Although I’m a nutritionist, I have my share of weaknesses when it comes to restaurant meals; a never-ending bread basket, Tex-Mex egg rolls, and tempting cheesecakes are just a few of my personal kryptonites when I go out to eat. Even in-home dinner parties can sometimes derail my healthy eating with rounds of cocktails and multiple courses. I don’t follow a diet, per se, but I’m always striving to eat well—and eat the right amount.
If you find dining out is a minefield for your diet, you’re not alone. (Even nutritionists struggle!) But it’s not impossible to make smart choices when eating outside the home. Here are my top tips for sticking to a healthy diet at a restaurant or social gathering.
Nibble on something healthy before you go
Sure, you don’t want to fill up before the party a la Scarlett O’Hara (you get it if you’ve seen “Gone With the Wind”). But staring down the 25 glossy pages of a restaurant menu when you’re ravenously hungry is a recipe for overeating. To keep a growling belly from doing the thinking, I like to eat a little something healthy before leaving for a restaurant meal. For me, this looks like a half cup of blueberries or a small plate of veggies.
Once I’ve taken the edge off my hunger, I’m more likely to make a menu selection I feel good about. Plus, I can head into a restaurant meal knowing I’ve already eaten something nourishing.
Jot down some goals
As with anything else that requires willpower, you may fare better with restaurant dining when you have a plan. Try jotting down a few goals for your eating—on paper or on your phone—before leaving the house. This might look like writing down “I will order water instead of soda,” “I will choose a simple protein and vegetable,” or (in my case) “I will have one piece of bread, not the whole basket.”
Research shows you’re much more likely to stick with a goal if you’ve written or visualized it—the more vividly, the better. Take things a step further by visualizing yourself eating something healthy, then feeling proud of yourself for doing right by your body.
Do your homework
Knowing where you’re headed for dinner gives you a chance to do a little mealtime reconnaissance. Many restaurants (especially chains) provide nutrition info online. With a little internet sleuthing, you can pre-determine a few healthy options that fit the parameters of your diet. I always like to look at total calories, grams of saturated fat, and milligrams of sodium to make an informed choice.
Watch out for keywords
Depending on where you live, restaurants may or may not be required to list nutrition information on their printed menus. (Some states have actually mandated this by law.) When calorie counts and fat grams remain a question mark, it’s smart to get educated about certain keywords that indicate a menu item is high-calorie.
Words like “fried,” “breaded,” “battered,” “smothered,” and even “crispy” usually spell trouble for healthy eating. And don’t forget superlative words like “ultimate,” “mega,” or “double” anything. On the other hand, descriptors like “poached,” “grilled,” “fresh,” and of course “light” or “skinny” are usually a good bet.
Pause for mindful thanks
One factor you may not always consider when dining out is distraction. Mindful eating is focused eating—a tall order when loud music, conversation with friends, or the baseball game on a TV screen takes your attention away from your food and its flavor. To bring myself back to the present (and the plate in front of me) I like to take a moment to give thanks before eating. I find I eat more appropriate portions when I do so.
Likewise, if you’re the host at a dinner party, perhaps you can offer a prayer before everyone digs in. If this feels awkward, do so silently, and try to remember to check in with your hunger and fullness cues throughout the meal.
Give yourself grace
Real talk: Sometimes you’ll eat too much at a restaurant or a dinner party. We all do. The very nature of huge portions, bottomless drinks, and social eating is an undeniable formula for overeating. But beating yourself up over it won’t do any good. In fact, it’ll just add to negative self-talk and take you off course from healthy eating. My advice? Enjoy the memories of your tasty meal! Then move on, giving yourself plenty of compassion as you go.