How to eat out while sticking to your diet!

If you are trying to improve your diet and lifestyle, you probably already know that eating home-cooked food is a big step in the right direction. You probably also know it can be time-consuming and difficult, even when you know and love cooking. As much as we like to admit we have a perfect diet; we don’t. There are times when you’re going to eat out: social occasions, business trip, whatever. So we’ll just break down how to make the most out of it and fail less.

Common Mistakes

Going all out

Just because you are not sticking to the plan 100% doesn’t mean you should go 100% in the opposite direction. You don’t have to stuff your face with fries and a milkshake just because you “needed” a burger. You can have your burger, switch out the fries for a side salad salad, discard some of the bun perhaps, don’t slather it in mayo, have plain tea not sweet tea. The more plain your food is: grilled/roasted chicken, steamed veggies, baked potato, steamed rice; the less variables and potential for hidden calories. If you eat out for 500 calories instead of 1000, will it really be 50% less fun? No, so eat intelligently.

Overcompensatory under-eating

This is just the opposite. You know you’re eating in a restaurant, and the food is all fried and dripping with calories, so you go with the Butterfield option. You eat your few leaves of lettuce, or even the grilled chicken and steamed veggies, and then end up feeling even more hungry and go crazy with dessert. Instead have a more balanced meal. We’ll talk more about recommended options for rounding out a meal below.

But I logged it!

For most foods you order in a restaurant, you really won’t know how many calories you’re getting. You might be able to log Chicken Korma in myfitnesspal, but did you stand in the kitchen with the chef weighing out the ingredients for the marinade and the sauce? Did you weigh how much marinade stayed on the chicken? Did you weigh your plate at the table? Did myfitnesspal do any of that when they came up with their nutrition facts for the dish?

If you eat in a restaurant, recognise that you don’t know exactly what you ate. You can and probably should still log it, but understand that whatever total you get for that day is even less exact than usual. That might sound obvious, but if you eat out frequently, and after a month or 2 of being in a deficit and sticking to the plan 100% you aren’t losing weight, you need to take a look at that deficit and recognize you probably weren’t on one.

How to make the best out of it

  1. This is your cheat meal, off meal, reward meal, refeed, whatever you wanna call it. Make the most out of what counts: maximize food quality, taste, enjoyment. You don’t need to go all out with the worst and most calorie-laden meal imaginable; what you do need is to enjoy it. Go for flavorful food and an enjoyable atmosphere.

  2. You only need to eat as much as you want to eat. Don’t finish the plate just because it’s there or because other people expect it. So eat as much as you need, you’re not in an eating contest. Ideally you wanna pick foods that you can eat whole portions of but if you are stuck with some grease bomb cut down on the portions. Corollary: If you go out to eat with others, the point is company, not food. Enjoy the company, be enjoyable company, if you don’t want to eat from that menu, don’t.

  3. Be a difficult customer. Don’t be difficult on purpose, but ask questions, request substitutions. If you ask nicely and tip nicely, you’re not harming anyone. Most restaurants will swap your carbs for veggies if you ask. Also skip most sauces or have them on the side. Obviously this doesn’t work for every dish but ranch dressing? Sweet and sour sauce? You don’t really need that. If your food needs a cup of sugar or half a stick of butter to make it taste good then you might need to reconsider what it is you’re eating.

If you get mistaken for a crack fiend while having dinner then you’re doing it wrong.

Anatomy of a good meal

There’s a plethora of restaurants and eateries and we can’t cover everything. But here’s a condensed list of some of the safer options that will help you from turning into a real life Michelin man.

Protein

Build dishes around a solid protein. Beef, fish, chicken, seafood, eggs are a good start. Consider how those proteins are cooked. Grilled/baked usually means less added ingredients - like oil. Sauteed is a little iffier and fried is clearly a bad answer. Cream sauces are also a red flag. Dishes with heavy sauces are almost always going to be calorie heavy, so stick to simple stuff.

Load up on the protein:

  • Grilled/baked/rotisserie chicken
  • Pork tenderloin and other lean meats
  • Steak - just watch for huge fatty steaks since they can pack in a lot of calories
  • Salmon or grilled fish in general
  • Shrimp cocktail
  • Raw: sashimi, oysters on the half shell, ceviche, etc.
  • Deli meats like Turkey breast or Pastrami (Both very low in fat), great for deli sandwiches
  • Plain/Greek yogurt/Cottage cheese, more breakfast foods but still a solid pick.

