Dining out is something we enjoy for fun, but for many of us, it’s also a regular part of work, whether we’re traveling, entertaining clients, or attending events. Once in awhile, an indulgent meal is absolutely fine, but when it’s a regular part of your life, the extra calories from all the butter, sugar, and oversized portions can make it hard to stay on track with our healthy habits. Then there’s all that salt, which can make you feel bloated and dehydrated. Then there’s the alcohol that often accompanies a meal out.
Still, life is short, so chomping on dry lettuce and sipping water while your dining companions slurp down pasta and red wine is likely not a sustainable option. As a dietitian and health coach, I help people figure out how to balance and prioritize the stuff that matters to them so they can enjoy what they love in the context of an overall healthy lifestyle that empowers them to reach their goals and maintain their success. I don’t subsist on rabbit food, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to either!
Here are a few of my tried and true tips you can start using in your day. Bon Appétit!
Scope out the menu before you go
Picking your dining destination ahead of time has several advantages. If you make a reservation or plan to go at a time that will be less busy, you’ll save yourself wait-induced hunger. Plus, knowing what type of cuisine you’re having later will help you plan the rest of your day. For example, knowing you’re going out for pizza will help you think about a healthy lunch option like a veggie-packed salad with chicken. This is also helpful if you’ve got a food allergy or other dietary restrictions and need to get a sense of whether you’ll be able to find something appropriate. Some restaurants will indicate whether they offer gluten-free options, which is important for customers with celiac disease.
Since a lot of restaurants post their menus online, you can come up with a few ideas of what to order—I do this with my clients all the time. It can be hard to make a healthy choice in the moment, especially since some menus may highlight unhealthier choices. Having a little time and space to think with a clear head can save you the hassle later. I always recommend having at least one or two backups in mind. It sucks when you’ve got your heart set on a particular dish, only to find out when you get there that the restaurant is out.
Start with a simple salad
The fiber and water in lettuce help fill you up without contributing a lot of calories. For an appetizer salad, choose something simple that’s mostly vegetables, without a lot of bells and whistles like nuts, grains, and croutons. Ideally, go for something with one higher calorie add-on like dried fruit, cheese, or avocado rather than a whole bunch.
As for what you put on that salad, “dressing on the side” is a cliche for a reason. That’s often where many of the hidden calories lurk, as many rests use a heavy hand. Asking for yours on the side and using a light touch will help you keep it real. If you want to skip some sodium try oil and vinegar on the side.
To make your salad a meal, make sure you’ve got some protein in there, whether it’s coming from meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or beans.
Prioritize veggies and protein
Nutrient-rich veggies will provide tons of essential vitamins and minerals, plus filling fiber. Protein helps you stay satisfied. Because carbs like pasta and rice tend not to have much fiber or protein, it’s easier to overeat these before we hit the sweet spot of perfectly satisfied. Just be mindful of portions, especially when it comes to meat—many restaurants serve (at least) double what any normal human actually needs, so consider sharing with a friend or box some up to take home and enjoy as leftovers the next day. One of my personal favorites is using leftover steak to dress up an arugula salad.
If you’re not able (or don’t want to) bring any home, try to let go of that feeling you’re supposed to get your money’s worth and eat the whole portion. What you’re really paying for is the dining experience. If it helps, remind yourself of the other non-food elements of the meal you enjoyed—maybe the good company or the great service or the awesome lighting or spot-on music selection.
Pick a carb, any carb
Pick a carb to prioritize. While it’s true that whole grains, beans, and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes will give you the most nutrient bang for your buck, go with what will make you feel most satisfied. If you’re really jonesing for a dinner roll, then have it-just skip the starch with your main meal.
This question comes up a lot: What’s the best choice between bread, alcohol, appetizer, and dessert? This answer is going to be different for everyone, depending on what your priority is. I encourage that you pick two, max. For example, maybe you want to start with that heirloom tomato salad and dip a glass of your favorite wine with the meal but are less jazzed about the bread basket and dessert offerings. Or maybe you love the cheesecake at this place, so you don’t bother with a starter. If you really want two drinks, skip the other three things to make room. Choose your own carbventure—or whatever you want to call it.
Sharing is caring
One way to deal with outlandish restaurant portions: split with a pal. If you’re at that cute pizza place, maybe you each get a salad and share that Brussels sprouts & pancetta pie that’s supposedly meant for one person. If you’re dining solo or don’t like to share (nothing wrong with that, by the way), you can always take some home or simply leave some on your plate. I know that anxiety and guilt over wasting food is a real thing, but remember, you’re paying for the experience, and that includes feeling satisfied but not stuffed to feeling awful, even if that means there is still food on the plate. Restaurants don’t know you or your unique needs, and everyone who orders a particular dish gets the same amount—that means a gal who’s only five-foot and a dude who’s more than six feet tall get the exact same amount. Don’t feel pressured to clean the plate.
Beware the small plates trap
Small plates can be tough on the wallet and can trick you into not thinking you’re eating much, as the brain may not register those “just a few bites” as they add up. This comes up most when you’re sharing a bunch of small dishes with a few other people. One way to make it work: order mostly veggie-heavy stuff and then fill out most of the rest of the meal with protein. You can order one or two more indulgent, carb-rich items (depends how many people you’re sharing with) but consider that the accent. Use a similar approach if it’s just you that you’re ordering for.
To help your brain keep up, rather than eat as you go, put your food on a plate and give yourself a chance to look at it all there (or maybe snap a pic to share on social) and appreciate the deliciousness you’re about to enjoy!
Choose drinks wisely
Current recommendations for alcohol consumption are up to one drink per day for women (or max seven per week) and two per day (or fourteen per week) for men. Choose an alcoholic drink that feels worth it to you. Also, keep in mind that many mixed drinks may contain the alcoholic equivalent to two or three drinks, so if you’ve got a long evening ahead, consider keeping it simple to a glass of wine or beer or something like a vodka soda or a bourbon, neat (my personal fave) that you can savor slowly.
Remember you don’t have to drink alcohol. If you’re just not feeling it, own it. There’s no shame in enjoying a glass or seltzer while the rest of your party polishes off a bottle of vino
You do you
We are all unique and have different needs, and you’re the expert on you. If there are special accommodations you need, don’t be shy about asking. While these tips are meant to help you keep it real in your day to day, know that if you do overindulge at one meal, you can get right back on track with your usual healthy habits, no food guilt needed!
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, INHC is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life. Through her writing, consulting, public speaking and counseling, she works with corporations, individuals, food and lifestyle brands, and the media to help drama-free healthy living approachable and enjoyable. She blogs at Jessica Cording Nutrition. For regular updates about wellness and delicious recipe ideas, follow her on Twitter, Instagram , Facebook , and Pinterest . You can sign up here to receive a 5-Day DIY Desk Lunch Menu.