By Jaimie Hickman, BASc (AHN)
If you are striving to eat well and achieve optimal fitness results, an invitation to a restaurant might sound more like a catastrophe than a pleasant social experience. However, dining out doesn’t have to cause damage to your diet, as long as you know what to eat and what to avoid. These quick tips will see you through any meal, without that dreaded calorie overload — so dig in!
Don’t Gorge From The Get-Go
Ask the waiter to skip the bread basket. Even if you’re at your most motivated, it’s difficult to resist the warm, doughy lure of pre-meal bread, especially if your stomach is grumbling, but you can’t eat it if it isn’t there. Plus, when you think about it, you know that the meal you’re planning to order will be hefty enough to fill you up — so in reality you don’t even need that bread-based appetizer.
Be Menu Savvy
There are certain menu items that — no matter where you’re eating — tend to be loaded with calories. Some of the most common culprits are hamburgers, nachos, chicken wings, fish and chips, pasta, and ribs. Any one of these entrees can easily contain more than half of your daily calories, and though they may taste momentarily delicious, the nullification of gym time just isn’t worth it.
Dodge The Deep Fryer
This may sound obvious, but deep-fried foods are bad for you and are best avoided, even if you aren’t dieting. But sometimes, a trip to the deep fryer isn’t as easy to spot as you might think. Be particularly wary of anything that’s described as “dusted,” “crispy,” “tempura,” “breaded,” or “battered,” — they’re all code for deep-fried. Certain foods are also warning signs. Add French fries, onion rings, cheese sticks, and nachos to your “Banned From Eating” list for better health and a narrower waistline.
Be Mindful Of The Atmosphere
Research has shown that when eating in restaurants with dim lighting and soft music, people tend to stay longer and may be more inclined to order an appetizer, an extra drink, or dessert. For the sake of your physique, it might be best to opt for an eatery with loud or faster-paced music. Brighter lights may also help you cut down on ordering, which can save you calories and cash — totally a win-win!
Beware Of Sneaky Extras
Many restaurants fatten up your food in subtle ways, such as brushing meats (especially steaks) with butter before grilling, spreading sandwich buns with butter (before applying rich condiments like mayonnaise), and drizzling oil over cooked pizzas. Such tactics are used not as a sneaky ploy to fatten you up but to enhance the visual appeal, texture, aroma, or flavour of foods before they are served. If you’re feeling exceptionally calorie-conscious, ask your waiter about the use of oils and butters in the dish you’re after, and have them removed when you can.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Modifications
Gone are the days of finding “No Substitutions” printed forcefully on menus, and restaurant staff no longer (okay, rarely) roll their eyes when a customer requests a menu change. These days, most kitchens are more than happy to cater to special dietary needs and to accommodate requests for modifications. Feel free to inquire about how your food is prepared and ask for adjustments, such as no mayonnaise, butter, or cheese, so that you can make your meal healthier and better tailored to your palette.
Do Your Homework
Thanks to our good friend the Internet, the majority of restaurant chains and well-established independent restaurants will now post the nutritional information for most, if not all, of their menu on their websites. Before meeting up with your friends or family at your dining establishment of choice, check out the restaurant’s webpage to evaluate the best dish for your dietary needs. This information will typically be found via a link from the homepage, from the Menu tab, in the About Us section, or in small print at the very bottom of the website. Although everyone’s daily caloric needs are different, it is generally safe to say that a single meal with more than 800 calories is not a good choice. Also, be aware of sugar and sodium content in addition to calories and fat.
Ultimately, eating in restaurants should be an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one. If you walk into an eatery knowing how to navigate the menu, you can choose a delicious meal that won’t hinder your fitness goals or undo all of the hard work you’ve been putting in. That being said, everyone deserves to indulge sometimes, so if your meal out happens to coincide with cheat day, go ahead and order those chicken wings you’ve been craving and don’t beat yourself up about it. Life is short — don’t waste too much of it worrying about following the rules.
Jaimie Hickman holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Clinical Nutrition and is a former restaurant manager.