How much money do you spend on restaurants? Take-out? Fast food? (Excuse me, “quick service”?)
If you’re like most of us, the answer would be nearly half of your food spending. We devote just shy of forty-five percent of all of our food dollars to foods prepared outside of the home. That number has nearly doubled since 1970. In fact, some more recent surveys have found that in the past two years we may have actually crossed that line where food purchases of prepared foods officially exceeded those of groceries.
Restaurant meals may not be going out of vogue anytime soon in our overbooked, never-home-long-enough-to-catch-our-breaths lifestyles, but that presents quite a problem for the health-conscious consumer. A recent analysis posits that pretty much every single meal from large-chain and local restaurants (actual number: 92%) provide more calories than the average person needs. The average caloric content of these meals topped a whopping 1,205. Some contain even more calories than the average adult needs in an entire day. The worst offenders? American, Chinese, and Italian.
A lot of the issue with restaurant meals stems from sheer volume: the portions are consistently supersized. That’s why, though quick service chains get a significantly worse health rap, they tend not be quite as over-the-top when you sit down to analyze them nutritionally; portions are at times larger than recommended, but rarely as downright obscene as the ones you find in sit-down establishments. However, even moderately-portioned prepared foods have their woes. Chefs are heavy-handed with their use of butter, salt, oil, and sweeteners, packing quite the punch into even smaller-portioned meals.
So what are you to do if you’re looking to nourish your body without being a slave to your kitchen 365 days a year?
I’ve got you covered.
First, decide if it is a truly special occasion.
It’s clearly inadvisable to ever consume a day’s worth of calories in one sitting, but doing it once every blue moon is not a big concern. Doing it regularly, of course, has its share of consequences.
To determine whether or not the meal in question is truly special, ask yourself a few questions:
Why are you at the restaurant? Is it your daughter’s wedding? Your fifth (or fiftieth!) anniversary? Or is it just the fifth time you’ve decided not to cook this month? The less often you go out to eat, the more unique the situation is, and the less of an impact it will have on your overall health.
How special is this restaurant to you? How much do you look forward to the food they serve? When was the last time you were there? Let’s face it: there are restaurants we find moderately enjoyable but choose more for convenience; there are those we suffer through because it makes our family members happy; and then there are the ones we wait all year to frequent.
Can you get this same food elsewhere, or is it unique to the establishment? Is it burgers and generic pizza? Chicken parm? Beef and broccoli? A lot of restaurants have nearly identical menus to others serving similar cuisines. Now, quality may differ; you may prefer one establishment’s generic pizza over another; but really ask yourself if this is a unique experience.
I never advocate for choosing foods you actively dislike for the sake of nutrition, but if this isn’t a truly special occasion, you may want to factor health into your meal selection more carefully.
Next, be prepared.
Whenever possible, do a little recon work before you head out. Most venues these days have their menu online. Your preferences the moment you sit down may change based on specials, other foods in your diet lately, or even the weather; but knowing your options ahead of time helps you formulate a game plan. We’ll get to how to read a menu for key words in just a second, so hang on to that.
Larger establishments even have nutrition information available online. I don’t live and die by calorie counts, but we are far too blasé about what we put into our bodies these days. You can ultimately make whatever decision you want, but don’t do it with your head buried in the sand. Does your favorite appetizer provide over a thousand calories? Is that pasta dish able to feed a family of four comfortably? Does one salad dressing have half the sodium of another? Do any of the dishes have trans fats? Some places also include ingredient information, which can give you an added layer of knowledge.
Additionally, if you have very strict or unique dietary concerns, call ahead for accommodations. Towards the end of his life, for example, my grandfather had a very low salt restriction and had trouble at most restaurants; however, one steak house was willing to set aside unsalted foods during their prep if my grandmother called early enough in the day. Other reasons to call ahead include food allergies, food intolerances, and religious or ethical preferences. Knowing that your unique concerns have already been addressed can lower the pressure felt during the dining experience and improve the nutritional quality of your meal.
Set yourself up for success that day.
Skipping meals often backfires, but it’s not unwise to pay extra-attention to how nutritious your other meals are. Focus particularly on balancing the high sodium restaurant meal with plenty of water and potassium (think fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and yogurt), and limiting how much salt you take in.
Do your best to plan your other meals and snacks so that you’re sufficiently hungry but not ravenous for the restaurant. Hunger is a good thing; it means your body is ready for food and you will enjoy the experience more. Pushing it too far, however, makes you more likely to devour that bread basket in record time. Really late dinner reservations, for example, may call for an extra snack in the late afternoon; while really early lunch dates might warrant a lighter, smaller breakfast.
Next, reaffirm your goals. If you’ve decided already that the occasion is not truly special, and you’d prefer to stick to your wellness goals that meal, remind yourself of this and why that’s important to you. You could even confide your goals for the meal in someone going out to eat with you, but make sure they are supportive and trustworthy. You’re looking for encouragement without nagging.
Lastly, keep yourself calm to reduce the likelihood of stress-ordering. Get your aggression out earlier in the day with some good, old fashioned exercise; do a mind-body scan before you leave the house to check in with yourself mentally and physically; or do some deep breathing before getting out of your car. All of these things re-ground you and help you approach the meal with a deeper understanding of what may influence your ordering decisions.
Finally, you’re at the restaurant, and it’s time to decide what you’d like to eat.
Before you open up that menu, however, pause. If you could have anything in the world right then and there, what would you choose? How would it be prepared? What would make you feel best emotionally and physically? Once you have your vision, peruse the menu to see if anything they offer is similar, or if they honor special requests. The only caveat to this is that on an incredibly busy night, it might not be the best time to get too creative.
