Dining Out: Decoding the Menu

The thought of dining out can quickly turn someone on a weight loss program into a split personality: Part of you says “Yay!”—the other part “Yikes!” Finding the middle ground between these two emotions is key to eating out successfully while losing weight. Let’s look at some dos and don’ts to help you stay in charge the next time you head out to a restaurant.

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Dining Out Dos:

  • Do remember that the customer is always right. Put simply: Ask for modifications with your meal!  Most chefs are happy to oblige. Become familiar with the following phrases: “Dressing on the side, please,” “Can you broil that without adding additional oil or butter?” and “I would like to substitute a vegetable medley for the fries, please.’”
  • Do remember that, when in doubt, simple is best. As food becomes more ‘adorned’ it’s likely to have more calories and fat added. These sneaky additives include garnishes like fried onions and tortilla strips, condiments like guacamole and sour cream, and any kind of sauce or gravy. Ask ahead of time if the meal is topped with anything and if it is, ask them to remove it. Another option is to look for entrees that are on top of something else, rather than the other way around: Try broiled salmon over bok choy, grilled chicken breast over polenta, or a simple seared tuna over a red pepper puree.

Dining Out Don’ts:

  • Don’t be a menu ‘lefty.’ That’s what happens when well-meaning dieters automatically steer toward the left-hand side of the menu, thinking the salad and appetizer options are better choices. Unfortunately, smaller and greener doesn’t necessarily equal healthier, especially when dining out. Many entrée salads can contain more than 900 calories (especially the ones with the cheese, bacon, and two scoops of dressing). Similarly, that plate of fried calamari with garlic sauce can easily pack on 500 calories, even if you share it! Remember that the same rules apply when choosing salads or appetizers—keep them simple, and beware of anything fried or soaking in sauce. Better to skip the salad or appetizer completely and focus on an entrée with a lean protein and a vegetable in it.
  • Don’t forget to leave your Clean Plate Club card at home. Recent studies have showed that restaurant portion sizes for many standard meals have more than doubled since the 1950s. Other research has shown that most people tend to eat whatever’s in front of them—all of it—when dining out. Add in the social aspect of eating out (dining with more people also means you tend to consume more calories) and you’re officially in the danger zone. That’s ok—you just need to pay a bit more attention to how much you’re eating. A simple solution is to ask for a doggie bag with your meal, and put half of it in the bag before you take a single bite. Another trick is to pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table—and then try to eat even slower than that.

Of course, the simplest strategy of all is to prepare your meals at home, where you know exactly what goes into them and can control the portion sizes.  But since we all know it’s fun (and realistic) to dine out once in a while, keeping these Dos and Don’ts in mind will help ensure that you make the healthiest choices and still enjoy your restaurant meal!