When you’re working on cleaning up your diet and avoiding gut bombs like gluten, dairy, or sugar, eating out can be tricky. I’m a big believer in the 80-20 Rule when it comes to diet. If you’re on point 80% of the time, you’ve got 20% wiggle room to live life without feeling guilty, restricted or deprived, i.e. having that extra glass of wine, eating some birthday cake, or having pizza night with the fam.
That said, you don’t want to take a mile when you’re given an inch. This “rule” isn’t a free pass to binge all weekend and then be super strict all week. Instead, it’s a recipe for balance and freedom without totally derailing your health and weight goals. So when you do indulge, you don’t feel guilty and you know that it will be fine because you’re getting right back on the clean eating bandwagon for the next few meals. A good example would be having a Friday pizza night and then waking up the next morning and starting your day with warm water + lemon, followed by a green smoothie for breakfast. Balance.
Eating Healthy at Restaurants
Ok, so now that we’ve gotten that all straight, let’s talk about how to navigate menus and eat healthfully when dining out.
Set yourself up for success by choosing a restaurant that has at least a few healthy options. If you’re going for lunch with colleagues or dinner with friends, you can suggest a few places that you know have something you can eat without being too pushy or bossy. Even if the restaurant or café isn’t known for being healthy, most places have a least a few decent choices, like grilled vegetables, soups and salads you can modify. Farm to Table restaurants are always a good bet!
Check out the menu in advance
Most restaurants nowadays have their menus posted online. If you’re an ‘impulse orderer,’ I recommend perusing the menu beforehand and deciding what menu item would be the best choice for your taste buds and waistline, then stick to it. (Going to a chain restaurant? Here are some of the best options from a few popular restaurants.)
Back away from the bread basket
Once you get to the restaurant, ask the waiter to please not bring the basket of bread. Empty. Calories. If you’re starving when you arrive, ask for some olives, hummus or guacamole + veggies, or immediately order a house salad. Let’s get that blood sugar stable so you can make better choices!
Keep it simple
When you open the menu at a restaurant where you haven’t checked out the options in advance, do a scan for the simplest items. Simple doesn’t equal bland. What I mean is looking for dishes that include a veggie or two and some clean protein that has been grilled or baked. Anything described as breaded, fried, tempura, crunchy, creamy or glazed will be immediately skipped over without looking back.
Make friends with your waiter
Not literally (unless you want to!), but be super friendly and inquisitive about the menu, without being high-maintenance or annoying. For example, if you’re eyeing a dish that includes garlic mashed potatoes but you’d rather save your carbs for a dessert, politely ask if there’s any possibility of subbing out the potatoes for a healthier side from the menu instead. You’re not asking for the chef to cook you something from scratch, basically you’re just seeing if you can swap one thing for another they already serve as a side dish or as part of a different entrée. This usually isn’t problematic.
Cut it in half
We all know portion sizes at restaurants are enormous! A good serving of protein for a woman is around 4-5 ounces and, for a man, 5-6 ounces. Compare that to the 18 ounce New York Strip you see on menus–that’s literally at least triple the amount you need! If you really want it, see if someone at the table would like to split it with you. It’s likely that there’s another person who is watching the scale or their wallet. If you’re splitting a main, this gives you more freedom to try other things on the menu to start!
Consider two appetizers in lieu of an entrée
Sometimes I like to build my own meal instead of feeling chained to the entrée options. For example, maybe none of the entrees are calling your name as they’re all too large or too heavy. Check out the appetizer section. At some restaurants, this is where all the veggies hang out…while the entrees include a massive serving of meat and only little veggie garnish.
At one of my favorite restaurants in Denver, this is my strategy. I order the tuna tartare and a grilled squash salad, both from the small plates section of the menu. If your dining partner is getting an appetizer and an entrée, you can get your choices coursed out with theirs so you’re not finished with your meal before they get their main. I love this strategy because you can try a few different things without leaving feeling stuffed.
So, this one might sound a little extreme but bear with me. You can be discrete about it. Salad dressings are one of the biggest culprits for inflammatory oils (canola, soybean, sunflower, etc.), preservatives, artificial additives and processed sugar. Unless it’s a café or restaurant I really trust, I am even skeptical of their olive oil. This is because much of the olive oil in the US is cut with cheaper oils. For this reason, if you order a salad, I recommend asking the waiter for a few lemon slices which you can squeeze over the top.
While not technically a condiment, having some liquid monk fruit in your bag could come in handy if you buy a coffee or tea daily and want it sweetened. The choices at most cafes and coffee shops are pretty awful–artificial sweeteners (Equal, Sweet N Low, Splenda) and white table sugar. They sometimes have ‘Sugar in the Raw’ which makes you feel like you’re making a smarter choice, but sugar is sugar! Buy your coffee or tea and doctor it up with your own natural, fructose- and calorie-free alternative!
Slow down and be present
Eating out with your partner or group of friends should be a fun and enjoyable experience. It’s arguably less about the food and more about the social connection! Practicing mindful eating while dining out may be easier or harder than eating on your own, depending on how you look at it. It’s easier because you are using your table manners by putting your fork down between bites and waiting to finish chewing before speaking. This inevitably slows you down and leads to smaller bites.
On the other hand, it can be more challenging because you are exposed to lots of yummy (and tempting) food and you might be drinking alcohol which lowers your inhibitions around food. You are distracted by conversion which may make you unaware of how much you’re eating. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, know that research on mindful eating at restaurants shows that women who are aware of what they order, how much they’re eating and how it impacts their health lose more weight and have fewer barriers to weight management.
Practice the Three Bite Rule with dessert
Going out for dinner can be a treat so if dessert is part of the evening, that’s fine! Indulging in a decadent dessert can absolutely be part of your healthy and balanced lifestyle as long as it’s in moderation. I recommend sharing a dessert with your dinner mate(s) and follow the Three Bite Rule. Have three bites, mindfully savoring and enjoying each one while not feeling guilty. Then put your fork down and call it a night.
The preceding tip alluded to this, but the point is to enjoy yourself when you’re out for dinner! You can’t control everything (who knows what your broccoli was cooked in or if there was a bit of flour in the sauce), but know that your body is resilient and can handle a less-than-ideal meal on occasion. Remember the principle of 80-20 and, if you went a little crazy at dinner the night before, wake up the next morning, hit the reset button, do a workout, have a healthy breakfast and you’re all good!
Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash1