Michael Glab MS, RD, LDN
Finding Balance - Your health goals and dining out
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
“How can I maintain my healthy nutrition habits when I’m out to eat?”
This is a common question from clients, friends and family. We, as dietitians, know it's a big challenge. It’s one thing to stick to your nutrition goals when you're preparing food at home, but introduce restaurant food and the social aspect of dining out, and things feel more complicated.
There will be times where you want to go out and enjoy a meal without worrying about how many calories, grams of fat or grams of added sugar it has. That’s fine.
When you’d like to find balance between your health goals and dining out, use this comprehensive guide to help you navigate the situation without sacrificing your nutrition progress.
Check the Menu Before You Go
You go out wanting to enjoy the company of your friends or family. Just like with making meals at home, you should have a plan when you go out. Spend some time scanning the restaurant’s menu beforehand so you feel equipped to make healthy choices. Healthier dishes are generally prepared in the following ways:
On the flip side, words like “fried,” “creamed,” “buttered,” “breaded,” or “scalloped” usually indicate that the dishes are prepared with a generous amount of fat, oil and/or simple carbohydrates. This is one area where you can rack up extra calories very quickly.
Consider a Salad or Broth-Based Soup to Start
Appetizers present an immediate challenge if you’re trying to dine out and meet your health goals in the middle. Try either of these lower-calorie starters as a great way to get the meal started. Most restaurants offer a small basic house salad with lettuce and a few veggies. Ask for a vinaigrette dressing, or another dressing you like, on the side, so you can portion out the amount you'd like. You can also try a broth based soup like minestrone or garden vegetable. Those soup provide some veggies, complex carbohydrates and even some protein.
Circumvent Large Portions by Taking Home Leftovers
Restaurant portions are larger than ever. In fact, they tend to be two to three times bigger than a standard serving. Ask for a to-go box to pack up a portion of your entrée at the end of the meal. You will have an excellent lunch or dinner for the following day. You can also choose to split a larger size portion or high calorie entrée with another person.
Eat Your Usual Meals and Snacks Beforehand
It may seem like a good idea to skip a meal or cut out the carbs in a meal in anticipation of going out to dinner. However, “saving up” calories for the later meal generally backfires. Showing up to a meal overly hungry almost always leads to overeating. And you’re likely not overeating salad and steamed vegetables, it’s usually high calorie offerings that are more palatable like fried appetizers with high calorie dipping sauces.
If you already made this mistake and find yourself feeling ravenous an hour or two before heading to the restaurant, grab a small snack that includes a combination of protein, and complex carbohydrates or healthy fat to avoid overindulging. An example is an individual cup of Greek yogurt with a piece of fruit.
Make Lean Meat and Vegetables the Foundation of Your Meal
You'll want to hit the main balance point of a standard meal: protein, veggies and a complex carbohydrate.
Fish, chicken, and lean cuts of beef are all high-protein entrée options that will leave you feeling full and satisfied. Remember to look for the adjectives above that indicate a lower calorie preparation method.
Vegetables will also help you feel satisfied and full along with the protein portion. Veggie sides frequently tend to be sized as a garnish rather than a whole serving, so don’t hesitate to ask for double the usual amount of side veggies. If this is not an option, then check the “Sides” section of the menu and order another veggie side.
Finally, a strategy some people use is to consume their protein and veggies before diving into a starchy and/or rich side dish to help them eat less of these higher calorie foods.
Ask for Modifications
Unless explicitly stated on the menu, most restaurants are happy to make accommodations to their dishes. Ask for a smaller portion of sides or less cheese or reduced oil, butter or sauce in an entrée to help offset the total calorie load of the entire meal.
Choose a Cocktail OR a Dessert
You can meet your health goals in the middle by choosing either a cocktail or dessert. You still get the enjoyment of an indulgence at your meal without completely blowing out your daily energy budget.
Eat Your Calories
If you prefer a dessert to a cocktail, that’s great. However you should still watch out for sneaky liquid calories from other drinks like beer, wine, soda, coffee with cream and/or sugar and juice. Eating your calories will be more satisfying than drinking them.
Use these tips next time you are out to eat to make healthy choices while still enjoying your meal. The more your practice, the better you will be at spotting healthy vs. unhealthy restaurant options.