When reading the menu, remind yourself whether you’re trying to stick to a mostly healthy meal or if you’re relaxing your priorities a little this time. If health is a consideration, then note that generally, words like steamed, baked, roasted, and poached signify lighter options; words like crispy, smothered, fried, creamy, or breaded often coincide with higher caloric density.
Consider, too, how hungry you are. Maybe ordering a few sides or an appetizer as an entrée is enough, or maybe not. This requires you additionally to prioritize calories. Calories are units of energy, and if we consistently take in more than our bodies can burn, we will start storing that unused energy and our body weight will steadily rise. One large meal won’t have much impact beyond some acute sodium and fluid retention, but do it too often, and it will. So, decide what’s worth it to you and what isn’t. Do you definitely want dessert? Is alcohol important to you? Choose accordingly.
Lastly, consider any specials that the waiter reviews with you and decide if they change your mind.
Place your order like a pro.
Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions. The worst they can do is say no (or maybe give you a funny look). This could mean asking for double veggies, swapping grilled chicken or salmon in for crispy chicken on your salad or sandwich, or asking for baked potatoes instead of fries. It could mean asking if a pasta dish that appeals to you can be made with marinara instead of cream sauce. It could mean ordering dressings, toppings (like butter), and sauces on the side; or requesting that unwanted garnishes, like powdered sugar on waffles, be left off altogether. This allows you to be in charge of what and how much you eat.
If you don’t want to be tempted to eat something that you know you’ll munch on if it’s there, make sure it doesn’t come on your plate. This extends beyond those small garnishes to things like fries or chips that come alongside a sandwich or a lackluster bread basket that comes with the table. Again, if you’ve decided that the chips, fries, or bread are where you want to prioritize your calories because you think they are the bees knees, cool! But mindless munching because they’re staring at you is not the same as savoring a special food.
Oh, and a word on drinks: in general, the recommendation would be to stick to water. Other solid options include unflavored seltzer with lemon or lime slices added, or unsweetened iced tea. Of course, if a cocktail or soda is part of your vision for enjoying the special occasion, then I certainly won’t argue against it, but see if you can nurse (“savor”) that one serving the whole meal.
Set your intentions while you wait for your food to arrive.
While you wait for your order, make a conscious decision about munching. This means those chips or bread left on the table, which often fill you up before your meal even arrives. If you love a restaurant’s bread basket (some of them are really top notch), consider cutting back on a carb elsewhere in the meal for balance. If the bread is pretty generic, though, consider skipping it. I can get warm dinner rolls pretty much anywhere I go, so I personally tend to forego the pre-meal munching altogether (save for a few special places). You may choose differently.
This is also when you want to decide how full you want to feel at the end of the meal. This sets an intention and gives you a reference point moving forward. On more special occasions, you may choose to sometimes eat beyond the point of satisfaction; but most of the time, nutrition experts recommend stopping at around a five on a 10-point hunger scale. That’s actually not very full at all! You may even get an urge at this point to continue eating, but usually this passes if we sit peacefully with it for a few minutes.
When your meal arrives, request that a to-go container be brought out simultaneously. Portion out the food you want to save for later. It’s easy to say that you only want to eat a small portion of a meal at the start, but it can be hard to stop mid-way through. Pack it up immediately instead; remember, you can always choose to go back for more if you change your mind.
Now, it’s time to eat!
But wait! First, take a few deep, grounding breaths. This is not a race, but rather something to be enjoyed. Who wants to get carried away by excitement and realize that they have devoured their portion without hardly even noticing it? Start the meal off mindfully, paying attention to the sight, aroma, flavor, and texture of it all. Take small bites, chew slowly, and put your fork down between bites. (If you are getting the next forkful ready while you’re still chewing on something else, you’re not focusing on the food currently in your mouth.)
Pause for sips of water and to enjoy the conversation. It takes time for your brain to catch up with how full your stomach is feeling, so give it a chance to register all you’re eating. This also takes the focus away from the food and shifts it to the whole experience.
Check in periodically with yourself to see how you are feeling, too. Compare this to how full you wanted to be at the end, and decide how much more you would like to eat.
Notice how your appetite and appreciation of the food changes over time. Taste buds become desensitized to flavors with repeated exposure, but when we eat very quickly, we get stuck on the memory of the first few bites rather than the reality of how it tastes towards the end. Instead, slow down and you may notice your interest waning as you continue to eat more and more. This is your body telling you that it has had enough, and you may find yourself satisfied if you stop before your plate is empty.
Bring the meal to an end.
No matter what happens, view it as a learning experience. There is no room for guilt or even disappointment!
If you ate so much that you now feel uncomfortably full, or you know you made less nutritious choices than you had intended, figure out what obstacles stood in your way and how you can work around them next time.
If you were a bit overcautious and wound up not eating enough, leaving you munchy or downright hungry later on in the day, make a mental note of what you ate and how much so you can adjust up next time. Maybe you were missing a major nutrient, like carbs, protein, or fats; or maybe the meal just didn’t have enough calories or fiber in it.
And of course, if you accomplished your goal, pat yourself on the back! You can think back to this small victory in the future if you ever feel discouraged about your progress or your capabilities.
Remember, your next opportunity to nourish yourself and listen to your body is just one meal or snack away.
No one meal will ever break you. It will never turn you into a failure. A meal is just another part of life; sometimes it will be nutrient-dense, and sometimes, not so much. The important thing is to decide which you want it to be, weighing the pros and cons, so that you can feel confident that whatever choice you make is the right one for you in that moment. If you do that, you will never feel regret and will be taking your practice of self-care to a whole new level.