You’ve made the decision to clean up your diet, and so far, things are chugging along pretty smoothly—when you cook at home, at least. Dining out, on the other hand, still feels like a minefield.
It’s common knowledge that most restaurant meals lack filling nutrients like fiber and are overloaded with salt, sugar, and refined carbs. And even when you come across a healthy choice, the portion is often huuuuge. All things considered, it comes as no surprise that dining out frequently is linked to a lower intake of vitamins and nutrients and a greater risk for obesity.
But that’s not to say that dining out and sticking to a healthy diet are mutually exclusive. Stick with these simple rules to keep your weight loss on track:
Eat as you normally would.
Tempted to skimp on calories during the day so you can let loose at your favorite restaurant at dinner? It might seem like a smart move, but “saving up” for your meal can actually backfire. “If we go into a meal famished, foods that we would otherwise not be as tempted by immediately become more compelling,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, co-author of Prevention’s Eat Clean, Lose Weight & Love Every Bite. In other words, you’re way more likely to inhale the entire breadbasket or say yes to a side of fries.
Here’s a better idea: Eat like you normally would throughout the day, and help yourself to a moderate portion of your restaurant meal. (We’ll talk more about keeping portions in check later.) This way, you won’t feel hungry all day, and you won’t end up leaving the restaurant feeling uncomfortably full.
Do some menu sleuthing.
Menu descriptors don’t just list what’s in a dish. They can also tell you how your food will be prepared—and whether or not it’s likely to be a healthy choice.
Play it safe by looking for words that signal lighter dishes, like baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, or poached and steer clear of anything that’s described as fried, crusted, or stuffed, Bazilian says. Rich, creamy, decadent, premium, cheesy, loaded, or buttery are other possible red flags. Not only are the former options lower in calories, but they’re also less likely to contain heart-harming fats like hydrogenated vegetable oil or margarine.
Aim for a balanced plate.
Whether you’re eating at home or in a restaurant, your meal should include a mix of non-starchy veggies (like broccoli, spinach, or zucchini), lean protein (like chicken, fish, beans, or lean red meat), complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, sweet potato, or whole-wheat pasta), and healthy fat (like olive oil, avocado, or nuts). This combination of nutrients promotes slow, steady digestion, Bazilian says, so you’ll stay satisfied for longer than if you just polished off a big plate of white pasta with marinara for example. Two combinations that fit the nutritional bill: grilled chicken with a baked sweet potato and a side salad drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, and broiled salmon with quinoa and green beans.
Don’t be afraid to ask for modifications.
Spot something on the menu that looks delicious and has the potential to be healthy with just a few tweaks? Ask your server what can be done to meet your needs. Chances are, the chef won’t have a problem giving you whole-wheat pasta instead of white, leaving off the cheese, or skipping the mayo. No matter what the cuisine, there are countless smart, simple swaps you can make. Here are a few to consider:
• Asian: Get a simple stir-fry with vegetables and a lean protein like chicken, tofu, or shrimp. Ask for brown rice instead of white, and get the sauce on the side.
• Italian: Order pasta primavera with whole-wheat pasta and red sauce instead of white pasta in a cream-based sauce. Ask if you can have it made with half the usual amount of pasta, and double the usual amount of vegetables. Better yet, get an appetizer-sized portion of pasta and pair it with a side salad or a side of roasted vegetables.
• Seafood: Skip the fried and crusted fish and ask about having your fish grilled or broiled with lemon. Eat only a checkbook-sized portion of the fish, and ask to have the rest boxed up.
• Steakhouse: Opt for a lean cut of beef like a flank steak, get a baked potato instead of mashed, and have your spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of creamed.
• Southwestern: Get the chicken or veggie fajitas. Ask for corn or whole-wheat tortillas instead of white for added fiber (or ditch the carb blankets altogether and eat your meal with a fork), and get plain black beans instead of refried ones. Ask for heart-healthy guacamole in place of the usual sour cream and cheese.
Be a little rude.
Sure, letting your companions go first might seem like the polite thing to do, but putting your order in before everyone else ups the odds that you’ll stick with your healthy plan. Why? When you order first, you’re at your strongest to ask for what you really want rather than fall into the “I’ll have what she’s having” trap, Bazilian says. As a bonus, you might even influence the rest of your tablemates to order something healthier, too. Good choices are contagious, people!