Keto-Friendly Restaurant and Fast-Food Ideas that Won't Kick You Out of Ketosis

Steak-Strips Lettuce Wrap Wrapped in Butcher Paper
You don't have to avoid fast food
if you're living the Keto lifestyle!

Once you enter the Keto lifestyle, and you've given your body time to adjust to the radical changes, you might want to start looking into how to eat at a restaurant or grab a quick Keto-friendly fast-food meal that won't kick you out of ketosis.

Sticking to whole foods makes a low-carb diet simple and easy, but there are times in life when eating at home just isn't convenient.

Whether you're tied up with kids, your friends want to go out after a ball game, or you'd like to enjoy a nice dinner and a movie for date-night, being low carb will not stand in your way.

There are some aspects of the low-carb lifestyle that limit what you can eat, depending on additional health restrictions you might have. I'm not going to say that it doesn't. Hubby and I are both gluten free, as well as low carb and pre-diabetic, and because of that, we rarely eat out anymore.

It is extremely easy to get glutened and very difficult to find restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, that understand cross contamination and the seriousness of being contaminated by gluten. While hubby isn't as sensitive to gluten as I am, one restaurant mistake can knock me off my feet for several weeks.

Spontaneous outings or social gatherings usually require us to eat ahead, bring our own food, or pick up a two-ounce package of beef jerky and diet drink from the gas station.

A busy week means I need to have plenty of fast menu ideas, something made ahead so I just have to reheat it, or we might make a quick trip to the grocery store for a rotisserie chicken to go with a salad that I already have chilling in the refrigerator.

But not always.

There are a few places that we can eat at safely here in Texas, which I'll be sharing with you in this post.

If gluten isn't an issue for you, the low-carb options at restaurants and fast-food places are pretty generous, even for diabetics. Before going gluten free, hubby and I used to eat out quite a bit, and I had no trouble getting a safe, low-carb meal.

Eating out does take a bit of pre-planning and know-how, along with some investigative work so you'll know where the carbs might be lurking, but Keto doesn't mean you can never eat out. In fact, hubby and I go out to breakfast almost every Saturday morning before doing our weekly grocery shopping.

You just need to know what to order to make Keto work.

Fitting low carb into your busy life isn't as easy as it sounds, due to the way restaurants like to dump sugar and other carby fillers into their foods. Yes, you need a good, solid, understanding of what is or isn't low carb. But if you're not aware and watching for hidden dangers, you can easily be kicked out of ketosis just by eating a salad.

Yep. I said salad!

With that in mind, I'm going to explain how we used to eat out for celiac disease, low carb, and zero carb, how we eat out now, and let you in on some hidden pitfalls that go along with letting others prepare your food for you.

I'll also offer you some additional tricks and ideas, as well as where you can get a great low-carb fast-food guide if you don't have time to do all of that investigating for yourself.

Pinterest Image: Hot Wings

How to Eat Out Zero Carb

I'm starting with zero carb, since it's a bit more complex than the other styles of Keto living, but all of the tips and tricks I'm going to share can be used with any low-carb diet.

Typical zero-carb diets contain less than 5 carbs a day, so your options are mostly meat, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products like heavy cream. This makes zero carb a good option for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as pre-diabetes and diabetes.

But paying for a full meal when you're only eating meat isn't practical. To solve the problem, focus on restaurants and fast food places that allow you to order a la carte.

In most restaurants, there is a small section of side dishes toward the back of the menu that is often overlooked by diners. Many fast-food places have the same list of side dishes on their menu up front.

For low carbers, this a la carte section is a gold mind because it lets you construct your own meal using nothing but several side dishes. From the side-dish menu, you can get items like:
  • grilled chicken breast
  • grilled pork chops
  • grilled hamburger patty
  • eggs, any style
  • side of bacon or sausages
  • side of ham
  • cottage cheese
This side-dish section was great when I was doing zero carb. I'd simply order a bacon-cheese burger and a pork chop for dinner. You could also sub a couple of fried eggs for one of the meats and have ham and eggs for lunch or dinner. One-half cup of small curd cottage cheese comes in at 4 carbs.

Also, check out the appetizers section of the menu. Here, you'll often find hot wings or cold shrimp. Just make sure to ask if the meat is breaded or not. While it's not traditional to do that, some restaurants do like to dust the wings with flour before frying, so they fry up crisper.

All-you-can eat buffets also work well with extremely low-carb diets and while they do require you to eat on-site, you don't have to wait around for the food to be prepared. If time is short, these are a great option. Just load up on the meats.

Golden Corral, for example, offers unlimited barbecue steak that makes a great zero-carb entree. You can also find grilled chicken, seasoned ribs without the sugary barbecue sauce, fish, and ham.

How to Eat Out on Low Carb

In the good-old-days, a diet plate used to consist of a 4-ounce hamburger patty, a scoop of cottage cheese, and half of a canned peach. Lettuce leaves were tucked under the cottage cheese and peach.

