Eating Well When Dining Out
A big part of eating well for your health is consistency. In the United States, the average person eats away from home multiple times per week. To consistently work towards our health goals, it is important to make better choices when dining out, not just when we eat at home. Notice I did not say strive for perfection - we focus on progress over perfection here at The Functional Kitchen and that applies to dining out as well.
Let's walk through some tips and tricks, plus review some simple and useful guides you will want to favorite or screenshot to have handy the next time you eat out.
It Starts At Home
Have you ever skipped a meal or snack in anticipation of a decadent meal out? I have definitely done this in the past and while it may seem logical to "save" your calories for that meal you are looking forward to, it is actually doing your body a disservice (not to mention it is a slippery slope and could be damaging your relationship with food).
Eating balanced meals and snacks at home and not restricting anything in anticipation of a meal out helps set you up for success. This allows you to arrive at the social setting or restaurant with your typical level of hunger before a meal. It also means your blood sugar will likely be more balanced, allowing you to think clearly about how to build a balanced meal and eat an appropriate amount for your needs.
Plan Ahead, If You Can
The amount of information available to us through the internet can be overwhelming but here is one place it can definitely come in handy: many restaurants have their menus online. If you know where you are going to eat or get takeout (or even better yet, you get to pick where!), check out their menu(s) ahead of time. This helps take away the stress of picking quickly once you sit down and provides you with the time to really look at each option available with fewer distractions.
When you are reviewing menus ahead of time, keep in mind that it is ok to ask for clarification on portions and how things are prepared when you order. Oftentimes, modifications can be made to help you customize your meal in a way that works for you. Do not be afraid to ask.
Use the Plate Method and Hand Portions
At The Functional Kitchen, we love to make things as simple as possible. That is why we often use The Plate Method and Portion Size Guide to help individuals build balanced plates and snacks to meet their needs. These are useful tools that are portable (save a screenshot on your phone) and can be used without anyone else around you even knowing.
The Portion Size Guide below helps you estimate protein, non-starchy vegetable, complex carb, and fat servings with just your hand. The plate visual below is used for what we call The Plate Method - use this image to help guide you as you build your meal at home (and away from home) by thinking of your plate as four quadrants. While the Portion Size Guide is universal, the plate visual referenced below is a general guideline - nutrition is unique and we all have individual needs so reach out to a registered dietitian to help design the best reference plate for you.
In addition to using the Portion Size Guide and Plate Method, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when dining out:
Take a few deep breaths before you begin to eat your meal. This can help get you into your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest state) and also help you practice mindful eating.
Start with vegetables. If you enjoy an appetizer before your main meal, pick something that includes a vegetable to help with blood sugar balance, fiber intake, and micronutrient intake.
Enjoy your meal! Remember, progress over perfection. Try not to get so caught up in every little detail that you forget to enjoy the experience.
Food Group-Specific Guidance
Order double protein or a side of protein if the meal does not come with enough to meet your needs.
Go for preparations that use less fat (not because you should avoid fat) because restaurants often use oils that can cause inflammation. Look for: "baked," "broiled," or "grilled." Limit: "fried," "breaded," and "smothered."
If a dish is mostly carbohydrates, ask if you can substitute any of those carbohydrates for a non-starchy vegetable.
Go for the whole grain option when that is available (exp: brown rice in place of white rice).
Ask for sauces and dressings on the side so you can control how much you put on your dish.
Do not be afraid to ask for less sauce or even a different sauce.
Look for oil-based dressings rather than cream-based dressings. If you have your choice of oils, go for olive or avocado.
Focus on non-starchy vegetables (the starchy ones are mainly potatoes, corn, and peas).
Ask if you can have your veggies steamed, grilled, or roasted. Again, not that fat should be avoided, it is just that most meals made in restaurants are cooked with more fat than you would likely use at home.
Consider a side salad or another veggie-filled side if most dishes are lacking vegetables.
If you are going for soup, focus on broth-based rather than cream-based options.
Watch for added sugar in sneaky places. Menu wording can often tip you off : "glazed," "maple," "caramelized," or "sweet" often mean sugar was added.
If portions are large, box some up to take home or split it with someone.
Ask for any sauces on the side so you control the amount.
Ask if they have any fresh fruit that could be added to the dessert or brought out as a side.