If you are attempting to make healthy eating choices, your biggest challenge might be learning how to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle while also enjoying a meal out. For some, this might just be an occasional lunch or dinner with friends or family. But for many, eating out includes weekly or daily lunches, regular work meetings that involve food, or companies that bring in lunch and even dinner for their employees on a daily basis.
The good news is eating out does not have to derail your healthy diet goals. Successfully forming new habits of any kind takes around three to four weeks; so once you get into the pattern of knowing how to healthfully eat out, you can overcome this common challenge.
Avoid the Bread Basket
Certainly one of the hardest parts to resist is the bread basket that comes before the meal is served. You could easily eat an entire meal’s worth of empty calories in bread before the actual food even arrives. Empty calories are those that offer little to no nutrient benefit. Bread is a carbohydrate, and high-carb diets are top contributors to weight gain and an array of other health problems over time. Instead of counting on will-power alone, ask the server not to bring the bread, period.
Read the Menu Beforehand
This might sound obsessive, but studies show that when we are hungry and/or distracted, we consistently make poor(er) food choices. If we familiarize ourselves with the menu online before arriving to the restaurant, we’ve already chosen the option we know to be healthiest, and can focus on enjoying ourselves without making impulsive decisions.
Substitute Side Dishes
Get rid of the idea that you don’t want to be annoying when ordering food and making substitutions. As long as you are polite about it, it is completely acceptable to ask how dishes are prepared, and to request substitutes. For example, if a dish is served over rice, ask that it be served over steamed vegetables. Ask for your salad dressing on the side. Instead of bread, ask for a side of fruit or veggies. Most restaurants can easily provide these alternatives. If you’re unsure as to whether your requests will truly be obliged, there’s no shame in faking an allergy.
Stick to Meat and Veggie Options
Stick to orders that are made up of real foods, such as meat and vegetables, whenever possible. Depending on where you live, the restaurant might boast organic and grass-fed meats. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to order red meats such as beef or pork. However, if the meat quality is questionable, it is best to stick to leaner options such as fish, chicken, and turkey. The veggie option might be a salad, or roasted, steamed or stir-fried vegetables (request they don’t use too much oil if stir-frying).
Order Two Appetizers
Especially if portions are big, order two appetizers (one might even be enough) instead of an entree. This could be a salad or veggie dish, along with a meat option such as chicken skewers. If ordering soup, inquire as to what ingredients have been used, as many soups that sound healthy are often not.
Don’t Overdo it on the Alcohol
If drinking, stick to a glass or two of red or white wine, or clear liquors with lemon and club soda. Most cocktails are packed with sugar and calories, and beer can derail any weight loss plan. Drink one glass of water in between alcoholic beverages, as being dehydrated makes us crave sugar and carbohydrates. One study showed that drinking 17 ounces of water before a meal reduced the calories consumed by a whopping 44%.
Put Your Fork Down Between Each Bite and Eat Slowly
Our mothers were right: Chewing our food is of utmost importance. Chewing food until it becomes a mush in our mouth not only supports digestion, but is key for portion control. Because our brain takes a while to register satiety (fullness), if we scarf down our meals, we are far more likely to overeat. Chew thoroughly, and put your fork down in between each bite.
Last but certainly not least is a note on portion control. Sometimes, making healthy choices when eating out has less to do with your food choices, and more to do with how much you are eating. Restaurants tend to serve bigger portions than you would serve at home; and since you spend more time lingering at the table, you are more likely to eat long after you are full. Ask for a to-go box when your meal comes, or better yet, ask that half of your order be boxed before it even arrives to the table. This can do wonders for your waistline, and your budget.
Eating out does not have to undermine the hard work you’ve put into eating a balanced diet. By developing good habits, you can build the confidence necessary to make healthy choices second nature.