5 Rules When Eating Out to Stay Healthy

What is it about eating out at restaurants that can derail months of hard work?

Sure, it’s easy to prepare meals at home when you are in control of your batcave and all of the ingredients that end up on your plate, but once you head out to dinner it’s like a switch is flipped and suddenly we’re eating like Cookie Monster because “we’re eating out.”

If you tend to eat out a lot for whatever reason, making a few key changes to how you order off the menu can drastically contribute to your success in staying (or getting) healthy.

Today, we’re going to provide you with specific things you can do to keep you on track no matter where you are eating.  Before we jump into that, there’s one key piece of advice that I’m going to provide you with that will help you stay on target.  It comes to us from the 26th president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt:

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Let’s dig in, shall we?

How to Level Up at a Restaurant

lights

Pop quiz hotshot: you’re at a business dinner, out with friends, or stuck eating at the Chili’s across the street from your hotel on a Tuesday, and you want to eat healthy. 

What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO!?

Well, the first rule of eating out is you don’t talk about eating out!  Kidding. I just feel like that’s a requirement to say when you mention “First Rule.”

Use these five techniques to help you eat healthy when you’re out on the town:

1) Choose wisely. Like Indiana Jones trying to select the true Holy Grail, whenever you have the opportunity to select the restaurant where you’ll be eating….take it, but choose wisely! Choosing poorly won’t melt your face off like the false grail, but it can set you up to fail.

We’re fans of keeping things simple and allowing us to stay on target with our goals, so we hate having to use willpower at unhealthy restaurants. For that reason, we encourage you to select restaurants that fit into the following categories:

  • Steakhouse: If there’s a steakhouse nearby, there’s an opportunity to eat a high quality piece of protein and pair it with some amazing vegetables for a great dinner. My go-to at a steakhouse is a filet paired with asparagus.
  • Seafood: If you’re a seafood fan, then it’s quite easy to find a healthy option when it comes to eating things that live in the water. Note: places like Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s don’t qualify 🙂
  • Mexican: Although Mexican food is usually considered unhealthy, Mexican restaurants have some incredible healthy options if you know what you’re looking for. A salad bowl covered in salsa, guacamole, chicken, and sauteed veggies? Sign me up, sucka!
  • “American” food: Okay, maybe not the best choice, but even if you’re stuck at Chili’s or a TGIFridays, there are options that can keep you on target.
  • Breakfast Food: Eggs and bacon. Still hungry? Ask for all of the bacon and eggs they have.

In all of the options above, there are really healthy choices to be made, just as there are really unhealthy choices. Which brings us to Rule #2:

2) Scout the menu first!  If possible, scout the menu for the restaurant online before hand (research FTW), and pre-select your option so you don’t have to spend any willpower points wavering what you’re going to order.  Don’t even look at the menu!

If possible, ask to order first. Whenever the server asks who wants to go first, SPEAK UP! If you are the one person in your group of friends that’s eating healthy, you’re going to some haterade for your healthy order after your friends all order pizza/lasagna/pasta/etc…or you might get influenced into making a worse decision to fit in (and “you know, live at a little”).

If you get to order first though, the reverse could happen – you could end up actually influencing your friends positively! Captain America would be so proud.

3) Enlist the help of your server! See something you like that’s 80% of the way there? Don’t be afraid to ask them to modify the order or ask them what they would choose if they were trying to eat like you – it happens all the time, and the server really won’t mind.  A chicken sandwich or a burger without the bun can easily turn into a plate of meat and vegetables.

99% of the restaurants I’ve ever been to will give you a plate of “chicken and vegetables” if you ask for it, even if it’s not on the menu.  Their goal is to make you happy.

One time, when NF Team Member Staci couldn’t find anything on the menu she could eat, she just talked to the waitress, and ended up with bison, bacon, and sweet potato fries (this was a greasy burger joint and they legitimately didn’t have any vegetables).

4) Ditch the starch! For starters, many restaurants will have a protein and starch/carb option.  Steak and potatoes, fish and rice, etc.  They’ll also have a vegetable option, usually something broccoli, mixed greens, asparagus, spring veggies, etc.

