For many of my clients, going out to eat feels like a mini vacation where anything goes and healthy eating goals fall by the wayside. Trouble is, many are dining out more often and the effects of those splurge meals snowball, leading to weight gain or preventing weight loss.
According to one recent study, a single meal at a sit-down restaurant can pack nearly a day’s worth of calories, and meals consumed away from home are higher in unhealthy fats and sodium and lower in filling fiber. But restaurant meals don’t have to be dietary disasters.
These 7 savvy tricks can help you enjoy dining away from home without going overboard.
Review the menu before you go
Most restaurants post menus online. Do a little recon and scope out healthy options in advance (and when you’re not already hungry). Mentally pre-ordering can prevent you from feeling stressed or rushed when you’re there. It may also lessen the chances that you’ll throw caution to the wind and order what sounds good in the moment, rather than what will feel good later.
Forgo the extras
Some of my clients tell me they wind up nibbling on chips and salsa or tearing into a slice of bread not because they’re favorites, but simply because they’re there. That’s easy to do when food is within arm’s reach and you’re hungry, but eating extras that aren’t worth it, well, just isn’t worth it. Next time you dine out, set a mental agenda to decline anything that isn’t a favorite or worth the splurge. If you don’t really love it, you won’t regret passing.
Strategize your splurge
If you know you’re going to splurge, plan it by choosing one special food and building your meal around it. For example, if you’re going to a place with fantastic French fries, which are rich in carbs and fat, pair them with veggies and lean protein to create balance. The same goes for dessert. Ordering grilled fish and steamed veggies with a side of fries or following it with dessert may seem odd, but it makes a whole lot more sense than going all out and leaving the restaurant feeling stuffed and sluggish. Forget all or nothing: in between is the best, and sanest, place to be.
Some of my clients tell me that they end up overeating at restaurants because they’re hesitant to “make a fuss” when they order. But these days, customizing your meal when dining out is the norm, so don’t feel bad about asking for swaps or making special requests.
For example, ask for a turkey burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun, trade fries for steamed veggies, order side dishes in place of an entrée, and nix unwanted toppings, sauces, or garnishes. At one of my favorite restaurants I always order the same salad, but with five changes. Each time I tell the server, “I’m so sorry to be a pain, but…” they always respond with a friendly “No problem!” and say they want happy customers who get what they want and keep coming back. Win, win.
Become the pacesetter
Recent research shows that we tend to mimic the eating rate of whoever we dining with. For example, one study found that when two women eat together, when one women’s fork moves towards her mouth, the other is likely to take a bite within five seconds. This unconscious effect could trigger you to eat faster, and gobble down more overall food than you would on your own.
To counter it, consciously set a slower pace. Put your fork down between bites, take eating breaks to talk or sip water, and resist picking up speed, even if your dining companion is chowing down faster. Taking it slow has been shown to result in naturally eating less, while feeling more satisfied, the perfect way to end a restaurant meal.
Stick with H2O
Not only are sugary drinks bad for your health, research shows they’re not filling. So when you drink 250 calories worth of sugar, you won’t compensate by eating less food, and those liquid calories just get tacked onto a meal. When dining out, stick with good old fashioned H2O, and drink a glass or two before you start eating. Studies have shown that this trick can result in taking in fewer calories without trying. Sipping water between bits can also help to slow your eating pace, and keep you hydrated, which is key for both digestion and metabolism.
Sometimes clients tell me they overeat when dining out because they don’t want to waste food they paid for. I get it—wasting food or feeling like you’re throwing money away doesn’t feel good. However, if you eat more than your body needs you’re still wasting food.
The difference is instead of getting thrown in the trash, the surplus gets socked away in your fat cells, and you have to carry the waste around with you 24/7. When I share this analogy with clients, this powerful realization often leads to paying closer attention to their hunger and fullness levels, ordering more appropriate portion sizes, stopping when full, and quitting the clean plate club—all changes that can lead to effortlessly shedding pounds and inches, especially when dining out.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.