If you’re trying to…
- Get leaner
- Lose weight
- … or generally make any change to your nutrition…
How do you eat out (especially socially) without going to EITHER extreme of being a restrictive stick in the mud, or eating like we’re going to the chair?
But even if we’re not talking about extremes, how do we become more mindful of eating out, so that if we’re in a caloric deficit, we can maintain it?
It’s incredibly easy to be in MENTAL diet mode (being hyper-selective and conscious of food choices) but not actually be in a deficit.
Here are some of my thoughts, some of which apply to general health, and some of which apply to fat loss…
First, eat out less frequently.
If you want to improve how you dine out, start with how often you dine out. This includes grabbing lunches on the go. Restaurants (even health food spots) tend to present larger portions, more sodium/fat, and more “extras” than we would consciously use at home. This is true even if you’re not eating fast food or at stereotypically unhealthy restaurants. If you are honest with yourself and you know you are grabbing meals out 5-6 times a week, try 4 times a week. If you’re eating out 3-4 times a week, try twice a week. Simply reducing is a good strategy!
Secondly, work on your mindset.
Remember that you have choices.
When eating out, keep in mind that you can modify orders. If you really, really need to, you can get protein and vegetables at practically any restaurant and make it work. This isn’t always the right thing to do for you, but it’s important to remember that it’s possible, and that you have choices. Often, when people eat out, they automatically confine themselves to the options presented on the menu or the choices of the people around them. Owning your choices means moving past people-pleasing (and its codependent cousin “going with the flow”), and being able to make decisions that are right for you in the moment.
Get out of a scarcity mentality.
Remind yourself that you can always come back, you can always have more food, and that you probably will eat here again. For some people, a scarcity mindset can lead to overeating, even at restaurants they visit fairly regularly. Sometimes it’s not even conscious – we’re just driven by an uneasiness that we won’t get “enough” to be happy or satisfied. For people like my clients, this is simply not true. We have more than enough. We’ll eat at this restaurant again. If we need to, we can probably literally come back later that day and order more. Pay attention to this sensation/feeling of worry when you’re eating out.
Separate enjoyment from overeating.
Sometimes, it’s just fun to eat out because the food is made differently than we would make it at home. It can be a way to explore food cultures. Or it’s a dish that we simply don’t want to take the time/effort to prepare (like sushi, for me). Or it’s merely a meal we don’t have to clean up after we cook it.
Mindful enjoyment doesn’t have to mean overindulgence or overeating.
Enjoyment can be in moderation.
Next, use your tools.
Pay attention to macros, micros, and hydration.
This isn’t necessarily realistic at every restaurant meal, but it can be incredibly helpful in many situations. Which two food sources are the most satisfying, and the most likely to prevent runaway overeating?
Protein and fiber.
If you can order a protein and a fiber as part of your meal, do it!
On top of that, hydration can help to make food feel more satisfying, preventing you from chasing after satisfaction with more and more food. Drink water with your meal to help with this.
On the flip side, if you can’t easily make this happen at the meal itself (and you know overindulgence may be an issue for you at this particular meal), don’t go into the event famished – eat something that is high in protein and fiber beforehand, and drink a glass of water.
Use common sense to compose a “normal” meal.
I put “normal” in quotes because I’m speaking generally here. But to paint with a broad brush, it’s a great idea when you’re dining out to simply ask yourself, “Where’s my protein? Where’s my carb? Where’s my fat? Where’s my vegetable?” This helps to correct the tendency to eat healthfully in “normal life” and then act as if a wedding buffet is food from outer space. Even in situations where food is abundant (i.e., you and your friends are splitting a bunch of appetizers at a restaurant instead of ordering entrees), you can still thoughtfully compose a meal that hits all the high points that you really need to feel satisfied.
Use tracking wisely (and effectively).
If you’re tracking calories and macros, track the rest of your day and leave a minimum of a 600-calorie “hole” in your day for the meal out. When people are tracking calories (which, by the way, isn’t necessary for fat loss), I don’t recommend trying to track restaurant meals that aren’t at chains – it’s just too confusing and stressful. Instead, leave that 600-1000 calorie gap, and then spruce up the rest of your day so that it’s quite high in protein and fiber, and still hits your overall calorie goal. It’s a great idea to hit your protein goal outside of the restaurant meal. Then, when you eat out, use the following skill/tool…
Exercise body awareness and the skill of slowing down.
Use flexible restraint and body awareness. Be mentally conscious of high-calorie foods and extras, and mindfully exercise the skill of saying “no” or “that’s enough” sometimes. For example, you could pass on the extra bread. You could pass on the tortilla chips. You could ask to have something without sour cream. You could listen to your body and be aware of when you’re starting to feel satisfied/full, and start slowing down and stopping. This is a skill that must be practiced, and you really do get better at it with repetition.
Does this mean that every meal you eat at every restaurant, ever, needs to be as healthy as possible?
There will certainly be those times when you enjoy a high-fat, high-carb, practically protein-less meal with no vegetable, with zero guilt. Savoring “unhealthy” foods is a skill, too.
But if the goal is to move the needle in the direction of health and leanness overall, it helps things along if you exercise some additional skills.
Also, if alcohol is the biggest challenge holding you back from healthy dining out, check out this other blog post that dives into more detail.
Of the tips I listed above, which one gave you an “aha” moment, inviting you to think more about your approach to dining out? Which tip seems the most sensible one for you to work on right now?