BY KAT O’BRIEN, HONS BA, MHSC. NUTR., RNCP
The one common frustration I see when working with people is around eating in restaurants. And I would agree – from a nutrition stand point there are a ton of pitfalls that come with eating out. High calories, hidden sugar and salt, unhealthy fats and out of control portions to name a few.
I am going to give you a couple of tips and tricks to use to take back your control when you find yourself heading out for a meal!
At the end of the day you and only you have control over what you put in your mouth at meal time. With that being said, eating in a restaurant does take some of that control away. So how do we take it back? Some of that depends on why you are eating out to begin with.
There are three main types of eating out experiences. Eating out for fun with friends and family, eating out for work, and running through the drive-in/fast food chain to grab something alone. Let’s dive into more detail around each of these.
EATING OUT FOR FUN WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY
These are the best reasons for eating out! Meeting up with loved ones to celebrate, to catch up and to enjoy each other’s company.
Food plays a huge role in our culture around being social. However, I find so many people, when they eat out, are filled with guilt and judgement over it. So the biggest tip I have for this category is this.
If you rarely eat out in a restaurant (once a week or less) – eat mindfully, be fully present and fully enjoy your meal – leave the guilt, judgement and shame at home….they aren’t invited to the party! If you are going to order the cheeseburger, commit to loving that cheeseburger!
Adding a “minimal scale of enjoyment” to “treat foods” also makes a lot of sense. Out of 10 how good is that cheeseburger. We are aiming for a scale of 8 or higher when eating out with friends. If it is lower than this – consider making a different choice the next time. This strategy has been really helpful for me with choosing dessert. I can easily pass on a store bought cake now knowing that I would much rather indulge in a treat from my local bakery. When eating out with friends enjoyment is key. That being said, it still makes a lot of sense to follow my overall tips below.
EATING OUT FOR WORK
Sometimes eating out with clients, travelling and attending conferences are just part of your job description. When this is your reality it is important to see eating in a restaurant as exactly that – part of the job.
For you it will be really important to maximize the choices you make outside of the restaurant. Start your day with a protein shake – even if you are travelling it’s easy to pack your protein powder. Also make sure you have healthy snacks that travel well with you. If you drive a lot for work, buy a cooler bag and make sure you pack things like raw veggies and hummus, fruit, nuts and seeds, and most importantly a water bottle!
If you stay in a hotel – ask when you book it for it to have a fridge in it, this will let you bring leftovers back from restaurants or to grab some healthy options from a nearby grocery store.
When you are planning your trip take the time to also plan your food – don’t let eating just happen to you. A lot of times eating with clients means fully eating and drinking with them, you are the host after all and it can look bad if you are nibbling on a salad while everyone else indulges. That being said, you can still follow the tips below!
GRABBING FAST FOOD ALONE
This is the one type of eating out that is the most avoidable. Most of the time when we find ourselves running through the drive thru to grab something it is for one of two reasons.
1) We didn’t really plan our day well and now it’s late and we are hungry and we think we don’t have any other choice. 2) It’s late, we are hungry and we are struggling with an emotion we don’t want to be feeling, like sadness, anger, shame, guilt or loneliness, so we look to food to comfort these feelings.
How to overcome this one? Work meal planning into your weekend to set you up to succeed the entire week, if you know you just need to get home and pop a ready made meal in the oven/microwave to reheat then it’s easier to drive past the drive thru. For those times that you don’t have anything prepped – make sure you have a short list of go to easy things to prep. You can make a tasty omelette quicker than buying something, trust me….it’s my go to!
If you do still find yourself emotional eating, don’t beat yourself up. See it as a one meal falter and choose to start fresh the next meal. We can always choose differently the next time. One “slip up” doesn’t have to mean you throw in the towel completely. Also if emotional eating is a big challenge reach out to a coach – having some accountability and someone to talk to is huge for breaking this cycle!
Plan ahead – look at the restaurant menu online before you go so that you can make an informed choice when you are not distracted by hunger or conversation with your guests.
Planning also includes deciding what you are going to eat the rest of the day. Knowing you are eating dinner out means you can be more conscious of what you are eating the rest of the day. Choose a simple smoothie for breakfast and a salad with some protein for lunch – or even give intermittent fasting a try leading up to your meal.
Share – this works great when you are out with friends and family, you can order an appetizer and a main or a main and a dessert and share!
Portion Size – when your plate arrives automatically split it into two, enjoy the first half and ask for the other half to go. If you are staying in a hotel – you can easily pop these into the bar fridge in your room and you can enjoy these leftovers on a night when you are alone and catching up on paperwork.
Skip the Freebies – if the restaurant offers a bread basket or chip basket ask them not to bring it. These are just empty calories and you usually just fill up on them without really paying attention to how they taste.
Liquid calories – stick to water or sparkling water whenever possible. If you are drinking alcohol try to limit yourself to a drink or two – focusing on wine and classic cocktails like the gimlet, vodka and soda, an old fashioned or a gin and tonic. Limit the beer and “size of your head” margaritas!
Unhealthy “health” food – a lot of folks choose a salad in a restaurant assuming that it is the healthiest option. Unfortunately this is often far from the truth. Restaurants have turned these healthy options into calorie heavy disasters by adding far too much salad dressing and all sorts of crazy toppings like shredded cheese and tortilla chips! If you are going to order a salad stick with mixed greens, an oil and vinegar based dressing (and ask for it on the side) and then top it with a protein of your choice. Often times though you would do better to order a steak, grilled fish or chicken with a side of seasonal veggies.
Remember, ultimately it is you who is responsible for what you eat. Following the above tips and recognizing why you are eating out are two great places to start taking back your control over eating out!
Nutrition is a VERY challenging realm for a lot of people. It’s one thing to know what to do, and it’s another entirely to be able to practice the skills and mindset to be successful long term – after all, almost everyone “knows what they need to do”.
They struggle to put it into action.