The difficulty starts when you venture out to a restaurant. Eating out can easily derail your diet because it can be hard to practice moderation around a ginormous sizzling steak or mountain of thick-cut fries. Don’t believe us? Eating just one meal away from home each week can add up to a two-pound weight gain over the year.
There is a middle ground, of course. Instead of throwing all caution to the wind when you’re dining out, these tips can help you still eat out without overdoing it.
14 Healthy Strategies for When You Dine Out
1. Scope the menu beforehand
Nowadays, it’s easy to find menus online, and, if not available, just call and ask the staff. Nothing is more annoying than settling into your seat only to find out the restaurant serves only burgers, pizza, and wings.
2. Take the lead in choosing restaurants
Let’s face it, we don’t pick our friends because of their fine taste in healthy restaurants! If your BFFs are die-hard greasy joint fans, you need to step up and steer them toward a few options that will work for you. Select a place with a variety of dishes if you and your pals have polar opposite food preferences.
3. Don’t go in hangry
Being short and snappy doesn’t just ruin relationships; it’s a sign that your hunger could be messing with your mood and ultimately, behavior. Preliminary research shows that ghrelin (aka the “hunger hormone”) can make you behave more impulsively. You may end up devouring those bottomless fries even if deep down inside you know it’s not the best choice. Nip ghrelin in the bud by munching on a small snack that combines fiber and protein (two satiating nutrients) before heading to the restaurant. Simple options such as an apple and cashews, plain Greek yogurt and berries, or veggie sticks and some cheese should do the trick.
4. Drink water before your meal
Did you know drinking two cups of H20 before dining out may actually help you eat less? One study found that when subjects drank two cups of water before each meal, they lost more weight over the course of 12 weeks compared to those who did not drink pre-meal. The thinking is filling up on water beforehand helped them eat less. This works if you’re dining at home too so if you’re trying to lose weight, stay hydrated and drink water before your meals.
5. Resist the urge to order appetizers
Popular appetizers can be heavy hitters in the calorie category because they’re often deep-fried, thickly-battered, smothered in sauce, or all of the above. Even if your famished brain tells you otherwise, it’s likely that the main meal will be enough. If you do order an app, look for a broth-based soup or non-starchy veggie option as a starter. Another option? Consider ordering an app or two as your main entree.
6. Pass on the breadbasket
Some restaurants serve bread and butter or chips and salsa to keep patrons happy while waiting. Tell the waiter you’d rather take a pass; avoid them being set on the table at all (unless your dining partner(s) objects). Not only will these well-intentioned freebies spoil your appetite, but they can also be a major source of empty calories if you graze mindlessly while chatting with friends.
7. Go halfsies with your meal
These days, all major chain restaurants and some vending machines must display the calorie info, which really validates what we already know: that restaurant portions are way too big. (Yes, we’re looking at all 1,400 calories of you, Outback 16-ounce Prime Ribeye Steak.)
Even non-chain restaurants serve up more than you need. A recent study surveying the calorie count on 157 meals from small-chain, independent restaurants found the average meal was 1,300 calories! Long story short: Either share your meal with a friend or pack up half for later.
8. Don’t drink your calories
Indulging in the fountain soda or house marg might seem like a good idea at the time but those calories add up quickly and they aren’t doing you any favors; liquid calories don’t actually fill you up. If you’re still looking to indulge a bit, a glass of wine or a cocktail without all of the added sugary mixers and sweeteners is the way to go. Otherwise, stick with water, sparkling water, or unsweetened tea.
9. Choose the right type of salad
A nutrient-dense option like a veggie-packed salad is a solid strategy for healthy eating. On that note, ask for dressing on the side. Eating lettuce doused in ranch can bump up the calories rather quickly. Steer clear of toppings such as fried chow mein noodles, breaded and deep-fried proteins, candied nuts, or a crouton overload.
Boost your bowl full of greens with some lean protein (grilled chicken, wild salmon, and tempeh are great picks) or a sprinkle of healthy fats (try almonds, sunflower seeds, or ¼ of an avocado) to make it more balanced and satisfying.
10. Lean on veggie-heavy sides
Sides can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you order. Most restaurants have a variety of side dishes including french fries, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, rice, coleslaw, roasted or grilled veggies, etc. Pick as many non-starchy (aka, non-potato base) vegetable sides as possible, and ask if the kitchen staff can go easy on the butter, oil, or sauce.
11. Pay attention to cooking buzzwords on menus
How a food is cooked matters just as much as what that food is. For example, deep frying potatoes adds almost two times as many calories as baking them does. Make the comparison yourself:
- 100 grams french fries = 289 calories, 14 grams fat, 37 grams carbs, 3.5 grams protein
- 100 grams baked potato = 97 calories, 0 grams fat, 21 grams carbs, 2.6 grams protein
To help you decipher the restaurant’s menu, be mindful of the buzzwords the American Heart Association want you to keep an eye on:
- AVOID: au gratin, fried, scalloped, crispy, pan-fried, buttered, creamed, stuffed
- SELECT: steamed, broiled, baked, poached, roasted, grilled
12. Chew slowly and savor the company
Experts from Harvard Medical School believe that it takes 20 minutes before your brain registers the “I’m full” signal from your stomach. Eating slowly and chewing your food thoroughly may prevent you from overeating. On a social level, rushing through the meal can deprive you of the joy of eating and being with the ones you love.
13. Eliminate the “clean-your-plate” mentality
Ever been scolded by a penny-pinching parent for not finishing your plate? This can be especially problematic if you sometimes struggle to stuff down every last bite from a restaurant portion that was too big to begin with. Either pack up the extra food to take home or learn to be OK with leaving a few nibbles on the plate.
14. Don’t beat yourself up if you overdo it.
Going out and dining with friends should be enjoyed so if you do go overboard a bit, do. not. sweat. it. Just wake up the next day and move on. There’s no need to hit the gym to “punish” yourself for past choices, and there’s no need to beat yourself up. Get back on track with your healthy eating habits when you’re ready and move your body because it feels good. Looking for more tips on how to get back on track in a healthy way: Overate? What to Do to Get Your Weight Loss Back on Track