Whether you’re dining out or ordering in, adopt these tips to make it less stressful and more enjoyable.
Losing weight and keeping it off requires making choices you can stick with for the long run. So if your plan has you turning down every dinner invite or swearing off takeout, it's probably not realistic.
It's true that restaurant meals tend to be higher in fat and calories than what you make at home (not to mention the runaway portion sizes). But that doesn't mean restaurant food is totally off the table when you're watching your waistline.
“One meal will not derail your entire healthy eating plan,” says Christine Rosenbloom, Ph.D., R.D.N. She’s the owner of Chris Rosenbloom Food & Nutrition Services in Atlanta and author of Food & Fitness After 50.
With a few smart strategies, you can enjoy a wide variety of restaurant meals and still reach your weight-loss goals. Here's what nutrition experts recommend.
Tip #1: Review the Menu in Advance
Every nutrition expert we talked to offered this advice. Why? Because it's much harder to make a thoughtful ordering decision when you're eager to catch up with old friends or your server is standing over you.
You don’t have to decide exactly what you’ll order, but reviewing the menu helps give you an idea of what you’ll encounter, says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N. He’s a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Most restaurants post their menus online. And if you’re ordering from a large chain (anywhere with 20 or more locations), the Food and Drug Administration requires that calorie and nutrition information be available so that you can know exactly what to expect.
Tip #2: Take the Edge Off Hunger
Before you head out the door — or while waiting for your takeout order to arrive — drink a glass of water or eat a small healthy snack such as an apple, suggests Jessica Bennett, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. She’s a clinical dietitian for the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
It may seem counterintuitive, but "it's an easy way to avoid going into the situation so hungry that you make a choice that doesn't align with your health goals," Bennett says. That could mean anything from downing half the bread basket to eating the entire entrée you intended to split and save for tomorrow's lunch.
A study published in the journal Obesity found that people who drank two cups of water 30 minutes before meals lost twice as much weight as those who were instructed to imagine their stomachs being full before they ate. More research is needed to determine exactly why water preloading helps. But one possible explanation is that drinking water increases satiety, leading people to consume fewer calories during the meal.
Tip #3: Ask Questions
A side of steamed broccoli is probably cooked in a little salt and olive oil, right? Not always. Restaurants prepare foods differently, which sometimes means that healthy items such as steamed veggies are smothered in butter or oil.
Remember: You're the customer, Rosenbloom says. It's perfectly fine to ask questions about how your food is prepared and to request that less butter or oil be used in the preparation of your dish. You also can ask that sauces and dressings be served on the side. That way, you can control how much you use.
The same concept applies to menu modifications: Just because something comes with a side of french fries or mac and cheese doesn't mean they're your only options. Ask to swap in something lighter such as a side salad, an unloaded baked potato, or steamed veggies.
Tip #4: Start with a Broth-Based Soup
Ordering soup is a standard way to start a meal, but it can also be a secret weapon. Similar to drinking water before a meal, brothy soups can be filling, says Rosenbloom, which will help you eat less of an oversized entrée.
In fact, a study in the journal Appetite found that when people ate soup before their meal, they ate 20 percent fewer calories during the meal compared to those who didn’t eat soup. It’s worth noting that participants ate a light vegetable soup. The calorie savings could easily be canceled out by creamy soups and bisques.
Tip #5: Avoid the Two F’s
That’s fried foods and freebies.
As tempting as they can be, fried foods are typically loaded with excess fat and calories. Deep-fat frying can double or even triple the calories in some foods, Rosenbloom says. If you see the word "crispy" on the menu, that's usually code for fried. Your best bet is to pick entrées described as grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, or boiled.
As for freebies, it's no secret that filling up on bread or chips before your meal arrives is a bad idea, but that doesn't mean they're any less tempting. Make it easy on yourself by asking your server not to bring them out in the first place. "Breads, rolls, and chips can add up fast," Bennett says. "Before you know it, you've had an entire meal's worth of calories from the free items."
Tip #6: Order an Appetizer as Your Main Course
When eating out, the entire menu is fair game. Choosing something from the appetizer section as your main course is an easy way to keep portions in check. "Most appetizers contain more than enough food for a substantial meal," Rosenbloom says.
Just remember that the other advice on this list still applies: Avoid anything fried, and don’t be afraid to ask your server how foods are prepared.
Tip #7: Pre-Pack a To-Go Box
Restaurant meals tend to be much larger than what you’d serve yourself at home. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the average meal at sit-down restaurant chains contained 1,120 calories. That’s more than half the daily 2,000-calorie intake recommended by the FDA for a healthy adult.
What’s more, another study found that when we’re given bigger portions, we eat more, no matter how hungry we are.
The simple solution: Plan to eat only half your entrée and take the rest home for another day, Planells says. "It's two meals for the price of one!"
The best strategy is to ask for a to-go box at the beginning of the meal and immediately pack up half, Bennett adds. "A lot of restaurants will do this for you if you ask," she says. It takes the pressure off trying to track your portions so that you can focus on having fun.
You can use the same trick with takeout. Immediately divide your order in two and put half in the fridge for another day.
Tip #8: Savor the Experience
"Food is one of life's pleasures, so focus on enjoying your dining experience," Rosenbloom says. Whether you're meeting family or friends at a restaurant or carrying in for movie night at home, it's not a race to finish the meal. "Savor the flavors and the company of family or friends," she says.
And remember, one meal or food item will not make or break your diet. "It's the choices you make every day that add up to build to your health goals," Bennett says.
Adopting any of the tips above can help keep calories in check, but if you're going out for a special occasion and want to splurge, enjoy it. "Every meal, every day can't be a splurge - that becomes a habit," Planells says. But there's no need to stress about one meal choice.
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