Wow! It’s been a hectic week for sure- not out of the ordinary by any means- but what was uncharacteristic for this farm girl was the number of times I found myself eating from a restaurant menu!
This week’s schedule included not one, but two working lunches (both of which involved an all-you-can-eat buffet), a mid-week sushi date with a few girlfriends, and a date night with endless chicken wings & the usual order of seemingly bottomless onion rings! While tasty, none of it was exactly diet-friendly…
To be honest, there used to be a time where eating-out was a fear-inducing experience- the kind that could potentially derail all hard-earned diet progress and lead me in a downward spiral towards a binge-eating marathon…
The taste of anything remotely “unhealthy” was enough to trigger cravings of the strongest magnitude! One piece of buttery bread would lead to a side of french fries, washed down with a mountain of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy and finally everything topped off with an entire dessert menu of cheesecake and gooey fudge brownie sundaes… okay, maybe not that dramatic, but truth-be-told I once winced at the thought of enjoying a nice meal anywhere besides my own kitchen! For me, the whole thing was just enough to squash any motivation and will-power I had left while trying to create healthy habits.
Rest assured! I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be the case! Being social is a part of life; and I firmly believe that any fitness journey, for it to be permanent, must make use of lifestyle changes.. We don’t get a pause button on life! – you can’t diet for 12 weeks and then decide to start living! You must live thru the entire thing!
Below are my Top 5 Tips and Tricks to staying fit while still enjoying restaurant-styled meals!
1. Understand YOUR habits!
I don’t know if I’ve finally reached that “boring” age in life where suddenly the thought of going out feels more like work than play, but for whatever reason, it’s not my norm to eat-out (fast-food or casual-dining) more than once a week. Truth be told, while I don’t feel old, that all changes when I’m stuck in the middle of a crowded bar with nothing but 21-year-olds to either side of me.
Perhaps more a reflection of my stage in life as well, but it’s odd how quickly you realize the expensive of living a “social” lifestyle. Gone are the care-free college days of bar hopping and knowing the delivery guy by name… responsibility sets in and it becomes easy to scoff at the idea of $8 beers and $22 entrees.
For me, nights “in” with good friends is sufficient, leaving time spent eating-out reserved for special occasions- birthdays, celebrations, family affairs- typically only once or twice a month at most.
And for that reason, for me, most restaurant meals are consumed and enjoyed without restriction! I fully believe in the ideology that one unhealthy meal won’t make you fat in the same way one healthy meal won’t magically make you skinny! Because my treat meals are infrequent they serve as a way to ward off feelings of deprivation that may result from a structured eating style.
However, a quick Google search reveals that many Americans eat out on the upwards of 4 to 5 times per week, making the dining-out experience not a treat but more of a lifestyle. Understanding this difference will help you bring the right mindset to the table!
Is this meal something that needs to fit within the realm of my meal plan so I can stay current with my fitness goals? If yes, I tend to be a bit more deliberate with my food choices and at least scan the menu options beforehand (it’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days! every restaurant has most all nutrition facts readily accessibly in handy pdf formats!) Going into the meal with a game plan helps keep me stay focused and on target.
Or is this meal a one-time deal where I can allow myself to go off track knowing I’ll resume my healthy eating habits once I’m through? More simply put, if I go off-track will this meal be considered a cheat or a treat?
2. Don’t skip meals during the day to save your calories for later.
In theory it makes sense- “bank” your calories for that one splurge meal by consuming fewer (or even completely eliminating!) meals earlier in your day! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works and there’s a few things flawed with such reasoning-
For one, showing up to any restaurant severely famished and deprived is bound to turn into disaster! When’s the last time you thought clearly on an empty stomach? Snickers may have been onto to something long before any of us realized it, but it’s true- you’re not you when you’re hungry!
Hunger is a severely underestimated emotion that has the power to throw rational thinking out the window! Science has proven time and time again that is has a great deal of affect on our decision-making processes, often leading to loss of impulse control!