Carbs

Enemy #1 to a lot of people but carbs are actually a great source of energy and a godsend if you are really active. Similar to meat, you want plain cooked ones with minimal additions. For example baked potato? Good. Mashed Potatoes? Probably bad since it’s likely to have lots of milk and butter added. Second, stick to as natural and unprocessed carb sources. Avoid things like sugars and super white breads and especially fried carbs.

What carbs to get:

  • Baked Regular/Sweet Potato
  • Plain white or brown rice
  • Bread (Sourdough, whole wheat) - as long as it’s ~1-2 slices for a sandwich, not you devouring a sack of baked flour.
  • Corn tortillas/wraps - be careful of the huge flour tortillas (Chipotle’s packs >300 calories). Low calorie wraps aren’t really good either since they tend to replace digestible, naturally caloric food with undigestible irritants.
  • Beans (although watch for added stuff)

Fats

You won’t generally have trouble getting your fats at a restaurant; 90% of secret recipes are “add oil.” Still since you are cutting back on the sauces and avoiding fried foods you want to get a good source of fat.

What fats to get:

  • Olive oil and vinegar dressings
  • Eggs can be both protein and a fat. They make great additions on salads and to a lot of foods.
  • Avocado, probably the best and easiest. Best to get whole as a lot of guacamole has sour cream and who knows what else added.
  • Steak, yeah it’s a protein but it can be pretty fatty and you can count part of the calories toward your fat.
  • Cheese is the redheaded step child of the nutrition world. But a good cheese like cheddar or goat or mozzarella is a good fat source. Just remember fat has 9 calories per gram so portion accordingly.
  • Nuts. You can always supplement your restaurant meal with non-perishable staples stashed from home.

Quality Restaurants

Lets face it some restaurants are just a fatty trap while others you can order almost anything and be guaranteed a healthy, balanced meal.

Worst offenders

  • Fast food joints
  • Fried chicken (or really fried anything)
  • Pancake and Waffle houses
  • Generic Italian
  • Generic Chinese

Better choices

  • Mediterranean such as Greek, Italian, Lebanese etc. Heavy focus on proteins like lamb/fish/chicken. A lot of more natural options like herb salads, hummus, dolmas, fresh cheeses.
  • Vietnamese: good soups like Pho that come packed with veggies and meat.
  • South American food: obviously there is a massive amount of diversity in cousines but a lot of emphasis on grilled meats, seafood and not as much processed food. Good examples are ceviche, steakhouse,
  • Sushi: this is a bit more tricky. We recommend sticking to sashimi and 1 roll of simple sushi, miso soup, and a salad. Once you start hitting the tempura and katsu, things start to go bad; basically avoid anything fried and you make it through 90% of the pitfalls.

That said, wherever you end up, there is always a better option:

  • Indian: stick to grilled and tandoori meat or fish, rice, salad.
  • Mexican: grilled chicken or steak, corn tortillas, beans, fresh avocado, salad and salsa.
  • Chinese: steamed chicken and veggies. Add steamed rice. Nuts would also be a good addition.
  • Supermarket: If you’re outside the house and don’t want to break the diet but don’t know what to eat, consider this undervalued option. You can find all the snacky staples like fresh fruit, raw salad veggies, greek yogurt, boiled eggs, nuts, water; there are also often more meal-like options: rotisserie chicken, salad bar, sandwiches, etc. A lot of supermarkets also have seating areas.

Wrapping it up

Eating out doesn’t have to be a horrible experience nor does it have to be a PSA on the dangers of binging. Find the middle ground, plan ahead and enjoy. The two biggest problems people make is they either think it’s totally cool to eat 1500+ calorie meals regularly at restaurants OR they make a mountain out of a molehill and tap out just because they had one cheat meal. On average you’ll eat something like 28 meals per week. If you mess up one of them that’s only 3.5% of your meals.

Focus on the big picture. Yeah the details matter, but what’s more important is your trend and the direction you’re headed in. Succeed just a bit more than you fail and you’ll make it.

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Mike Kabbani

In the last 12 years I've helped thousands get their dream body and live life to the fullest. Come join the revolution.