  • If you’re Paleo, simply swap out the starch/carb option with more vegetables.  Aim for grilled, not breaded and fried (duh). DING, victory. If you get two sides – just get double vegetables. They never say no!
  • If you’re not Paleo, and you want a starch with your meal, see if you can get them to swap out regular potatoes for sweet potatoes. Go for baked instead of french fries, and avoid loading it up with sour cream. Just butter!
  • If you order a salad, get the dressing on the side (especially if it’s a Caesar). I don’t know what it is about restaurants, but salad should not be soupy, and your lettuce shouldn’t be floating in dressing.  Get the dressing on the side and add it yourself.  Oil and vinegar is usually the safest bet here.

5) Skip dessert. I have a confession to make – I never order dessert at restaurants. Ever. Rather than having to rely on willpower to make that decision each and every time “I probably shouldn’t, but I might, but maybe I’ll look at the menu,” I’ve conditioned my brain to say “no dessert for me, thanks!” It’s not that I’m depriving myself of it, I simply don’t eat it.

Calories count, and I choose to use mine on foods that help me level up or the occasional adult beverage.

If everybody else at the table is getting dessert, get yourself some coffee and enjoy the company of the people at the table with you. You can do so without stuffing your face 🙂

Tips, Tricks and Hacks

platter

Outlined above are the steps I personally use to stay healthy when I eat out at restaurants. However, if you feel like you need a little more to stay on track, check out these rapid-fire bullet points to keep you on track (which are more fun and helpful than rapid-fire bullets):

  • Always order water instead of soda or other sugary drinks! Sugar is bad news bears. Need something with flavor? Iced tea (unsweet!)
  • When on the road, ditch the fast food and go straight to a grocery store or Wal-Mart instead. Look for hot food items!
  • Avoid fried when possible (duhhh) and get baked, steamed, or grilled.
  • Ask your waitress to NOT bring you chips/bread/popcorn if you know they usually do. Don’t waste your willpower on a battle you can avoid entirely!
  • If it’s a big entree, don’t be afraid to split it – Oftentimes portion sizes are naturally so huge, that a regular meal is 2000+ calories.
  • Eat slowly – It takes a minute for your brain to realize that your stomach is already full. So SLOW DOWN. Enjoy the conversation of the people you’re eating with!
  • Pull a Staci: Explain that you have an “allergy” or “weird reaction” to certain types of foods. They’ll stop hassling you to “live a little” and instead get on your side – it’s a health thing (hey, it is!).
  • You don’t have to eat the whole thing, you know – Depending in the culture you came from, it might be considered rude to not clean your plate, but at certain restaurants that can be a massive undertaking. Put your napkin on your plate, and ask to take it home. Heck, sprinkle a crazy amount of salt on it so that you stop eating.
  • Traveling a LOT? Stuck on the road quite a bit? Here ya go 🙂

Play It Cool

candle

The more you can prepare, the less likely you’ll be to deviate and fall apart.

And most importantly, remember that you’re human. If you decide to eat a bad meal, it’s not a cheat meal and you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re human, schedules get crazy, and sometimes maybe you just want to eat pizza – that’s fine. Remember that it’s not something wrong, it’s a conscious decision you’ve chosen to make. But then get right back on track immediately with the next meal.

One bad meal doesn’t ruin a day, but saying “well I ate a bad lunch so today is ruined so I’ll eat poorly for dinner and try again tomorrow” does.

Keep that in mind, and you’ll stay on target.

What about you?  What are your favorite tips for eating healthy while dining out? What sorts of advice do you have for your fellow road warriors and travelers that eat out more than they eat in?

Let’s hear it in the comments!

-Steve

PS: Next week we’ll be opening up a small number of early bird spots to Camp Nerd Fitness 2015. Make sure you sign up for the CNF2015 interest list to be among the first to be able to reserve your spot 🙂

PPS: I got a chance to go on Fox Business a few weeks back for a whole 2 minutes (haha!) and represent the Nerd Fitness Rebellion. It was my first time ever on live TV, so I’m just glad I didn’t throw up on myself.  Here’s the footage!

