Life happens. We all have friends, social lives, the desire to do things that involve friends and social lives. It can complicate your plans when you've just started out or have been on a diet. Especially if you feel like you've been doing really well. It can feel intimidating to go out, stare at a restaurant menu and have no idea how it's going to fit into your day.
Adopting long-term healthier eating habits should include the ability to enjoy take out every once in a while. It's not an all-or-nothing scenario. You don't have to sacrifice treating yourself to an occasional restaurant meal out of fear that your dietary goals will collapse. The objective is to make more educated decisions so you don't stray too far or derail your progress and you can get back on track with your other meals the rest of the day.
If you don't know where to start, here are a couple of tips to navigate the restaurant scene and come out relatively unscathed:
1. Pre-plan what you're going to eat.
Most restaurants post their menus online and chain restaurants post their menu items' calories and nutritional information. If you know where you're going before hand, a little bit of research can be an extremely effective strategy to sticking to your diet.
Try narrowing down a couple of options that sound good to you and do a quick search for average calorie content/nutrition for the average size dish. By doing this you'll be able to decide beforehand which of your options seem to be the healthiest, within the calorie range you're looking for, and what a portion size of a particular dish typically is.
For example, a quick google search of 'calories in Pad Thai' yielded that a typical restaurant portion is about 2.5 cups and averages 838 calories per dish. Cross-checking with MyFitnessPal, 1 cup appears to average similar amounts of calories so it's a decent baseline to go off of when estimating. If you're tracking, it's a good practice to go with the tracking option that has the highest calorie content to stay within your calorie range for the day.
From there, it's up for you to decide if that's how you want to spend some of your daily calories or if you want to keep looking.
2. Remember: Portions are not the same as a servings.
What normally backfires with dining out is underestimating the amount of food or calories we're eating. This can cause problems down the line, especially if we've eaten out multiple times during the week and didn't compensate elsewhere. Suddenly, we've logged 1/3 to1/2 of the actual calories we've eaten and don't know why the weight is packing on.
Restaurant dishes often have portion sizes that are larger than a serving size of a particular food. For example, a serving of rice is 1 cup, but a restaurant's dish may serve you 2-3 cups. The serving, based on the nutritional label, is 1 cup versus the portion, provided by the restaurant, which may be 2-3 cups.
When we do the math, 1 cup of white rice is around 200 calories. The restaurant may have served you 400-600 calories of rice, which is up to 400 calories more than you thought you were eating (and that's just for one side). Apply that across the entire meal and you could easily consume all of the calories you need for the day and then some in one sitting.
What can you do?
A good way to get an estimate on what you've been served is to use your hand. Check out this info-graphic on using your hand or different sports equipment (i.e. baseballs, tennis balls, etc.) to estimate serving sizes on the fly while you're eating out.
The more accurately you can estimate your food, the less likely you are to end up in a calorie surplus.
Also, don't be afraid to ask to reduce the portion size! Especially if it's a place you've been before and they seem to go overboard on sides, ask for half of the amount they normally serve, this way you won't be tempted and you've already slashed calories off of your meal.
3. The simpler, the better.
Sure, that salad seems healthy. It's got salad in the title. How many calories could it be?
We've all been there. Salads seem safe, except it's got crispy chicken, candied walnuts, some sort of fried noodle, a quarter cup of cheese and it's drenched in a creamy raspberry vinaigrette. Suddenly we have a 1200 calorie salad on our hands and it's not really what we wanted to begin with. We just picked it because it seemed like the "healthy" option.
When going out to eat, the safer bet is to go for the food options that are the least extra. Skipping the creamy sauces, cheesy sides or the breaded coatings can save you hundreds of calories throughout the meal and is more likely to leave you satiated without feeling bloated.
The less ingredients there are in a menu item, the less calorie dense it's likely to be and the closer you get to a one ingredient food item the fewer calories it's likely to have. Sticking to meals that are closer to the basic ingredients can help you have the experience of eating out without the calories of eating out.
Lets look at chicken breast, for example, prepared a few different ways:
The further we move away from the single ingredient 'chicken breast', the more calories we accumulate. Using a glaze added close to 100 calories to the meal. Frying, which added both breading and oil to the meal, accrues an additional 200+ calories. We can see that sticking to the option that is closest to the whole food gives us the least amount of added calories.
4. Assume it has more calories than you think it does.
It pays to err of the side of caution when it comes to eating out. You don't know how much oil or butter the kitchen used or how much of each ingredient they've measured out. Especially in terms of tracking I tend to estimate 20-50% more calories than I think the item has. If the item has foods that are calorie dense for small portions, like cheese, nuts or sauces, I'll estimate closer to 50%.
For example, if I order pasta, I would track each of the ingredients of the portion on the plate as 1.5 to 2 times the serving size. Worst case scenario, I'm wrong, overestimated my calories for the day and increased my deficit. It's better than ending the week regularly underestimating my calories and being confused as to why the scale is creeping up.
5. Take half of it home with you.
Another tried and true method is to box half of it and take it home with you. There's no rule that says you have to finish your plate and splitting a 1200 calorie meal between lunch and dinner can really make an impact on your waistline.
If you're not one for leftovers but, can't stand seeing food go to waste, ask a friend if they want to split it with you. Both of you can save some cash, some calories and feel better moving on with your day.
6. Compensate the rest of your day.
If you know you have a breakfast meeting, have a light lunch and dinner. Or going out for lunch have a light breakfast and dinner. Or dining out for dinner have a light breakfast and lunch. You can shift your allotted calories for the day around to make room for the larger amount without breaking the caloric bank.
Eating out doesn't need to be avoided and your social life doesn't need to be scrapped for the sake of a healthy diet. After all, the goal is develop healthy lifestyle habits that work for you long-term. Part of that is figuring out the times you are using food to fuel your life and when it's a time to let your hair down a little and enjoy it. It's all about balance!