The Definitive List of Things You Should Avoid Ordering at a Restaurant

Avoid those sneaky calories and food poisoning risks by skipping these items the next time you eat out.

Waiter taking customers' orders in restaurant
Photo: Getty Images

Going out to eat is a great way to spend time with family and friends while sharing good food and making good memories. But trying to stick to healthier meals can be tough when you're eating at a restaurant because restaurants tend to sneak in extra calories, sugar, and sodium — even in healthy-sounding foods. Plus, the risk of food poisoning and other food safety issues is ever-present when you're out to eat.

So, while you may know to limit the amount of bread you eat from the basket, there are other things you can avoid or limit if you want to eat smarter when dining out.

Menu Items To Avoid or Order With Awareness

Unlimited Appetizers

There's nothing wrong with eating a couple of chips and dipping them in salsa or eating the bread that comes to the table. The problem lies with the fact that most baskets are bottomless. So once you finish your first round of chips or bread, you get another "free" basket.

You're more inclined to continue eating as long as the food is in front of you, which can lead you to overdo it. If you've ever been too full from the apps to even touch your meal, maybe ask your server to hold the next basket.

Bread With Olive Oil

If you don't douse your bread in olive oil every time you dip, you're safe from this tip. But if you use your bread like a mop, we have some bad news. Because olive oil is good for your health, you may think you can use as much as you want, when actually olive oil has more calories per tablespoon than butter. If you're chowing down on tablespoon after tablespoon of olive oil with big slices of bread, you've already eaten hundreds of calories before the meal even starts.

Creamy Soup

If you want a soup appetizer to enjoy before your meal, try to avoid creamy soup. While eating soup before a meal can lead to eating fewer calories, you should stick to broth-based soups. Creamy soups are a meal by themselves and can have as many as 500 calories per bowl. So try ordering veggie or chicken noodle soup to get your pre-meal fix.

All-You-Can-Eat Pasta

It may seem like a great deal, but all-you-can-eat pasta can be a recipe for disaster. Not only could you make a (healthier) similar pasta dish at home for probably the same price, if not cheaper, but also the portion is already going to be larger than average. Most restaurants give you a huge portion of noodles — the serving size for spaghetti is one cup of cooked pasta — so if you're asking for more than one plate you're probably eating multiple servings.

If you really want to get the deal, try asking for the second bowl to-go so you can enjoy it again another day.

Entrée Salads

Ordering a salad may sound like the smartest thing you can do when you're trying to make healthy choices, but many restaurant salads are actually loaded with calories. With a few big-ticket toppings and loads of dressing, an innocent salad can have more calories than a Big Mac.

Some major offenders to look out for include crispy chicken salads, Cobb salads, and taco salads (especially if they're in a deep-fried tortilla bowl). Next time, order the dressing or other heavy ingredients on the side so you can control how much is on your plate.

An Entrée Over 700 Calories

Most of the time 700 calories means beverages, an entrée, and dessert, but at a restaurant, one entrée could be more than 700 calories. If you're eating more than 700 calories for one meal and compensating for that amount — either by limiting calories in other meals or burning those calories — you're not putting yourself at too much of a risk, as long as you do so in moderation. But 700-plus calories could make up almost half your recommended daily caloric intake, which is between 1,600 and 3,000 calories depending on age, sex, and physical activity level according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Foods High in Trans Fats

According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, Americans should try to limit their trans fat intake as low as possible. However, some restaurant meals can have more than 5 grams of trans fat in one item alone.

Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that artificial trans fats were no longer recognized as safe for use in food and banned their use in 2018, there is still some carryover. So watch out for foods that contain artificial trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), like French fries, fried chicken, and doughnuts, because they can raise cholesterol levels and promote heart disease.

Fast Food Meals

Grabbing a burger, fry, and drink combo may seem like the best bang for your buck, but the entire meal can add up to 1,100 calories and almost 50 grams of fat. Swinging through your favorite drive-thru every once in a while won't hurt, but you shouldn't make a habit of it.

Eating too much fast food has negative effects and can cause acne, headaches, weight gain, heart disease, or high blood pressure.

Salty Sides

Similar to fast food, which can be packed with sodium, sides like cheese fries, baked beans, pickles, biscuits, and bacon can have a lot of sodium too. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that if Americans cut sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day, it could reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease by anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 1.2 million over the next 10 years.

