Cook your own meals! That’s what health pros preach as the way to eat your healthiest. It’s absolutely true. However, in the real world, we eat out sometimes. If you’re out and about with a hungry kid, and it’s meal time, you go to the nearest spot and make do. When your significant other wants to treat you to dinner, you go. Ooh, it’s a night out with the girls, right? More than likely, you’re meeting at a restaurant you all agree on.
However, it’s still important to make the best choices when you do eat out, especially if you’re on a mission to drop a size or two. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. “Some people will use eating out as a free pass to eat what you want. But you can wreck all of your hard work,” says Jessica Crandel, RDN, and spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Put these strategies to work before the next night out:
Let the menu be the deal-breaker.
If you have a say, pick a restaurant with healthy fare. Even your favorite chains have a “light” section these days. Make sure there are grilled, baked and roasted options. What you care about is a delicious protein with healthy sides. Look for the leanest cuts of meats and chicken. Do they have good salads? Skip the all-you-can-eat buffets. For fast-casual, we like Sweet Green and Chipotle. If all you see around you is a KFC, stick to the grilled chicken, have salad or green beans, and nix the biscuit.
Don’t skimp on calories.
“Don’t deprive yourself,” Crandel says. “I tell my clients to eat simply and smart throughout the day, so they don’t end up overeating.” If you know you’ll be going out to dinner, don’t make the mistake of saving your calories for dinner. Eat breakfast, lunch and even a snack so you’re engine isn’t running on fumes. By the time you sit down at the table, you’re starving, cranky and ready to order anything!
Beware of the bread.
Ooph, this is a hard one, right? Some restaurants are known more for the bread they put on the table than their actual menu. Damn you, Olive Garden and your breadsticks. Think about this: One breadstick with the garlic topping is 140 calories! How many times have you had 2-3 of those bad boys before dinner? Do the math. White bread has a high glycemic index, and it’s a waste of your carbs. Be strong, skip the bread AND the appetizer and go right for the meal. But if you really, really want an appetizer, Crandel recommends a healthy soup or hummus and veggies.
Be that picky customer.
It’s quite appropriate to respectfully ask how your food is prepared. You’re a paying customer so you should get what you want,” Crandel says. “It’s worth taking accountability for your health.” Don’t be afraid to ask them if the veggies are cooked in butter. If they are, ask if you can just have them steamed. No butter. Request that your sauce be put on the side. Can you broil that instead of frying it? The worst they can say is “no.” And if they do, well, you don’t need to give them any more of your money, right?
Practice portion control.
Order one glass of wine instead of two. Better yet, choose water over higher calorie beverages. Split a dessert with the table. See if the restaurant offers those cute shot glass-sized desserts. It’s the perfect amount of pleasure without making you feel guilty.
Leave the leftovers.
Your food rarely tastes as good as it did when it first arrived on your table. But if you’re the person who hates to waste food, then ask your server to put half of the meal in a to-go box at the start of the meal. And Crandel says to listen to your fullness. “We typically stop eating when the person in front of us stops eating within 2 minutes. It’s OK to be the first one to put your fork down.”
No matter where you find yourself eating, there is a healthy route to take. Your average convenient store probably sells a turkey wrap sandwich and fruit. Don’t choose the hot dog and chips. That’s not part of your plan. Think strategically when you eat out, and look at every menu through the eyes of someone who is determined to meet a fitness goal. She’s the person you’re trying to please at the end of the evening. “Know that there’s power in your choice. But when it’s plated up in front of you, it’s hard to say no,” Crandel says. “Always plan ahead.”
Stacy Julien is founder and editor in-chief of Crush Magazine.