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Fit Foodie’s Guide to Dining Out

Recently, a challenge group participant posted “How do I know that I’m making the right choices when I’m eating out?” I thought for a moment and realized that most of the fit-work I do when I have a night out actually happens before I get to the restaurant. Once there, I sit back, have fun, and let my plan guide my actions.

Know Before you Go — Research!
Depending on where we’re going, my approach changes slightly. But the general  principle is that I know what I will be eating before I get to the restaurant. This way, I won’t be persuaded by what others are choosing (“if she’s getting fries, I can have fries”), my decision is made before I’ve had any wine to make me think the “one night doesn’t matter” argument seems reasonable, and it also it gives me time to do some “research. ” If I’ve made my mind before I get there, I focus on conversation and not thinking about the food I’m not eating.

Research comes in three categories: chain restaurants, typical nationality based restaurants, and what I’ll call local/unique restaurants (which tend to be my favorites).  Chain restaurants usually have nutritional information online so you can plan a meal that works in your caloric allotment.  If not, follow my guidance below for the non-chain, non-nationality based restaurants. Almost always, you should plan to take home or give to someone else at the table half of your dinner at chain restaurants. The servings are out of control humungous. Restaurants like Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Japanese tend to have the same types of typical items from restaurant to restaurant so it’s a matter of finding the healthiest general choices. I usually google something like “eating healthy Chinese restaurant” and find an article like this health magazine article to give me  foundations and ideas on what to order (for example, I would never have thought to ask how the edamame is prepared… if its tossed in oil!)

For non-chain, non-typical nationality type restaurants, it’s a little trickier. Philly has tons of these: little BYOBs, Gastropubs, new American cuisine – these get a little tricky. If a menu is online, if gives me a chance to look for key words that either make something a thumbs up (grilled, steamed) or a thumbs down (fried, cream sauce, cheese). I also scope out the accompaniments/ side dishes.  If there are lots of veggie options I will usually swap out my carb (potatoes, rice, pasta) for extra servings of veggies. I do this quite often and have never been given a hard time or charged extra for it.

Let’s do a quick menu case study. Vernick is one of my favorite Philly restaurants and the menu changes seasonally so I like to prepare before I go to make the healthiest choices. As a quick sidebar – I’m not paranoid when I eat out- I make smart choices but don’t go nuts over a little oil or a macadamia nut or find out details about how each item is prepared. I expect that making healthy choices in my kitchen 80% of the time offsets a little extra oil  or bacon (!) when I’m dining out.  Also, you’ll  notice a lot of healthy options on the menu. I notice that many of the nicer restaurants gave reasonable or smaller portions and not those out of control portions from chain restaurants. Lastly, vegetables always seem to taste amazing from these types of restaurants.  So back to Vernick- here are the top items from each category I would choose: skip the toasts – the toast part means bread and that doesn’t add anything as far as nutrition just extra calories; almost any of the raw items would be great and on plan. The three that I would probably focus on would be the oyster, tuna or scallop. The veggies look good but I would likely stick with the roasted cauliflower or grilled artichoke. The crispy potatoes and the Parmesan custard are a no way (key word — custard).  As far as the small plates, I might get a little more info on the mushrooms but the grilled octopus or mussels would be a great choice. For the large plates the grilled sea bass is a hands down winner since its grilled and comes with veggies that seem to be prepared healthily.

Let’s open up the challenge — send me your favorite menu or “type” of food and I’ll suggest healthy options!

Eat Before you Go – Really!!
For years I would skip lunch and “save” my calories or points for dinner out. Huge mistake. I would arrive at the restaurant HANGRY–  eating the bread basket, my first drink would immediately go to my head, and I would make poor decisions for the rest of the night. Now, I eat my normal portions all day – including an afternoon snack so when I get to the restaurant, I can skip the bread basket.

That brings us to the what happens at the actual restaurant. We’ve already planned our meal, so it’s a matter of not straying from it.

No Bread Basket
The coolest experience I had was at Will in Philadelphia, where the waiter noticed I wasn’t eating the bread and asked if I’d like some lavender scented popcorn (or something like that). It was the highlight of my night!

Drink A Lot (of water or seltzer!)
Order you still or sparkling water when you first get there. My goal is to skip the first round of drink ordering, get some seltzer, and then order my drink. For the rest of the evening I strive for one water/seltzer between each drink. Also, during the meal itself, I drink only water/seltzer. We don’t need to wash dinner down with calories!

Order According to your Plan
Enough said since you already did the prework.

Drink Your Dessert or Taste Someone Else’s
Since you weren’t boozing it up during your meal, why not treat yourself to a really delicious ice wine for dessert?  Don’t “share” a dessert with anyone – but ask if you can have one taste. That’s enough, and dessert doesn’t taste good with wine anyway! In full disclosure, I used to be a huge dessert person. I’m not sure if it’s the Shakeology or just not really have dessert as often, or that I’ve decreased my drinking to the point where an extra glass of wine is an indulgence — but I actually can leave a fabulous dinner completely satisfied without having dessert. You a can too.

If an after dinner alcoholic drink isn’t your thing, how about a cappuccino made with non-fat milk or an herbal tea in an interesting flavor (I like mint tea after dinner!)

Have Fun!
Really, this is about a dinner out and conversation, right? Don’t be a fanatic about your decisions. If you go a little astray in your ordering, it’s OK. Don’t use a poor choice at dinner an excuse to hunker down to cheesecake for dessert. Or, even if you do – it’s one night, one dinner. Just like one workout doesn’t make you skinny, one dinner doesn’t make you fat. What you chose to do the next day is what matters. Get back on plan. Drink your water and Shakeology and get on with your day.

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