How to Eat Out and Not Tear the Roof Off Your Diet


More and more, we are going out to eat.  In 1960, Americans spent 14% of their food budgets at restaurants; by 2010 that percentage shot up to 36% and continues to rise.  We are now eating about a third of our calories outside the home—good news for restaurants, but not-so-good news for our waistlines (see text box).

more eating out text box-purple textThat’s the motivation for this blog: to help you make better choices when you dine out. Although the American Council on Exercise (where I obtained my Weight Management Specialist certification) calls it “confronting,” I prefer to think of it as requesting simple changes to make food healthier than the menu version.

People often hesitate to make such requests. But restaurants are increasingly ready and willing to accommodate them. For example, according to Allison, the General Manager at the Secret Garden in Occoquan, VA, “we love to accommodate people however we can.  We have many vegetarian and gluten-free customers and offer modified menus for both, which makes it really easy for them and us,” she explained.  “A lot of people will get a meat dish and instead of the starch side, will double up on the vegetable or get a side salad.” Nice!

Think of asking for food “your way” as advocating for your health. If a menu item is fried, ask if it can be grilled; instead of fries, ask to substitute a side of veggies or black beans; request a smaller portion of the meat and a larger portion of salad, etc. Here are some other tips:

Ask the server what ingredients are used and how dishes are prepared, so you can use verbs like “grill,” “steam,” “omit,” and “substitute” to request changes.

  • Eat a salad before the main course—but be careful here: order dressing on the side (of course) and dip just the tip of your fork in it before skewering a bite. Skip the croutons, bacon bits, fried noodles, and creamy slaw or mac salad.
  • Ask for raw veggies or bread sticks (in lieu of the bread basket) to nibble on while you wait.
  • Request chopsticks or bring your own (slows you down).
  • Avoid anything in a creamy sauce. Choose meats that are grilled, broiled, roasted, or baked without added fat. Seafood that is broiled, baked, steamed, blackened, or poached is preferable to other preparations (see box).
Hidden calories: Beware the following terms: pan-fried, sautéed, battered, breaded, au gratin, cheesy, creamy, buttered, deep-fried, béarnaise, and crispy (yes, even “crispy,” unless it refers to lettuce or other vegetation 🙂.
  • Order an appetizer instead of an entrée. Or get half an entrée, or share with a friend.
  • Ask for half your entrée to be boxed to go before it comes to the table.
  • Order a la carte to get precisely what you want, instead of acquiescing to the way food is “bundled” on the menu.
  • Don’t eat mindlessly. Have the server take away the chips, peanuts, bread, etc., after you’ve had a taste.

Best strategy? If you know you’re going to eat out, don’t skip meals to “save up” for it. That only causes overindulging. Better to make a plan and stick to it once you’re there.  Preview the menu to make it easier. And most of all, remember that restaurants are there to serve you, so don’t be afraid to ask if you can “have it your way.”

What do you think?  Please share your own tips.

Keep moving, – Jen

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