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photo source: Vanessa Pike-Russel: Platter, Thomas Hawk: Candle, Kevin Dooley- Pizza, Stephan Geyer: Sushi

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  • Shiloh

    I’ve always gotten water from restaurants ever since I was a kid. My parents never felt like paying a ton of money on drinks, so they always made us get water. It’s just ingrained in my head (unless there’s something that *really* jumps out at me) to get water. Cheaper, and saves on a ton of calories. 🙂

  • Tara Windels

    I’m sorry, but you DO NOT use an allergy as an excuse if it isn’t a legitimate medically listed allergy. By doing so, you can cause the entire kitchen to grind to a halt, because they have to do an “uber sanitation” of any prep areas, seperate out the food items, make sure no other food with the “allergen” is in the area when the food is prepared. Using that excuse when there is no life threatening allergy in effect, is why you have restaurants that don’t react as they should, because people use it as an excuse. As a person in the restaurant industry, and with friends who have actual life threatening allergies, that is a horrible and dishonest thing to do.

  • Taylor

    Hi Tara – the intention here wasn’t to tell the waiter or restaurant staff that you have an allergy. Rather, to explain to your friends (perhaps after you’ve ordered normally), how a food does not sit well with you.

  • Tara Windels

    Okay. I can understand that, it was just poorly worded in the article. Overall, I enjoyed the article, and found it very informative, but that one point struck a serious nerve.

  • K.A.

    Kind of resent the oversight in recommending ordering steak or any meat and veggies in a restaurant is the same as eating healthy when we are all becoming increasingly aware of the pesticides, chemicals and GMO contaminants that are loaded in “food” that restaurants source and serve. Are you factoring in what most of the commercially raised met is fed? This is NOT healthy and needs to be part of the conversation. Restaurants mostly serve “food-like substances” void of any real nutrition that exists in freshly harvested produce and pasture raised meats. Nothing is really healthy in a restaurant that I am aware of, including the water, especially the ice! PLEASE do not continue to mislead people by implying that eating this food at chain restaurants or hotels or even shopping at Wal-Mart is a healthier bet when it most certainly isn’t. We aren’t just talking calories and sugars here when we ingest things that mutate our DNA and cause documented disease on a daily basis by our grocery shopping and restaurant choices! I was disappointed in your article because THAT is the real challenge to eating out… (salad is almost always soaked in bleach water before dressing is added…c’mon.)

  • This is a good article and makes some helpful suggestions. I like the idea of checking out nutritional information online ahead of time. I do this and it pays off; sometimes the info is not readily available at the restaurant even though it should be.

    One premise I might question a bit, though, and perhaps you will want to write another post on the eating at home problem when you think about it. I actually have less difficulty when eating out! We have a good size household so what others want to eat and what can fit into my eating plan, at least while I am in my current weight loss mode, differ considerably.

    The social atmosphere in the home is sometimes challenging. People are more prone to urge you to eat inappropriately at home than when eating out where everyone orders separately.

    Thanks for the article and continued good success.

  • I totally understand that there’s bad food out there, and I get your point. And please don’t take this response as aggressive at all, I’m just trying to point some things out.

    It seems like there are zero alternatives in your statement, other than eating only food that the eater has personally raised and/or inspected. Sure, there’s bad stuff in everything… but excluding everything isn’t a solution. Can you maybe give an explanation as to what *is* acceptable, in your opinion?

  • G-Rub

    I have to kind of do the steps Steve described above – my wife is on a very specialized, immunological, thyroid and celiac supporting diet – which pretty much means our daughter and I are too since just about ALL the food budget goes to high-quality food that satisfies those requirements. But the side benefit is that I’m generally eating very healthily and clean, and our general diet aligns very well with Paleo guidelines. What’s not so great is that it’s even more difficult for us to eat out without doing a lot of research – which I’m generally happy to do, since I love taking my wife out for a meal, but it can occasionally be a giant PITA. (Waitaminute, Pitas aren’t paleo!) The way we’ve compensated for this is to not eat out very often, but when we do, we splurge at places that we know are very customer-oriented, which includes many higher-end places who will almost always go out of their way to make sure that the customer is informed of the ingredients and possible risks for allergens. Heck, at my company Christmas party, the restaurant where it was held even went out of their way to make sure they included in the catering/banquet order a fresh fruit plate to sub for the cake and pastries especially for my wife. Some establishments we really appreciate around where I live, for anyone in Western PA;

    The Grand Concourse – I’m biased because they did our wedding reception, but even at their Mother’s Day brunch buffet, the executive chef and manager on duty gave my wife a tour (a tour!) of all the items and gave her the scoop on each entree, salad, and appetizer.

