Red Robin. PF Chang’s. The Cheesecake Factory.
All so delicious.
All having the potential to completely annihilate your dietary goals.
Whether it’s for convenience, to socialize with friends or family, or simply because the thought of doing dishes yet again makes you want to cry, chances are, eating out is part of your routine. You’re not alone. With over 60% of Americans stating that they eat out at least once a week, it’s clear that food establishments are a big part of our cultural identity.
Who can blame us? Restaurants offer warm atmospheres full of good smells and tastes where friends can meet, people can celebrate, and Tinder hookups can begin without having to rely on chit chat alone. Their convenience is difficult to match; and their food…
Let’s just say nothing tastes as good as restaurant food. Nothing. Even something as simple as a plate of iceberg lettuce with three tomato wedges and two cucumber slices on top somehow tastes better from a restaurant than it does at home. I don’t know what magical pixie dust they sprinkle around at restaurants, but seriously, no matter how hard I try I can’t match the exquisite flavor of a dry baked potato from TGI Fridays. This phenomenon needs to be explored by foodies or scientists or on a podcast at the very least.
But I digress.
The point is eating out not only satisfies our hunger, but it also provides a sensory experience while feeding our social and emotional needs. It simply makes us feel good. And that’s great.
Unless you’re trying to follow a healthier lifestyle.
Then eating out becomes a source of stress, not comfort. You find yourself facing a choice between honoring your goals and subjecting yourself to an environment seemingly designed to talk you out of them.
You want to hang out with your friends. You want to enjoy the bustling atmosphere. You want to taste that delicious food. But you don’t want to sacrifice all that effort you’ve put in to making a better you.
So what do you do?
Easy. You go. You have fun. And you do so with your dietary goals safely intact.
But you have to consider implementing one or two strategies first. These ideas allow you to both enjoy the experience and the food; though maybe not quite as robustly as before. All it takes is a little preparation ahead of time. Because as the great Sun Tzu once said, “Plan for what’s difficult while it is still easy, do what is great while it is small.”
Oh Sun, always charming us with his wise words.
Anyway, here are ten ideas you might use when visiting your favorite watering hole:
Ten Tips for Dining Out Without Pigging Out
1. Decide what you want to order before you even arrive.
Most restaurants provide menus on their websites, which gives you an opportunity to see what food options are available while you’re still at home. This way peer pressure, wafting scents, and passing food trays aren’t nearby to cloud your judgment. Decide what you are going to order ahead of time and stick to it. No healthy meal options available? No problem. Look at online menus for other area restaurants to see if you can find a better fit.
2. Be open about your health goals with family and friends
Don’t be afraid to let a person know you’re working hard to eat healthier, so you’d like to meet up at an establishment that offers a variety of menu choices to give you – and them – options. Chances are, he or she will be entirely supportive of your goals, and may also become more mindful about what they order too. If you have a crappy friend who is hell-bent on a certain restaurant, no worries! Keep reading to find out how to navigate through even the greasiest spoons successfully. Or just get rid of the crappy friend.
3. Consider substituting an unhealthy side dish with a less-starchy option.
Go ahead and order that burger, but ask to have a side of steamed veggies or fresh fruit in place of the chips or fries that normally go with it. While a baked potato or rice pilaf are both better than French fries, they are still heavy in carbs, calories, and often fat thanks to the butter and sour cream that accompany them. However, if steamed veggie or fruit options are limited, baked potatoes and rice are definitely better than other greasy side options, just be sure to ask for the butter on the side.
4. Say buh-bye to the bun.
Speaking of burgers, eating one without the top half of the bun is an easy way to reduce calories without negatively impacting the taste. Even better, skip the bun all together. This works for most sandwiches too.
5. Share or save and cut the calories in half.
Cut a meal’s calories in half instantly by splitting it with a friend or asking for half to be placed in a takeout box before it even arrives at the table. If you feel like this makes the portion size too small, then ask for an additional side of veggies, side salad, or fruit plate to give you something extra to chew on.
6. Consider ordering a side salad before the main dish arrives.
Eating a side salad ahead of the main event reduces the volume in your stomach with a nice amount of fiber (which keeps you feeling full longer). By the time your meal arrives you will likely feel a good part of your hunger has subsided, so it’s much easier to make smart decisions like removing half the bun or immediately placing half your meal in a to-go box. Just make sure you ask for salad dressing on the side and skip the croutons, tortilla ribbons, or other toppings that offer little nutritional value yet a lot of extra calories.
7. Do not. I repeat. Do not go to a buffet. Enough said.
8. Choose grilled protein options instead of anything fried or breaded.
While it’s hard to argue that meat encased in a tomb of crispy seasoned batter tastes anything but delicious, their grilled counterparts are pretty darn satisfying too. Remember my earlier statement about how restaurant food tastes unlike anything you can make at home? The same is true even for grilled options. In fact, I bet if you order a grilled protein the next time you eat out, you’ll say “I’d definitely order that again” when you’re finished. It’s like working out; you really don’t want to do it, but once you have you’re glad you did.
9. Order water. For the love of god, don’t drink your calories. Period.
10. Don’t go to any restaurant hungry.
You’d be surprised how much your choices improve when you don’t feel like you could eat a horse (really, who came up with that awful cliché anyway?!). Eat something small an hour or so ahead of time – a healthy fat or protein is ideal since they make you feel fuller longer – so you arrive at your dining destination free of the hunger gremlins. When they are silenced, the Healthy You can be heard loud and clear.
What other strategies do you use to maintain healthy food choices when you’re eating somewhere other than home? Are you struggling with healthy eating no matter where you are and don’t know how to change old habits? Contact me and we can talk. Or consider joining the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep forum, a private group on Facebook where you can ask fitness and diet-related questions, find motivation, and get much needed support from me and others just like you.