How often do you eat out?
Once a month, once a week…once a day?
How much thought do you give to your food when you’re eating it, do you chat away with friends or look at your phone?
Do you drink water, coffee, alcohol or something else?
All these things can have a large accumulative effect on whether or not you are able to manage your calorie intake and stay on track when eating out.
I know, eating out should be fun and stress-free.
It should be a time to catch up with friends and family alike whilst still sticking to your calorie goal.
But…for some people eating out and trying to change their body can be an anxiety filled occasion that usually ends in guilt, binge eating and over indulgence.
This stops today.
In this article we cover 21 strategies that can help you easily manage you calorie intake when eating out so you can stay on track and hit your goals faster.
Eat Less During The Day
It always amazes me how many people know that they have a big dinner out coming up but then continue to eat as they normally would, only to be surprised when they pull themselves out of their weekly calorie deficit.
If you know you’re going out for dinner, whether you’re likely to go wild or not, modify your food intake for the rest of the day to account for this change in routine.
You should find that saving 600 – 1,200 calories is plenty and depending on your total calorie allowance, the restaurant and your own eating habits you may not need as much as 1,200.
However, I also understand that sometimes these meals do go a bit crazy and the significance of being social with your friends or family takes precedent over your calorie intake on that occasion.
However, if you’re already saved calories in reserve then there’s no reason you can’t have the best of both worlds.
Storing calories like this isn’t ‘cheating’ or bad for you, in fact it’s a perfectly acceptable solution in these circumstances.
Don’t be afraid to use it.
Eat Less Over the Week
Another take on the strategy above is to eat less over the course of the week.
This could simply mean eating 100 – 200 calories less throughout the week in anticipation of a big meal out at the weekend.
This would give you a 700 – 1,400 calorie buffer and allow you to eat with more freedom whilst still being in a calorie deficit for the week.
Don’t Turn Up Hungry
This is a good follow on from the previous point, because even if you are going to save up calories to allow you to eat more for your meal out, you still don’t want to turn up hungry.
Have you ever noticed how shopping when hungry is generally an unmitigated disaster where you neglect to get the things you need and somehow end with a shopping basket full of snacks?
Well, going to the restaurant feeling hungry is the same.
Do this and you’re 10x more likely to order too much and overeat.
To avoid this, you want to eat 1 or 2 high protein snacks or small meals during the day, this keeps you full whilst not eating into your calories too much.
Good options are;
Yogurt and fruit
Have The Right Mindset
Meals out should an enjoyable, stress free occasion and often a chance to eat something different.
It shouldn’t be an excuse to go crazy and throw caution to the wind.
Going out for a meal with friends or family and having it turn into an all-out binge, is a clear and present warning sign that your diet is too restrictive.
If you ever feel like you need ‘a break’ from your diet, then you know it’s not working.
You should approach your meals out with the mindset that it’s possible to eat the foods you like, stick to your calories and enjoy yourself.
It’s no one or the other.
It’s not all or nothing.
You can go out, eat sensibly and still enjoy yourself
Prioritise Protein Intake
Problems arise when you go for a meal like a burger and chips or pizza where the calories are high, but protein is low.
Obviously on occasion this is no problem and a low protein intake once a week, particularly if it’s not a training day won’t make any difference in the long run.
However, if this is happening on a more regular basis it may begin affecting the quality of your results.
Therefore, when going out to eat it can be useful to have a couple of small high-protein meals earlier in the day to help you meet your protein goals for the day.
How much protein do you need?
Drink More Water
Water can help decrease feelings of hunger before you eat.
It may also help you feel fuller after a meal and even assist in weight loss (6)
There is even research that shows participants you who drank 2 glasses of water right before eating a meal, ultimately ate 22% less than those who didn’t drink any water (7).
The scientists from this same study also concluded that in their belief 500 ml of water is enough to send signals of fullness to the brain, helping reduce total calories eaten at meal times, if water is drunk close to the meal.
Skip Starters & Dessert
If there is anything that I’ve learnt as I’ve got older and hopefully wiser it’s this.
You don’t need to eat starters and dessert, you can almost exclusively guarantee that whatever you have for your main course will satisfy you, regardless of how you feel when you’re ordering.
I used to go for the full 3 course meals every time I went out to eat and would always walk away feel uncomfortably full often to the point of being in pain.
The truth is my eyes were bigger than my stomach and chances are so are yours.
Sure, a starter and dessert may look small and harmless but there’s no better way to unnecessarily steamroll your calorie goal and leaving you feel bloated and dejected that ordering too much food.
Even if you think you’re really, really hungry I still recommend drinking a glass of water, ordering your main course and seeing how you go from there.
You can always order more but you can’t un-eat what’s already been eaten.
Get Sauces & Dressing On The Side
Aside from not particularly being a fan of most sauces and dressings, these suckers are also almost always jam packed full of calories.
For starters if it’s any part oil then you know the calories will be sky-high and not worth it.
It’s always much, much better to get sauces and dressing on the side so you can decide for yourself how much, if any, you want to use.
