Happy Hour, No Regrets Cheat Sheet

No one goes to happy hour expecting quinoa and steamed tilapia. But amid the standard brown, fried fare, you may still find some good choices.
Can happy hour — that magical, booze-fueled time when bottomless bowls of nuts and pretzels pop up everywhere, and fried finger food reigns supreme — really be happy if you’re watching what you eat?

The answer is yes — as long as you’re willing to swap at least some of the greasy, creamy and booze-laden “happy” for healthy. “Happy hour is tough,” says WeightWatchers.com Recipes Editor and nutritionist Leslie Fink, MS RD. “It can be really hard to find foods that are lower in PointsPlus values.” Plus drinking can cloud your judgment, making it even easier to eat more than you’d planned.

That doesn’t mean all the usual suspects are off limits, of course. You just need to eat less of them, says Fink, and round out your choices with healthier nibbles (including some you might not have even thought about ordering before). Here’s what to keep in mind before you head the bar or restaurant. (Don’t forget to check out our Cocktail Cheat Sheet for smart beverage strategies, too.)

  • Plan ahead. Yes, you probably saw this one coming. But it’s especially important for happy hour since many menu items are just so high in PointsPlus values. “If you know ahead of time that you’re going out, save your weekly PointsPlus Allowance for that night,” advises Fink. “Plan your budget before you go and check the menu, too, if you can. And don’t go hungry.” Also keep in mind that you’ll have a broader range of menu options if you go to a restaurant or pub for drinks instead of a bar.

  • Have an accountability buddy. This is a great option if you’ll be going with a friend you’re comfortable checking in with (in a subtle way, of course) and who can gently nudge you toward better options if necessary.

  • Don’t make it too easy to eat. Especially if there are bowls or plates of free nibbles sitting around, opt to mingle away from the food. If it’s out of sight, it’ll be out of mind, too.

  • Keep track of what goes in. Having visual reminders of how much you’ve consumed can be a powerful deterrent to overeating (or drinking too much). That means shooing away the wait staff when they try to take your glass or remove plates of cleaned-off chicken wing bones.

  • Get a fruit or veggie fix. Order a fruit plate, crudités or even salad, if they’re on the menu. If not, ask for extra celery and carrot sticks with a side of salsa for dipping.

  • Pick up some protein. Pretzels and chips are tasty and easy to eat, but they’re hardly filling. Shrimp cocktail is a worthwhile splurge, since it’s packed with protein for relatively few PointsPlus values (just beware of mayo-based dips). Cheese is another good choice if you watch your portion size (and avoid deep-fried mozzarella sticks). Even Buffalo chicken wings are still made out of, well, chicken. Just keep an eye on the quantity.

  • Do dinner instead of hors d’oeuvres. If you’re at a place with a full menu and somewhere to sit, why not opt for a healthy meal instead of appetizers? This way you can more easily limit yourself to what’s on the plate and not have to worry about overdoing it grazing on other nibbles. If portions are large, see if a friend wants to split an entrée.

  • Don’t deny yourself. If you have been salivating over the thought of Buffalo wings, potato skins or nachos, go ahead and have some — within reason, of course — and keep track of what you’re eating. That said, if these kinds of things are trigger foods for you, it’s probably best to steer clear altogether and focus on other options that will satisfy your craving for something salty, crunchy or savory.

  • Host your own happy hour. You don’t even need an excuse or occasion to round up some friends for drinks and nibbles. Of course it’s not the same as going out, but it gives you more control over the food.