When it comes to eating at restaurants, many of us who are actively working on our health and fitness fall into one of two camps.
In the first camp are those of us who have prepped every meal, counted every calorie, and said no to every opportunity for a treat all week and are ready to let loose and eat all the foods. The motto of this camp is “I DESERVE IT.”
The second camp are typically those who are killing it just as much as the first group, but have no intention of letting loose and are terrified of “falling off track.” This group stresses over the possibility that they’ll make a bad decision and ruin all of their progress for the week/month/lifetime.
Which camp do you fall into?
Before I get into the rest of this article, I want to make it clear that there is a middle ground here. It does us no good to stress over every bite of food while we’re out, nor does it help our progress if we go balls-to-the-wall and eat everything in sight every time we go out.
The solution is simple (though not always easy) and it’s applicable to literally every meal you eat: make the best food choices you can in the moment, and eat those choices in moderation. Such a boring answer, right?
The rest of this article will help you make the best food selection possible and make moderation a bit easier so that you can actually focus on enjoying your time out with family and friends.
Choose Your Restaurant Wisely
If you have a say in choosing the restaurant where you’ll be dining, set yourself up for success from the get-go.
Many restaurants have added a wide selection of healthy choices to their menus, but some are not quite there yet. For example, in college I worked at a restaurant called Fat Sandwich. As you can imagine from the name, the menu there would not be very accommodating for those of us who are looking for lighter fare.
Choosing a restaurant that you already know has healthier options will make every decision you make thereafter that much easier.
Check out the Menu Online
Most restaurants today have the nutrition information for their entire menu available online. If you know where you’re going ahead of time, take a few minutes to check out the menu and get an idea of what a few of your best options will be.
Also, make a mental note of the worst options. Usually the worst options on the menu are appetizers, and even if you weren’t planning to order any, your friends or family might. Knowing that the Spinach Artichoke Dip packs in 1000+ calories (What?! But there are veggies in it!) can help you say “no thanks” when it’s offered.
A simple Google search of “[Restaurant] Nutrition Information” makes it easy to plan ahead knowing what your better options are and what you might want to avoid. Below you can see a partial snapshot of the nutrition information available online for Olive Garden.
Looking at this might bring you back to my first piece of advice: choose your restaurant wisely!
Make it Easier to Eat Less
Don’t Show up Starving
You know how they say you shouldn’t grocery shop while you’re hungry because you’ll make impulsive decisions? Apply the same principle to dining out.
You may have a solid plan in place to order the healthiest option on the menu, but if you show up starving, that bread basket will talk you right out of all your silly plans. I’m not saying to eat a full meal right before heading out; on a scale of 1-10 (1 being not hungry at all, 10 being willing to eat a wall), you’ll make better decisions if you’re closer to a 5 or 6 on the hunger scale. This could be as simple as munching some fruits or veggies and chugging a glass of water before you head out.
Commit to Half a Meal
Portion sizes at most restaurants these days are enough for 2, sometimes 3 separate meals.
There are two easy ways to eat less by committing to half of your meal. One option is to simply ask the person you’re dining with if they’d like to split an entree (bonus: it saves you both money). Easy enough.
The other option is to take half of your meal home. To ensure that you don’t end up eating your whole meal without realizing it (been there), ask the server right when you order to bring a to-go box and put half away before you even start eating. Out of sight, out of mouth.
Make the Best Choice Possible
Things to Consider Avoiding
Those of us who are trying to eat healthy already know that skipping dessert is usually a good idea, but as I mentioned earlier, often times the unhealthiest items on the menu are the appetizers. These items tend to be breaded, fried, and served with several delicious-yet-super-fattening dips and sauces. Forgoing apps and ‘zerts (Parks & Rec, anyone?) is a simple way to avoid some of the biggest calorie bombs on the menu.
Additionally, endless bread baskets or chips & salsa can lead to mindless munching that pack in the calories before you even get to the main course. Ask your server to hold the extras or, if the rest of your table wants these things, have someone move them as far out of reach as possible.
Generally, watch out for cooking methods and words like: fried, battered, breaded, smothered, buttery, creamy, loaded, and crunchy – these foods tend to be prepared with tons of extra oils and fats that pack in unwanted calories. Also, it has become a common misconception that “gluten free” is synonymous with “healthy.” This is not the case, and often gluten free items will contain extra fats and/or sugars to offset changes in flavor and texture.
Watch Out for “Healthy” Traps
A quick scan of Chilis’ nutrition information shows that 7 out of 11 salad options are well over 500 calories. One of these salads is a whopping 1400 calories! For a salad! (It’s called a Quesadilla Explosion Salad, so this may be obvious to some, but still – it’s a salad and people will inevitably order this thinking it’s a healthy option.)
When it comes to salads, less is more. If the salad contains lots of items like cheese, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, breaded chicken, nuts, dried fruits, croutons, or perhaps an entire quesadilla, think “calorie trap.”
Other possible “healthy” traps include sweet potato fries (I’m as devastated as you are) and other veggies in breaded/fried forms like fried pickles and fried asparagus, to name a few.
Gravitate toward words like: grilled, baked, boiled, poached, roasted, steamed, and whole-grain. This isn’t a 100% guarantee that the items are super light & healthy, but these terms generally signal a better option than the others.
Believe in Yourself
In my experience, many of us end up overeating when we dine out because we go in with an attitude that we’ve already failed.
“I can never say no to chips & salsa – I eat the whole basket every time!”
“I always eat my entire plate…plus half of my boyfriend’s.”
Humans like to be right. It’s our nature. So if you tell yourself that you always eat poorly, you will act in a way that proves yourself right.
“Welp, I ate all the chips again. I knew I couldn’t do this.”
It’s a vicious cycle of doubting ourselves, proving that we were right to think that way, and continuing on with the same limiting beliefs and behaviors. Change your self-limiting beliefs and you’ll start to change your behaviors as well. I can, and will, do this.
Every meal is an opportunity to start fresh. What you’ve always done doesn’t have to be what you continue to do. You have absolute control of everything you consume – and that’s an empowering idea, isn’t it?
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About the Author: Kelsey Giganti is passionate about helping people achieve the body and health they want through proper nutrition. She is a certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist and nutrition coach.