I always used to think that it was rude to ask for this or that I would somehow be offending the chef or waitress, but this is silly, the waitress certainly doesn’t care, and I doubt the chef does either, but even if he does, I’ll never know, so what does it matter.
Do Your Restaurant Research Before You Go
It’s almost unheard of these days to not be able to find your restaurant or at least it’s menu online
It’s also pretty uncommon to not be able to find a rough breakdown of the calorie content of that menu, whether it’s the actual thing or a similar comparison
Either way you now have more information than ever at your fingertips.
It’s time to use this information to your advantage and begin looking at home many calories are in your favourite meals from your favourite restaurants.
This allows you to know ahead of time roughly how many calories you’re going to eat.
Using this information you can then adjust your daily or weekly calorie intake to accommodate the food you know you’ll eat.
Better yet, you can do all of this before you even step foot in the restaurant.
Sometimes it’s more important to enjoy yourself than worry about an extra couple hundred calories.
Besides if we look at the bigger picture we can see that to gain just 1lb of fat you’d need to eat 3,500 extra calories above your maintenance calories.
This means even if your maintenance was 2,000 kcals you’d still need to eat over 5,500 calories to gain a 1lb of fat.
Taking into account that you’ll probably also be using some of the other strategies in this post and you’ll likely have a big buffer before you get to that point.
However, even if you don’t, the point is that a small calorie increases at one meal, so you can enjoy yourself is nothing to worry about.
If your diet negatively effects your quality of life then you won’t stick to it, if this means occasionally going over your calories (binge eating not included) then don’t sweat it.
Not to mention that if worst comes to worst and you gain some unwanted weight you can lose 1 – 2 lbs in one week of eating in a calorie deficit which should see you not only get back to where you were but also continue losing fat beyond that point.
Eat Your Food Slowly
I know I’m guilty of not doing this.
I often scoff down my food, finishing before the waiter has left the table after delivering our food.
It’s a horrible habit that can lead me to eat more than I need or want because I think I’m still hungry, when in fact my body just needs a chance to catch up with everything I’ve already put in it.
This idea of taking your time and chewing isn’t just my way of telling you to slow down (although it also is) there’s research to back this idea too.
Chewing your food more, actually gives your body more time to tell your brain that you’re beginning to get full (8).
Additionally, scientists also believe that chewing mores allows the food to stay in contact with your taste buds for longer, which may also help promote feelings of fullness (9).
How do you slow down?
Easy, just take your time.
Relax and chat with the people around you.
Focus on enjoying your food, not scoffing it down to move onto the next thing.
As an (mostly) ex speedy eater, trust me, it works.
Have A Half Portion (Or Take The Other Half Away)
I don’t know about you but sometimes you go out to eat and for whatever reason the portions are huge.
The waiter brings out your pasta (if pasta isn’t creating the right mental imagery for you here insert whatever food you want) and lays it down unceremoniously on the table, and all you can think is “damn, that is SO MUCH food”.
But at this point you kind of feel obligated to eat it all, I mean you’re paying for it and it’s here now, so you slowly work your way through this mountain of food only to feel like crap after.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Defeat doesn’t not have to synonymous with weakness.
Instead, you could ask to take half of it away with you and eat it for dinner (if you were having lunch) or have it the next day.
Make Healthy Substitutions/Removals
This is a really simple one and an easy way to reduce the calories of your meal if you need/want to.
Make substitutions or simply ask for something to be removed from the dish.
A great example of this is something we covered earlier in this article, dressings and sauces.
Instead, of having the dish ‘as it comes’ as for sauces to be removed or put on the side so you can control how much if any you have.
If you’re following a low-carb diet, then you could ask for the carb to be removed and replaced with more vegetables.
Depending on my calories and tastes on the day I’ll often ask for mayonnaise to be removed from my burger, this saves me some calories and, in my opinion, doesn’t negatively affect the taste, but that’s just me.
We’re all different and how you might use this concept will vary compared to the rest of us. Just know that asking for something to removed or replaced is a viable option when eating out.
For more info on healthy substitutions check out this post from the MyFitnessPal blog.
Don’t Drink Your Calories
We’ve looked at the benefits of staying hydrated and drinking water before your meals and we’ll go on to look at alcohol a little later on.
Right now it’s time to look at everything in between, because sometimes you get to a restaurant and you don’t want water but you also don’t want to drink.
What do you do?
If you’re like most people you order some sort of soft drink, coca cola, lemonade maybe something a little further off track like ginger ale or a fruit juice.
This is a mistake.
All these drinks have something in common, they’re full of sugar and calories.
You’d be much better off getting the diet alternative to most of these drinks and avoiding things like fruit juice.
By opting for diet drinks you’re saving yourself easy calories.
Order Your Food First
Call it what you like; peer pressure, social influence or subliminal messaging, the fact is that other people’s choices influence our decisions whether we are actively aware of it or not.
When in social situation there is pressure to conform to the norm, which depending on who you’re with can range from binge eating to small over indulgences (10).
Neither of these things are good for helping you managing your calorie intake.