While the bread was obviously missing, making that old-fashioned diet plate a nice gluten-free option, the carb count of this type of meal came to about 20 net carbs, due to the peach being sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. It cost you about 13 net carbs for that small half a peach by itself.

The main difference between low carb and zero carb is your salads and vegetables. So in addition to the advice given above, you can also find additional sides that can be easily fit into your Keto plan:
  • the vegetable of the day
  • broccoli or green beans
  • side salad
  • grilled mushroom caps
  • grilled mushrooms and onions
Often, you can also just order from the regular menu without it being a waste of money, especially in places where you get to choose a couple of side dishes to go with the meat entree. This opens up the menu quite a bit, and lets you include restaurants such as salad bars.

However, you'll want to be extremely careful with salad.

Unless you're carrying your own salad dressing in your purse, which some people actually do, you need to know that many salad dressings are loaded with sugar. These salads can kick you out of ketosis if you happen to go over your carbohydrate tolerance for the day.

I'm not talking about a bit of sugar in the list of ingredients. I used to work as a culinary specialist for a couple of different boys homes. I pretty much know what is in your standard restaurant food and how carby it tends to be. But in addition to the sugar added by the manufacturer, restaurants also add sugar to their house recipes.

Cole slaw is famous for being packed with lots of sugar. Just look at any cole slaw recipe on the web, and you'll see just how true that is. You'll want to stay away from it when eating out, but even a supposedly safe vinegar-and-oil dressing -- something you might never suspect as being high in carbs -- can be extremely sweet and loaded with sugar or corn syrup.

Don't just assume that something is safe. Take the time to find out.

And it's not about the quality of the restaurant, either. Even high-end restaurants do this. Before I realized this, I was pretty shocked when my salad came drenched in an oil-and-vinegar house dressing that was so sweet it literally tasted like candy.

The tendency to add sugar isn't limited to just fast food places. All restaurants do this now.

In addition to watching out for salad, the chicken on top of that salad can be dusted with flour or come breaded. I once was brought a salad with tons of little, tiny breaded chicken slivers mixed throughout the salad, even though the menu didn't mention the meat was breaded. The pieces were so tiny, it was impossible to get the breading off.

Salad Topped with Breaded Chicken Strips
Ask if the chicken on that salad
will be breaded or grilled.

Carbs can also be in marinades, as well, so think before you order something that's been marinaded.

Kentucky Fried Chicken's grilled chicken, for example, was dusted with wheat flour and the marinade used to contain soy sauce, which is off limits for gluten-free folks. I don't know what it's made with today because we don't eat there.

All you can eat buffets are just as good for low carb as they are for those eating no carbs at all. Most of these places offer a wide variety of low-carb vegetables. I've seen:
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • brussels sprouts
  • cooked baby carrots
  • green beans
  • a couple of kinds of summer squash
  • asparagus
If you're doing Atkins 40, there are even more choices like sweet potatoes, winter squashes, peas, and mixed vegetables.

How I Used to Eat Out on Keto

My favorite low-carb dinner when eating out was to order a hot wing appetizer and a side salad. With the celery that came along for the ride for dipping, this was a complete meal for me. At Mexican restaurants, my go-to meal was always some type of fajitas. I simply didn't eat the tortillas.

I also used to order a la carte at our local cafe in San Pete County, Utah, quite a bit. Low carb made room for vegetables and salad along with the large variety of meats offered in their side-dish section, so it was relatively easy to throw together a meal.

However, since the place was small and we were regulars, I was also able to design my own meal like having them smoother the grilled chicken breast with mushrooms, bacon, and grilled onions. I just told them what I wanted, and they fixed it right up for me.

At burger stands, I'd order a double-patty bacon-cheeseburger and salad, and then eat it with a fork, but many burger stands like In-and-Out or Five Guys will wrap your burger in lettuce to make it easier to eat out of hand.

One sit-down restaurant we used to go to offered something called a Hawaiian burger. It was a thick hamburger patty topped with a slice of ham, an egg, and cheese. I just had them leave out the bread.

In-and-Out actually offers a burger that is stacked four patties high for larger appetites. Five Guys offers hot dogs with bacon and cheese, grilled mushrooms to top your burger, jalapeno slices, and mustard for a nice low-carb feast.

McDonalds, Burger King, and others also offer dinner salads in see-through plastic containers, if you need something you can grab and go with. These are typically made with grilled chicken, steak strips, or ham.

In 2007 and 2008, scraping the toppings off your pizza and leaving the crust behind was a popular way to handle going out for pizza, but I honestly didn't find that very practical. Salad bars were rare back then, and the toppings were not all that filling for me. It often took an entire pizza to get enough food that way.

We never ate out often enough for burgers to get monotonous, but if it does, there are lots of different fast food places you can go to.