    Atria’s – a separate celiac menu which aligns very well with Paleo.

    The Capital Grille (also many other locations around the US) – Very Pricey – dinner for two can run $150 + – so this is definitely an anniversary/proposal type of place. (I had a gift card I won at my Co.’s Xmas party! Sweet) 🙂 But they have a GF friendly menu which also aligns well with Paleo. And the best part? They have BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH SMOKED BACON as a side dish to share! ! !

    Eat ‘n Park – tons of options and very modestly priced.

    And last – there’s always Whole Foods Cafe – Restaurant-quality entrees in the hot bar, big old salad bar, and prepared foods to eat there or take home, and each item has its ingredients listed. To us it’s a great substitute for eating out, in fact we may eat out (as a family, on date night, or meeting up with friends) about once a month, but we generally eat dinner or lunch at WF cafe about once a week since we go grocery shopping there anyway.

    This was a great article, and the point of my schpiel was that it might take some getting used to but planning and forethought will enable anyone to enjoy a going-out-to-eat experience.

  • Joey

    I disagree with the strategies in this article.

    Get pizza/lasagna/a cheeseburger and reduce your calories and macros throughout the day to accommodate for this. Why spend money on something you can easily produce at home. If I know me and the lads are going to a pub on Friday night for pints and something deep fried, I’ll just make sure to save my fats, carbs and calories for that night. That way you don’t have to sit there and watch your friends chow down on fish n’ chips while you’re eating a dressing-less caesar salad and a glass of water.

    Starches don’t make you fat. Potatoes are super healthy. Even regular white ones. They’re a great source of potassium and not calorie dense. A kilo of potatoes is only around 700 calories. … A KILO! … Obviously a kilo of french fries will put you in an early grave!

    I think Steve’s article is more important for people that eat out routinely rather than the once a week type of thing. These suggestions are certainly better for somebody that has lunch out every day with co-workers, etc.

    If your diet is a narrow ledge upon which you can fall…you’re on the wrong diet. It shouldn’t be lots of work. It should be maintained easily. Otherwise, what’re the chances you’ll stick it? … Stop being the goober at a party that eats the cheese off the crackers because “grains are bad”. You’re not losing weight because you gave grains, you’re losing weight because you’ve created a caloric deficit by marginalizing a food group.

    I love NF! But I’m never satisfied and frustrated by the diet advice.

  • Peggy Thomson

    When it comes to large portions, what I have been known to do is ask for a to go container before I start eating. Then I take half of what I have on my plate, put it in the to go container, and tuck it away to take home. I’m not tempted to eat more than I would/should and I get the satisfaction of cleaning the plate in front of me!

  • S3r3nity

    I was recently pleasantly surprised at a hotel restaurant. They had grass fed ground beef, wild salmon, free range eggs, elk, and trout on the menu and the sides included sweet potatoes, squash, asparagus, and the ubiquitous salad. Apparently this way of eating is popular with business travelers.

  • Just Curious

    I wonder if you would like to offer a bit of clarification? Do you save your calories from Sun-Friday afternoon? So you can eat something deep-fried, and drink a couple of pints on Friday night?

  • Ben Stark

    I disagree. For me trying to limit how much I eat once I start eating stuff like pizza or chips is almost impossible. I can do great completely avoiding those foods. I have gone six months with no pizza no problems. I know one piece and I would eat the whole damn pie. I don’t think I am the goober picking cheese off crackers but rather the person making good choices for me.

    Yes you can lose weight by maintaining a calorie deficit. You can achieve that by starving yourself. One can also lose weight by drastically lowering digestible carbs. Yes it lowers calories but more importantly that impacts insulin and its role in generating fat.

