There are so many wonderful things about going out to eat: It’s fast, quick, easy and tasty. But, if you’re trying to be mindful of your choices or making positive nutrition changes, eating out can be a barrier to success.
Americans eat and drink on average about a third of their total daily calories away from home. While it’s ideal to eat mostly home-cooked meals, life can sometimes get in the way, and there will be times when eating out is inevitable. If you eat out often, try limiting yourself to one or two times per week or a level you feel good about in your own situation, schedule and lifestyle.
Making healthy choices while eating out is a challenge. To help, here are the five most-common pitfalls for eating out, plus tips on how you can successfully navigate around them.
1. YOU SHOW UP TOO HUNGRY
Here’s a typical scenario: You’re hungry, and then you decide to head out to eat. Sometimes it’s fast food, and you’re eating within minutes. Sit-down restaurants exacerbate the situation by making you play the waiting game: You wait to be seated, then wait to get the menu, then wait until your food arrives (with a bread basket staring you in the face!). By the time your food actually comes, you are past the point of reasonable hunger — you are so hungry you might even feel out of control about what you eat and how much. Even though it’s tempting to “save up” calories in preparation for eating out, it usually isn’t a great idea. The desperate hunger you feel can be detrimental to making the best decision in the moment.
Instead of letting yourself get to the desperate hunger (aka hangry) zone, remember to eat regular meals and light snacks during the day leading up to a night out. Let yourself be hungry, but let it be the type of hunger that’s reasonable and in control — that may mean grabbing a banana or handful of almonds before dining out.
2. YOU’RE SERVED HUGE PORTION SIZES
According to Drs. Lisa Young and Marion Nestle, portion sizes at restaurants took a sharp increase in the US during the 1970s and have continued to expand. Multiple well-controlled studies have shown that, when offered larger portion sizes, people tend to consume more. For example, one study gave participants four different portion sizes of macaroni and cheese on different days (small, medium, large and extra-large portions). They found a 30% increase in calorie consumption when participants were offered the extra-large portion versus the small portion. The take-home message is this: The portion sizes at restaurants are more food than we need, and, when we are served huge portions, we tend to overeat.
Combat the large portions by trying a few things:
- Share an entree with a friend.
- Order the “kid” size.
- Opt for a vegetable side dish rather than fries or chips when given the option.
- Use the plate method. Visualize how that restaurant meal would look like on your plate at home. Try to eat the equivalent of about a quarter of your plate of protein, quarter of starch and half your plate of vegetables.
- Look up the nutrition information on MyFitnessPal, and decide what you have room for in your day before you get to the restaurant. Already there? Try the app’s restaurant logging feature.
- Ask for a doggie bag, and pack up half of your food before you start eating.
3. DRINKS ADD UP
Sometimes when we eat out, we feel the pressure to order a drink. A small 12-ounce soft drink contains about 140 calories. Cocktails can range from 100 to as many as 500 calories per drink. Don’t be afraid to order water — it can save you calories and money to boot! If you choose to have a drink, make it occasional and intentional. Enjoy it as a treat!
4. YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY DELICIOUSLY TEMPTING CHOICES
One of the joys of eating out is knowing you’re eating food that’s delicious, and you don’t even have to do any dishes! Everything on the menu can make you salivate. Many of us get stuck in the trap of feeling a sense of scarcity with eating out and think, “When will I eat this again?” or, “I never get this food, I have to get it all in now!” Rather than falling victim to the temptations around you, remind yourself that you can come back another time, or you can take home the leftovers so there’s no need to go overboard in this moment. It takes practice, but it’s worth it!
READ MORE > 10 MAKE-AHEAD BREAKFASTS UNDER 300 CALORIES
5. THE “CHEATING” MENTALITY CREEPS IN
Because eating out is a treat, we can sometimes fall into the trap of the “cheating” mentality. Labels of “bad” foods or “unhealthy” foods can cause you to feel guilty about your choices. Often, what results is throwing in the towel for the time-being only to be followed by a deep sense of guilt and regret. This becomes an unhealthy cycle of falling off the bandwagon and recommitting. Instead, enjoy the food before you without guilt, and know that healthy eating is not perfect eating. It’s about making healthy choices most of the time and allowing yourself to enjoy all foods.The cheating mentality does not help you in the long run; it leads to unhealthy cycles and a damaged relationship with food.
While some aspects of eating out are stacked against us, it’s still possible to make healthful foods choices. If you can reduce how often you eat outside of the home, do it! If you can work on tuning in to your body, recognizing and becoming aware of the common pitfalls, you will be more likely to be able to enjoy the occasional fun night out free of guilt or shame.