journal of the American Medical Association, the average restaurant meal has more than 50% of the USDA’s current daily calorie recommendation, nearly 90% of the daily recommended amount of fat, and 150% the daily recommended amount of sodium.

The good news is that dining at your favorite local restaurant doesn’t have to mean disaster for your health. According to Kelsie Knerr, a clinical dietitian at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, it’s possible to eat at restaurants and be healthy — you just need a few tricks up your sleeve so you can be prepared to make good, healthy choices.

For Kelsie, health and nutrition have always been passions. Born and raised in Columbia, Kelsie graduated from MU’s coordinated program in dietetics. After college, she joined the FoodCorps for a year, helping school-aged children access healthy food, followed by five years at Boone Hospital as a dietitian. For the last year, she has worked in the primary care clinic at the VA, where she offers veterans nutritional support and counseling, teaches weight-loss classes, and provides weight loss surgery consultation. 

Kelsie Knerr and family

Kelsie says she loves the counseling aspect of her job. She says: “It’s hard to find time to cook when you work full-time and life is crazy. My husband and I are pretty health-conscious with the way we balance our plate, and we’re budget-conscious, so we cook at home as much as we can. But we are also Columbia natives, so we have our favorite restaurants that we reserve for special occasions.”

We asked Kelsie to share her top ordering tips that will help give a meal a nutritional boost. “At the end of the day, it’s all about balance and picking healthy and delicious foods that will make you feel satisfied rather than deprived,” she offers.

Tip 1

What are some of the common mistakes people make when trying to dine out smartly?

Part of being intentional about food is knowing what you are eating and being prepared. It’s smart to look ahead at menus online before going out to a restaurant. Remember, you can always ask the staff to explain a menu item in more detail, and it is never a good idea to go out to eat when you’re starving.

Tip 2

At the end of the day, isn’t it okay to treat yourself once in a while? 

Yes! It’s all about moderation. If you regularly settle for unsatisfying food or unappetizing eating experiences, you will likely continue to search for food even though you aren’t hungry anymore. There is a philosophy called intuitive eating, which encourages giving yourself unconditional permission to eat and not attaching morality to food — i.e., the mentality that a certain food is “bad” and I’ll be “bad” if I do it. Eating with the intention to feel good physically allows for far more satisfaction. 

Tip 3

Are there certain easy choices one could make when ordering? 

Absolutely! Try tricks like asking for sauces on the side, asking for less (or no) cheese, skipping the bread or chip basket, and substituting in extra veggies instead of heavy, starchy sides. Learn to decode the menu and choose foods that are described as baked, boiled, broiled, grilled, poached, roasted, or steamed, and avoid descriptors like alfredo, au gratin, breaded, gravy, pastry, rich, southern-style, buttery, cheesy, creamy, or fried, which tend to mean more calories. 

Tip 4

What meal feels like a treat but also provides critical nutrients?

Seafood is nutrient-dense — a super healthy choice that can be expensive to make at home. Ordering seafood at a restaurant is always a great idea. You’ll be making a health-conscious choice, plus you’re eating a dish prepared the best way possible by a trained professional. Although Murry’s are served fried, chicken livers are chock-full of healthy vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron, vitamin B, vitamin A,
and copper. 

Tip 5

Is portion size a bigger problem than most people think? 

Portions do tend to be oversized, and it can be hard not to think about trying to get your money’s worth when dining out. You may consider minimizing how often you eat at buffets for that same reason. Splitting an order with a friend, ordering à la carte items, or asking the server to put half of your order in a take-home container before the other half is served are simple ways to avoid overeating. Some foods, like the pasta at Addison’s, taste amazing as leftovers! If you can tune in to your body, choose satisfying foods, and feel great after your meal, then you are doing something right in your relationship with food.

Tip 6

Should we be worried about our health when dining out, or is that an unnecessary stress? 

Don’t be so hard on yourself — food is not the enemy. If you don’t fry much at home and want to have some fried things done right, then ordering those dishes at a restaurant is a great way to treat yourself. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you decide to order the nachos bianco at Addison’s. Own it. Enjoy it. Just don’t overdo it.

We asked Kelsie to pick a healthy yet delicious menu option at three of Columbia’s food hotspots. 

Glenn’s Café

29 S. Eighth St.

Fresh oysters on the half shell or seared salmon with asparagus: Oysters are low in calories and provide important minerals like zinc, iron, copper, and selenium as well as some vitamin D and B12. Salmon is loaded with those healthy omega-3 fatty acids and is packed with flavor, even when prepared simply.


3107 Green Meadows Way

Lemon pesto chicken with a side of broccoli with lemon: Lean, grilled protein is always a good option, and pesto is high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron, and unsaturated fats. Broccoli is a colorful and tasty side that is loaded with fiber and protein.


709 Cherry St.

Mediterranean salad with ahi tuna: Salads can often be a good choice, but not all salads are necessarily healthy, low-fat, or low-calorie. Look for options that feature lots of greens, vegetables, and fruits. Ordering with a vinaigrette or asking for the dressing on the side for dipping is a great way to get the flavor without overdoing it. 

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