7 tips to making healthy choices when dining out
I may be compensated through my affiliate links in this post, but all opinions are my own. This compensation helps with expenses to keep this blog up and running! Full disclosure statement here.
Let me just preface this ENTIRE blog post with - You are NOT that customer. I've talked to several friends and clients of mine who refuse to go out to eat when dieting because they don't want to be mindful of what they eat. I understand - sometimes going out is just too much temptation. If you fall firmly into that category, first, congratulations on identifying one of your weaknesses! However, healthy eating doesn't have to be a barrier to going out and having a good time. There are many ways to make sure that you are keep your food in your own control when going out to eat.
One of the biggest gripes I have with restaurants - and this is any restaurant - is that they often load up food with unnecessary oils and fats. Before we go any further, let me also point out that I'm not talking about high-end restaurants. Chefs take as much pride in cooking and preparing their food as we do in eating it. In those instances, I think you should live a little.
The restaurants that I am talking about, however, are what make up 99% of our daily eating. Whether you live in Austin, Chicago, or a small city, this includes all of your favorite food haunts: food trucks, sports bars, coffee shops, fast-food, and even sit-down restaurants. Many restaurants have recently started adding calories next to the items on the menu. How often have you looked at those numbers in astonishment? Exactly! So, in order to avoid that sticker shock, here are my best tips for keeping it healthy!
Plan ahead - look at the menu before you go.
So, I get it. This one probably seems like a cop out. But it's true! It's one of the easiest things that you can do to ensure that you stay on track with healthy eating. It can be incredibly overwhelming to sit down with a large menu and have to make a split second decision. At some restaurants, I don't even always know what certain ingredients are! To add on top of that, if you're with friends and family that are not eating healthy, they might sway your otherwise healthy order. I know I've had that happen to me more than once. So, before you go, pull up the menu on your phone. Pick 1-2 items (in case something is sold out!) that you would want to eat that night. Go in with a plan!
Keep bread or chips off the table (refuse when you sit down!)
We live in Texas, land of the free-standing chip basket. Land of queso. Land of guacamole. Bottomless chip baskets are such a staple in so many restaurants around here that oftentimes, you don't even think about it. And, because you don't even think about it, you don't think twice about reaching your hand into a basket of chips. Or, in my case, immediately reaching for the salt shaker to cover them in more sodium. The problem with chip baskets is simple. You can't just have one chip. It's impossible to moderate your intake. You're much better off refusing at the beginning - before the chips make it to your table. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of hand reach.
Just like the chip basket, it's hard to moderate your intake. One beer commonly leads to another. And another. Beer, or another alcoholic drink, also directly impacts your hypothalamus - that little region of the brain that controls body temperature, thirst, and hunger. Alcohol directly stimulates this region, causing you to think that you are much hungrier (or thirstier!) than you truly are. Even if you limit your intake to one drink, you could find yourself prone to ordering more food than you normally would! Besides, alcohol does absolutely nothing positive for your body. The calories in beer (and mixed drinks) are empty calories for the body and only slows the metabolism. So, keep it off the table!
Bring your own dressing.
Eating healthy while eating out does not mean solely subsisting on salads. In fact, many restaurant salads contain more calories than some entrees. And why is that? Most restaurant salads are full of cheap, fat-filled toppings, such as: shredded cheese, croutons, cream sauces, and most notoriously, the dressing! I hate "fat-free" anything - our food shouldn't be "free" of anything, except preservatives, artificial ingredients, and additives! So, sometimes, choosing the "fat-free" option at a restaurant is not a good choice. I always try to carry my own dressing with me, especially if I know I'm going to have a salad (see rule #1).
Some of my favorite dressings come from Primal Kitchen - many of their dressings are made from healthy avocado oil, are gluten-free, and low-carb. These are such a good idea if you're following a Paleo, Keto or Whole30 diet, since these are dairy-free, sugar-free and completely devoid of crap ingredients. And, most importantly, they taste delicious! Some of my personal favorites from Primal Kitchen are the ranch dressing, chipotle mayo, and balsamic dressing (which is also a good marinade!). They also come in sampler packs if you're looking to try a bit of everything! Because they are full of great ingredients, you can eat them guilt-free!
Make healthy modifications.
The biggest kicker when it comes to restaurant foods is the mystery ingredients surrounding your food. Since you aren't there to watch it being prepared, you need to account for as many variables as possible.
Ask for grilled or steamed options.
Most restaurants (not all!) will prepare their meats in house, which means that even if you see it on the menu as "battered" or "fried," you can request your food to be grilled or streamed. Whenever possible, choosing your meat to be cooked this way is going to be your healthiest option.
The same goes for vegetables. Ask how they are prepared. If it's possible to have your vegetables steamed or grilled, do so! Because that leads me into my next point...
Ask for no butter or oil on your food.
I always add this one because I used to work in a restaurant that marinated its chicken. Yes, the chicken was grilled, but it was also covered in an Italian dressing - meaning that the "grilled chicken" was coated in a bath of sugar, salt, and preservatives before it hit the grill. Many times, when fish is grilled, a restaurant will baste it in butter or oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.
If vegetables come to your sautéed, it's likely that they were done with a healthy pour of oil. In some cases, they might even been steamed with butter. Some of this is unpreventable - but trying to do your best to control the circumstances will leave you with a much healthier meal. So, simply asking how an item is prepared is important. If the chicken/fish/beef can be prepared without the added butter oil, do it. Chances are, you won't even notice a difference!
Ask for all sauces and dressings on the side.
This is another easy modification that you can ask for at any restaurant. By choosing to have your sauces on the side, you control exactly how much of a sauce or dressing you want to add. Often, the sauce or dressing, when added directly to your food is well over the allotted portion size. Add it to your meal as necessary (or don't!), but you prevent your meal from being loaded down with extra calories.
Another handy tip that I use: Don't add the sauce directly to your meal. For dressings and sauces, I like to dip my fork into the ramekin and then pick up a bite of food. It ensures two things: I get a bit of sauce/dressing with each bite and two, I'm not drenching my food with sauce. When having a salad, you don't need to have it dripping in dressing! This is the easiest way to bring down your overall calorie content. It is far better to have a little bit of a great dressing/sauce, then a lot of a "light" one.
Keep it simple.
When in doubt, at any restaurant, you can follow one easy rule: Keep it simple. What does that mean? If you don't know what to choose on the menu, stick to this formula: protein + vegetables + carbs. Look at the menu and find a protein that sounds good to you, whether that is chicken, fish or beef. Then, find a healthy carb (if that's an option), such as rice or sweet potatoes. If it's not, load up on the vegetables! Most restaurants will always be accommodating if there is something that you would like to substitute. If you can, add an additional side of steamed vegetables in place of fried foods, such as french fries. Even better, you could always add a small side salad to your meal. The more green that you can add to your plate at a restaurant, the better! If you keep the sauces on the side, you can add as desired. Most restaurants have an ala carte menu with these items already on it, so it's easy to mix and match to create a healthy dinner.
Eating out at a restaurant is not an exact science. For that, you would need to bring your own meal to the restaurant with you. But, by following the above rules, you can make the most out of your experience and not feel as limited when you go out. Keep in mind that you are doing the best that you can. It's important step in having nutritional freedom to know that you are making healthy choices. No one can be perfect at all times, and this includes meals out of the house. Focus on the items that you can control and the rest will fall into place!
Do you have any tips for eating healthy while dining out? I'd love to hear them below!