Arby's will serve up your sandwich as a salad or they will give you a heaping container of meat without the bun. I order the largest sandwich they have and just have them put the meat in their to-go plastic container.

Chick-Fil-A has naked chicken nuggets, and Chipotle allows you to build your own burrito or taco-bowl, without having to scrape it out of the tortillas. When we ate there a couple of years ago on vacation, we skipped the tortillas and topped the meat with sour cream, guacamole, and cheese.

Taco Bell is more tricky because the taco filling contains a wheat-based filler. You're better off carb-wise ordering grilled chicken or steak strips instead.

How We Eat Out Low Carb and Gluten Free Today

Today, our choices are greatly reduced from most of the examples I used above, due to my level of gluten sensitivity. Fried hot wings is off the menu because most restaurants don't have dedicated fryers. They fry breaded foods in the same oil, which causes gluten to stick to any food fried in that oil.

However, we've been having excellent results with Golden Corral.

While this might seem like an odd choice, especially since the salad bar is badly contaminated, I solved the contamination problem by only selecting foods that the server would not have to touch with gloved hands.

I generally go for the ham, steak, grilled pork chops, scrambled eggs with cheese sauce, bacon, and sausage links. I also have been fine with the wide selection of vegetables I listed above. A typical breakfast for me is:
  • 3 slices of bacon, slice of ham, or grilled pork chop
  • 3 small sausage links
  • scrambled eggs
  • grilled minced peppers and onions
  • a bit of cheese sauce
The cheese sauce contains 4 carbs for 1/4 cup serving, and since there are no morning-vegetable choices other than the minced peppers and onions, and I only use a couple of tablespoons, the overall cost of the meal is super low in carbs.

I was also able to eat fajitas at hubby's Christmas Party for work. We just skipped the tortillas and enchiladas, but we were able to enjoy steak, chicken, and shrimp fajitas. No one even noticed that we weren't eating tortillas.

Research is Not Optional

Unfortunately, whether you're gluten free or not, research isn't something you can just ignore. If you don't research what's in the food you're eating, the food might contain more carbs than you realize, and kick you out of ketosis.

Most restaurants and fast-food places have online menus you can look at before you go, but if you eat out a lot, you might want something more substantial that you can access from your phone, especially if you want to compare one fast-food restaurant with another.

A nice website that can make this job easier is Mr. Skinny Pants. This site specializes in Keto fast food guides and easy recipes to make eating out more pleasurable for you. He goes out of his way to share substantial stats on the food available, what's best to eat at each place, and tips for putting together a nice Keto-friendly meal.

Cheeseburger and Salad with Bacon Strips and Sliced Jalapeno
Whataburger is extremely popular
here in Texas.

If you'd rather have all of the information together in a single document, rather than scattered throughout his blog, you can order his Keto Fast Food Survival Guide. (This is not an affiliate link. I have no financial interest in the product. He did send me a copy of the guide for review, and I really liked it.)

This guide has information on the top 30 fast food places across the United States and gives extensive information on each place. In addition to the restaurants being listed in alphabetic order for quick reference, there are beautiful pictures of what he ate, tips, ordering suggestions, stats, and macros for each dish recommended. Macros include:
  • calories
  • fat
  • protein
  • net carbs
What makes his guide unique?

Missing Chinese Food on Low Carb? Panda Express Has Low Carb Options
Missing Chinese Food?
Panda Express has Low-Carb Options!

He personally ate out at all of these restaurants and ordered every one of the meals he recommends, so his reviews are coming from his personal experience. He didn't just go out onto the web and pull from other people's lists. He actually took the time to find out what's available out there and just how good and useful each place's food is for those living a Keto lifestyle.

There are a few other lists available online that I looked at, but they are not very comprehensive and only give generic information, so if you can't afford to buy his guide, then at least check out his website. His posts offer food suggestions, cost per meal, macros, and lots of tips and real-life reviews.

Don't Stress About Eating Out

To turn Keto into a lifestyle, rather than approaching it with a dieting mindset, you have to own the fact that this way of eating is for the rest of your life. Don't beat yourself up if you occasionally go over on carbs.

It happens.

Don't run back to Induction, either. Induction is over and done with. Save Induction for special circumstances like if you backslide for a long time and don't catch yourself within the first day or two, or if you decide to go off plan throughout your entire two-week vacation.

Instead of abusing Induction, by running back to it every time you eat too many carbs, pick yourself up and get back on plan with the very next meal. If you're worried about gaining some water weight, you can easily cut down on carbs for a day or two to balance out what you overate.

In 1992, Dr. Atkins called this behavior "real life."

Stressing out about being kicked out of ketosis will only increase your stress hormone level, and raise your blood glucose, which will then cause additional insulin to be secreted, and cause unnecessary suffering.

A much better idea is to keep calm, take the consequences for whatever weight gain results, and just keep going.