Diet Soda

Just because it has the word "diet" in the name, doesn't mean it's a healthy drink. Drinking diet soda can actually cause you to gain more weight. Because your brain reacts to artificial sweeteners as it does to sugary snacks, drinking diet soda may cause you to want high-calorie foods and sugary treats, which can lead you to binge eating sweet snacks, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Also, if you want a mixed drink with your dinner, avoid paring booze with diet soda. Drinking the two together can enhance the health effects of alcohol and cause you to have a higher breath alcohol concentration. Plus, the more you drink, the less likely you'll be able to turn down the food on the table (lookout breadbasket).

Drinks With Free Refills

Free refills of water, seltzer, and even black coffee (but only three cups) are fine. However, if you're drinking soda or sweetened iced tea you should limit yourself.

There may only be 140 calories in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, but there are also 39 grams of sugar — that's more than 9 teaspoons. After just one refill you've already hit your recommended sugar intake for the day — which is 12 or 13 teaspoons of sugar in a 2,000-calorie diet. The AHA suggests an even stricter added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) for most adult women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.


Smoothies sound like a healthy option, but many restaurants load these drinks with ice cream, fruit juice, or just straight-up sugar. This turns a once-healthy fruity snack into a 500-calorie dessert item. Try looking for smoothies that are less than 300 calories, or just make your own at home.

More Than One Margarita

We don't want to dampen your Taco Tuesday celebration, but the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit alcohol intake to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Unfortunately, according to the National Institutes of Health's cocktail content calculator, one margarita is equal to 1.7 standard drinks. Margaritas aren't the worst though; one piña colada is actually equivalent to two standard drinks. Order two of these and you're already over your daily limit.


It should come as no surprise that restaurant desserts aren't great for you. Not only are they high in sugar, calories, and fat, but they're also high in sodium, which can be really dangerous. And most desserts are oversized so you could be eating well over one serving.

Even the "healthier" alternatives aren't much better. For example, frozen yogurt is supposed to be the more health-conscious alternative to ice cream, but its serving size is only 4 ounces (which you're probably already eating more of) and in that small amount there can be up to 30-plus grams of sugar. That doesn't even include all the extra toppings you might like to add.

Foods With a High Risk of Foodborne Illness to Avoid

Medium-Rare Burgers

You should always ask for your burger to at least be cooked to medium because ground meat — like ground beef, ground turkey, and ground chicken — can contain harmful bacteria if not fully cooked. All meats may contain bacteria, but those can be killed when cooking. Because hamburger meat is ground, the bacteria is mixed into the meat. This means burgers (and all other ground meat-based meals) are only safe to eat if cooked to at least 160 degrees F (70 degrees C). If not, you could be at risk for E. coli or salmonella.

Lemon, Lime, or Other Drink Garnishes

Adding a lemon, lime, or other garnish to your water, tea, or cocktail may seem like a good way to add flavor to your beverage, but the thing your mom told you about restaurant lemons being dirty was correct. In fact, a study found that 70% of restaurant lemon wedges are covered with up to 25 different germs. And this is where it gets even grosser, among those germs, you can find fecal matter, E. coli, and raw meat contamination. However, this study doesn't go further into whether or not patrons are at a higher risk for contracting illnesses from such garnishes and it also doesn't determine the origins of the contaminants.

To-Go Boxes

Unless you're going straight home after dining out, you probably shouldn't bring your leftovers. Food can only be left at room temperature for two hours and after that, it's at risk for harmful bacteria growth, according to the FDA. So if you're headed to the movies or to run other errands, don't bother packing up your leftovers.


Sprouts are great on sandwiches and salads, but you need to make sure they are cooked thoroughly. If left raw, sprouts can cause foodborne illnesses, like E. coli and salmonella, so it might be better to enjoy your sprouts at home where you can cook them yourself.

Raw Oysters

Your safest bet when eating oysters is to just order them cooked. But if you really want to enjoy this delicacy, you should know that there are risks associated. Raw oysters can carry hepatitis A and a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause vomiting or diarrhea. And if you have certain conditions, a Vibrio vulnificus infection can be fatal.

Bar Snacks

Eating from the bowl of bar snacks is basically like eating out of a stranger's hand. That bowl likely sits out all day long and gets passed around by every customer. Plus, most of the bowls get refilled before they are empty, so the new food is getting mixed in with the contaminated food every time.

Shark and Certain Fish

The FDA recommends avoiding consuming shark meat because it contains high levels of mercury. Mercury is extremely toxic to humans and mercury poisoning can cause blindness, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, skin peeling, and kidney failure. Additionally, you can get mercury poisoning from eating other large fish, including swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

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