    Finally I think anyone concerned about fitness would realize that it’s the activity and people not the food that makes the fun. In the 80 pounds I have lost, I found I can go with my friends and not eat yet have fun.

  • This is a very helpful article. From working in restaurants for years you can at least be sure that any one you go into will have salads and chicken so you can usually do some form of that. And restaurants will always have olive oil and balsamic vinegar so ask them to mix that up as a dressing as opposed to any vegetable oil based dressings they might offer.
    -Jamie

  • Kristin

    Tara- Thanks for the insight about this. My mother-in-law lies in this way to the waitstaff all the time…it has never sat well with me. And now I know why it always took forever to get our orders when we were dining out with her!

  • Cola Sauce

    As the man of the family you decide what those standing below you should eat. Tell your wife to buy decent stuff and pay for the extra costs. If your children complain just beat them.

  • Daniel Jcs

    Note that there also are different kinds of allergies. My oat allergy for example leads to
    angular cheilitis (inflammation of the corners of the mouth) and rashes, especially on the soles of my feet and only does so if I consume a bunch of oats for a while (say every other day for a week), as well as bloating and other digestion issues, but it’s far from something life threatening, so there’s an important distinction to be made, what severity of allergy it is that is talked about and I’m sure Steve wasn’t referring to the fatal peanut level of allergy.

  • InkedMarie

    I understand your point but some of us like to eat out. For us, it’s part of life. I’m home all week & come the weekend, we like to get out of town at least one of the days. I appreciate this article with ideas of how to eat as healthy as possible. I’m going to eat out, while the food may not be perfect, making healthy choices are better than not.

  • Alex

    As someone with a potentially fatal dairy allergy I cannot agree more strongly. Love the rest of the recs (and the blog in general!) but no one without an allergy should ever claim that they have one. That leads restaurants and individuals to take those with really dangerous allergies less seriously.

  • Mike

    My Wife always orders 1/2 dozen oysters kilpatrick and adds them as the sauce for her steak when we eat out. It takes a bit of looking outside the square sometimes but we are no longer afraid to meet friends out for a meal.

  • Jill

    Oh gosh, reading the comments here is a bit of a gong show. Nutrition always seems to be what sets people off! Figure out what works for you, then do it. I think some people here are not considering level 1 where some people are starting. Steve’s advice above isn’t perfect, especially if you already have really good nutritional habits that work for you.

    For myself, I’m a big fan of picking a restaurant first (how many times have you heard “I don’t know, where do you want to go?”) and scouting the menu for what you should eat! Packing up half your meal BEFORE you start eating is a good way to add some portion control too – that way you don’t eat more than you planned because it’s already taken care of.

  • Taryn

    Thank you Tara, I agree! The point about allergies was poorly worded. I read this article earlier via email while at work and was just waiting to finish my day in order to comment here. I’m in the food industry AND have a serious peanut allergy. People who lie about having an allergy for diet purposes or just because they don’t like something are a big problem for cooks, and in turn, the people who have legitimate allergies.

  • LilMizA

    One way that has really helped me with portion control when eating out is to peruse the kids menu. If they have a smaller version of what I want to order, then I can still eat what I’m hankering for but just in a smaller size. Only a few restaurants are snarky about it. If I can’t order from the kids menu (i.e. the only options are chicken nuggets or Mac n cheese), I cut everything on the plate in half & take it home.
    If your friends/family try to encourage you to live a little, tell them “I AM living a little….a little longer!”

  • Goran Dimic

    Hehehe… pull a Staci. Excellent, I’ll remember that one 🙂

  • Densria

    Started by watching the video linked (totally awesome, btw), ended by watching Benedict Cumberbatch trying to say penguins. If that’s not the internet, I don’t know what is.

  • SmashingPixie

    BBQ is also a great option when the sauce is on the side. There are BBQ restaurants around here that smoke their own meats, and you can order them on a platter by the 1/4 lb or more, and choose what sides you want (mmmm… cole slaw).

    If you eat just eat it with a side of hot/spicy BBQ sauce (probably not Paleo, but delicious and lower on sugar) and ask them to leave off the toast/roll, it can be a great high protein, low carb option.

