If there was any possible way I could swing it, I would avoid eating in restaurants altogether. I can’t, so I need to have ways to prevent restaurants from torpedoing my efforts. Restaurants are perilous places for weight management. I can work hard all week long, and one bad evening at a restaurant can completely sabotage all of my weekly efforts if I’m not careful. Restaurants are so dangerous to weight management that I often look for ways to avoid them altogether. It’s probably a little hard on my social life, but I think people who know me understand, and often times people are delighted to be invited to go for a hike or some other physical activity as an alternative to eating. However, since there are times when I can’t avoid them, I have to have methods for limiting the damage.
But before I talk about how I handle them, it’s important to know why they are so dangerous. And this is only a partial list:
- Portion sizes. For the most part, unless I’m in a fancy 5-star place, the portion sizes are entirely too big for my needs. I’m not good at just stopping when I’ve reached enough, or I wouldn’t be in the position of needing to manage my weight!
- Social eating. I don’t go to restaurants alone, which means there are lots of interesting conversations to distract me from how much I’m putting in my mouth.
- Alcohol. I’m way more likely to order a cocktail when I’m out, which causes me to eat more than I would otherwise due to the devil-may-care attitude that alcohol can induce in me. Not to mention the calories in alcoholic drinks – danger!
- Ingredients – usually I have no idea what or how much might be in my food. Remember that butter, fat, salt, oil – these are the things that make food tasty to humans, and since the chef’s main goal is to have me return, not to manage my weight, he/she will dispense these ingredients with a free hand to make the food attractive to me.
Sometimes it seems that restaurant culture has devolved over the last 50 years into putting as much cheap food as possible on a plate. People have been conditioned to believe that the more food they find on their plate, the better the value they are getting. So what do I do? Different cuisines require different techniques, and over the years I have come up with go-to orders that work for me at various types of restaurant, but these are the basic rules-of-thumb I try to follow. I don’t think I use all of these every time, but I try to!
- Soup. Water-based soups (NOT “cream of” anything) are fantastic for weight management. If I’m having an appetizer, or a lunch, soup is my best friend, and along with a side salad could be my whole meal. Low caloric density, filling, delicious. Always get the soup if you can.
- Avoid main-course salads. Yes, I avoid salads. What kind of dieter am I? The kind that knows that a main-course salad will be loaded with cheese, nuts, creamy dressing, dried fruit, bacon, etc. A main-course salad at many restaurants can come in at 800 calories, easily. A side salad is usually just vegetables, so I can have one of those if I’m careful with the dressing – oil and vinegar (light on the oil) works great.
- Freebie avoidance. If they set it down in a basket on the table, I need to not eat it. Chips, bread, peanuts (I’m looking at you, sports bars), etc. I just can’t start. I don’t have the kind of willpower that would allow me to eat a “reasonable” portion of these things, and with refillable baskets, I likely won’t be able to track how much I’m eating (if I am capable of stopping after one or two, which I’m not) with conversations going on around me.
- Cooking methods. I look for lean meats grilled, baked, roasted, or broiled. I avoid anything fried. Frying increases the caloric content of lean meats almost four-fold. A reasonable piece of fish that would be 150 calories grilled can be up to 600 calories fried. Need I say more?
- Starches. I avoid them. I don’t get anything from rice or pasta or mashed potatoes that my body needs. I often ask if I can have no rice and more veggies. If they appear on my plate, I rarely eat them.
- Split my dinner. Half an order is often enough to satisfy me. If I’m with my husband, and he agrees, we may both order a side salad (or soup) and split an entree.
- Healthy appetizer as dinner. One of my favorite restaurants offers some of their dinner entrees in smaller portions as an appetizer, but without the bread and rice that comes with the dinner. I choose this every time.
- Vegetarian options. I always investigate them first. They often offer very supportive low-cal options, however I once ended up with a deep-friend eggplant doused in olive oil this way too. It’s very important to ask questions about cooking methods.
- Indulge in bites. If I get a plate of roasted veggies in marinara and my husband gets prime rib, I will happily enjoy a bite or two of his, I only need a taste to enjoy it. I recently had somebody ask me what my deal was because she’d seen me order the vegetarian option on the two occasions we’d been at a restaurant together celebrating friends’ birthdays, but when I relished a bite of his bone marrow ravioli she was confused, as I was somebody she’d pegged as a vegetarian. Not a vegetarian, just managing my weight!
- Substitute ingredients if possible. Replace a hamburger with a chicken patty. Can I get a Boca patty on that burger? Even better! How about a portabella mushroom burger? (Seriously, the calories in a giant portabella mushroom cap are low enough to be considered negligible!)
- Don’t drink calories. Water, sparkling water, iced tea, diet soda, these are great options. Alcohol is a double whammy – a big caloric hit on its own, and I’m likely to eat more as my vigilance drops due to the effects of alcohol.
- Split my dessert. What? You thought I would skip dessert? Almost never. Life can’t be all control and restriction! But, I haven’t had a whole dessert to myself in years. I always split dessert with my husband. If he’s not with me (which is rare – I go out only for special occasions, and nothing is special without him) then I usually decline.
Always ask questions. Waiters, in my experience, want to bring you something you want to eat, so they’re happy to answer questions and usually to allow substitutions (roasted veggies instead of rice, for example).
This post is “Part 1” is because I am positive that the minute I post this I’ll remember about 5 other things I needed to add, so I’ll just put this up here now as “a good start”.
How do you manage your weight while eating in restaurants?