Translation- you will be far more likely to throw caution to the wind and indulge way past the point you had originally intended! Solution- shave off a few calories here and there, but don’t completely alter your eating habits just because you plan on indulging later on!
And second, skimping on food is a real downer on our body’s fat burning ability! The absolute last thing you want before a calorie splurge is a slow-working metabolism!
So why exactly does this happen? Simply put, food is fuel; it is what gives us energy to do almost anything and everything! Our metabolisms are complicated creatures. They tend to live in the now- meaning when we avoid food, our metabolism fears it will run out of fuel supply. To compensate it signals the body to hoard what fat it has (for energy) in case no more arrives!
Our metabolisms are much like a slow-building fire- at full force they can burn like no other, but it takes time for them to build and rev-up to their strongest capacity. Hence why suddenly that surplus of food you plan on enjoying when greeted by a sluggish metabolism spells trouble!
3. Skip the “lite” menu options! Yes, you read that right!
I can still remember the night I went out to dinner with an old friend and ordered from the “diet” section of a local eatery. When the food arrived, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed not by the quality of the meal but by the lack of food that was on the plate! Apparently my face showed my disappoint because to this day that same friend still laughs about the experience. And to this day, I swear that the picture on the menu made the entire option look more filling than it was ever meant to be!
That night has long past, and for the life of me I can’t remember exactly what the meal entailed but I do remember leaving the restaurant still hungry! What’s more, we made it home and weren’t in the house more than five minutes before I was tearing open every kitchen cupboard looking to satisfy the gnawing hunger I still felt! An added meal I had not planned for by any means!
Now- it may not be necessary to skip the “diet section” all together, BUT it’s my recommendation to be fully aware of what you are ordering! The lite options are handy and efficient; they serve as a quick way to distinguish the more healthful choices from those higher in fat, sugars, and sodium.
Still restaurants are a business and their goal is to entice you! They want to sell you a healthy meal with a low caloric value so you feel better about eating out. The end goal is to not necessarily satisfy your hunger; it’s Marketing 101- give the customers what they want. That 6oz steak or small shrimp skewer may look great in the photo! And better yet, it’s appealing how low the total calorie count for each menu item is! But is it enough?
Solution- add volume to your meal without much affect to the overall nutritional value. Don’t be afraid to double the steamed-broccoli side or add on a side salad or soup! You’ll be much happier when you leave the table full and satisfied.
4. Rely on the basics.
Overthinking is the creator of many problems… especially true when you’re trying to order off a restaurant menu!
Eating out is meant to be an enjoyable experience. After all, someone else prepares the meal; it’s served to you on something much fancier than your usual paper plate; and better yet, someone else is in-charge of the clean-up!
So don’t overcomplicate the process by analyzing every detail of each meal option. Choose the one that looks best to you!
Still, if you’re needing help navigating toward some better-for-you options, keep close to anything described as steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached, or roasted.
Be wary of things listed as fried, au gratin, crispy, scalloped, pan-fried, sautéed, buttered, creamed, or stuffed- those tend to be much higher in fat.
And in terms to portion control, keep it simple- palm-size portion of protein, fist of carbs, and another fist of veggies.
5. Food doesn’t come home.
While it may seem wasteful to leave leftovers from a meal which you paid for sitting on the table, let me tell you – there is nothing more deterring to one’s diet efforts than to see that white Styrofoam container sitting in your fridge the morning after a night out!
Whether you’re a seasoned pro at healthful eating or you are new to the diet scene, we are all defined by our habits- good or bad. All it takes is for one treat meal to become two which leads to three… And before you know it you’ve slid back into your old eating habits- the ones you were trying to change in the first place!
Do yourself a favor and keep temptations out of your house. You’ll thank yourself later!
I’d love to hear more of your eating-out tips! Add yours to the comments below!