  • EscherEnigma

    I’ve reduced my dine-out meals to 2-3 a week, one of which is a lunch with co-workers. Since I’m on intermittent fasting (and so skip breakfast) that puts me at 80% paleo and 20% other. So I don’t worry about what I’m eating when at a restaurant.

    As they say, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Aidan

    Actually, I found it perfectly clear.

  • Never be afraid to modify!!! I’ve been doing it for years and it lets you enjoy eating out socially while keeping buff. Some restos hate it and I would never do it at say, a French Laundry (you’re there 100% for the food) but I don’t want to pay good money for 900 unnecessary cals, no thank you!

    Jill @ http://www.champagneforeveryday.com
    Recently posted: The Secret to Never Missing a 6am Workout Again

  • thompsonpat

    “what do you do” love the classics 🙂 but isn’t it more like 20 minutes for your brain to realize you are full?

  • thompsonpat

    oop and i love the simple rule on dessert. kind of like i always hang up on telemarketers now. no matter how worthy the cause. a simple rule makes it easier. kind of like a Ulysses contract. http://www.mentorpath.com/cms/blog/367-ulysses-contracts-precommitment-to-a-future-self.html

  • Clare Lindley

    This is a really great (and timely!) article for me. We have got into a habit of going out for lunch at work on a Friday, and I have always just ducked out thinking that there would be nothing that I could eat, but I feel really anti-social! But everywhere does salads, and I had a genius idea that I could ‘beef up’ a salad by asking for a couple of poached eggs on top, or heck even some tinned tuna if the place has some. There’s always a way!

  • Evicious

    Troll-loll-loll-loll-lolly-o!
    O, don’t you know?
    Your hair gives you away!
    It stands on end
    A rainbow bend
    A sign as plain as day!

    Troll-loll-loll-loll-lolly-o!
    That gem, you know,
    On your jelly-belly!
    Though sparkly lies,
    As in your eyes,
    Still flags you as smelly!

  • Matthew

    I’ve always had trouble with the “you DON’T have to eat it all!” part. I was part of a family that was a “clean your plate” bunch.

    Related: If you have protein+starch, eat most of the protein first; that way if you don’t eat it all, what you’re *not* eating is the starch!

  • Emily Miller

    Yes very nice i agree with you. I really like that you said if have bad diet in lunch then try to eat healthy in dinner because unhealthy food are very harmful we surely have to face bad effects of unhealthy eating habits.

    Jennie

  • AW

    Late to the party (waaaay backed up on my NF reading), but I agree completely with you! My Dad, who goes food shopping 3-5 times a week (I don’t think retirement sits well with him, but that’s another story), buys so much junk food & encourages me to eat it – to “live a little,” to “have the food in the house just in case you want it… what happens if you REALLY want it only to find it’s not there?”

    I try to disarm this as much as possible, but it’s incredibly difficult. Especially when he resents anyone trying to cook anything more than microwaving it.

    Steve – if you could consider an article covering in-home saboteurs, I’d REALLY love to read it!

  • Your post is very useful. Here is similar publish i liked http://www.mannaexpressonline.com/how-to-choose-what-you-eat-wisely

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  • Tricia Renee TLC Pro Fitness

    I think if you say something like I can’t eat “that” whatever it is…Beans in my case….I must have some type of allergy because it bloats me. This is totally different than a peanut allergy. I DO have issues with foods bloating me and my doctor did tell me that “I have allergies” because I get very bloated from many foods, but heaven forbid the whole kitchen goes into shut down panic mode over a food allergy that just gives a person uncomfortable painful gas! LOL GEEZ there are different types of food allgeries! Not all of them kill you. In fact very few do! Non the less they are ALL called allergies! I think you have a point but also over reacted a bit. My allergy isn’t life threatening, well then again maybe for the person who is with me after I eat something that makes me all boated and farty haha but I won’t die nor should a whole kitchen go into a furious snit when someone states they have an allergy. Thats just horrific communication, it should be asked…Is your allergy life threatening? What type of allergy is it before the whole building goes into shut down mode.

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