To overcome this pressure the trick is to order first, or at least before those you know are likely to overeat and potentially sway your opinion.
Control Your Portions
You mean don’t eat until you feel sick and cannot move or breath without being in pain?
Well, yes but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy yourself.
Whether you realise it or not you’re probably exercising some form of moderation on a day to day basis yet as soon as you go out for food this all goes out the window and you find yourself stuffing your face with everything in arm’s reach.
My first tip then is to continue exercising moderation and instead of cramming as much food in as possible, as if it might magically disappear if you don’t force it into your body, try and control your portions.
It’s important to realise that if something tastes good and you take enjoyment from it then you’ll still feel this way whether you eat 2 plates or 20 plates.
Your enjoyment of food is based on the quality of the food, not the quantity and this is an important distinction.
Stuffing yourself above and beyond normal limits doesn’t mean that you’ll somehow derive additional pleasure from the moment, but instead means you’ll end up feeling stuffed, bloated and full of regret.
Eat until your satisfied and remember you can always go back for more later.
This one goes without saying really but if your idea of a good meal out is an all-you-can-eat style place, then you’ll eternally struggle to keep your calories in check.
Buffets encourage excessive consumption and binge eating.
Add to the mix your need to eat enough to ‘get your moneys worth’ and you’re asking for trouble.
If you want to stand any hope of managing your calorie intake when eating out, don’t go to a buffet.
Be More Active
I was hesitant to include this as I think getting in the habit of exercising more purely to treat yourself with food is a slippery slope to go down.
However, when possible timing your meal out on days where you know you’re more active than normal is a worthwhile strategy.
For example, you could eat out on a training day or day when you play a sport.
Alternatively, if you’re worried about not staying within your calorie allowance you could always make small adjustments like walking to the restaurant and not driving (where sensible) or getting off the bus or tube a stop or 2 earlier and walking the rest of the way.
A few small tweaks to your routine can easily give you an extra couple hundred of calories to play with.
Choose Your Alcohol Wisely
Alcohol is not only often high in calories, but it also impairs your judgement when it comes to making choices, particularly food choices.
How many times has that dessert seemed like a great idea when you’re half a bottle of wine in?
How often have you bought more food or snacks on the way home because it’s seemed like a good idea when drunk?
Alcohol has the uncanny effect of helping you conveniently forget the fact that even a couple of drinks can easily add hundreds of calories to your meal.
So, how do you drink without going over your calories?
Firstly, you keep your drinks to a social level i.e. a drink or 2 with dinner and not more.
If you’re going to pack the drinks away, then you won’t be able to keep the calories down.
Secondly, you avoid high calorie drinks and instead opt for lower calories options.
This would mean avoiding or at least minimising your intake of;
Spirits with sugary mixers
However, lower calorie options include;
Spirits on the rocks
Spirits with 0kcal mixer
Have Coffee With Your Meal
There is research that shows coffee may help reduce your appetite.
Results from conducted research lend weight to the idea that your levels of PYY play an important role in how much you’ll eat at any given meal time (15).
However, more studies are needed to know exactly how this mechanism works and the true level of its effectiveness.
On a practical level you could try drinking coffee, either full strength or decaffeinated (which showed higher levels of appetite suppression (16) an hour or closer to when you plan to eat.
As to how this effect is increased or decreased with your tolerance to caffeine is unknown.
We spoke early about how the speed at which you eat can essentially trick your brain by not giving it time to let you know that you’re full.
We also discussed how the solution to this problem was chew more or eat slower to allow your body to recognise signs of being full.
However, we’re going to explore this one step deeper with mindful eating and see what benefits this has for you when eating out and trying to manage your calorie intake.
I know, I know it sounds like a silly ‘out there’ term but bear with me on this one.
Ok, so we already know that typically your brain will know if you’re hungry or full.
We also already know that eating quickly can make this process more difficult, what we didn’t say was that distraction can also make it more difficult for your body to get the signal that it’s full.
The solution is to eliminate distraction and focus more on the food you’re eating i.e. mindful eating.
Now before you go dismissing me as a loon who is trying to create a bridge between mindfulness to quiet the mind and a version of mindfulness to manage your food intake, check this out…
There is research (17) that shows that people who are focused and are more ‘mindful’ when eating actually experience more pleasure from the food, which could help increase satisfaction and reduce binge eating.
Pretty cool right.
Speaking of the power of the mind, research also found that a simple trick could make participants feel less hunger.
What they did was offer two identical milkshakes to their participants;
One was named the “620 calorie indulgence” shake
The other was the “120 calorie sensible” shake
Here’s the interesting part, although both milkshakes contained exactly the same calories those who thought they were drinking 620 calories saw their hunger hormone levels drop more than those who drank the “sensible” shake (18).
All of this goes to show a link between how much attention you’re paying to your food, what you think you’re eating and feelings of fullness (19).
What does this mean?
Well it could mean you ask your significant other, friends or family members to lie to you about the number of calories in something…
…or it could simply mean that by taking your time with your meal and paying more attention to the taste and flavours you could feel fuller than it you just scoffed everything down as quickly as possible.
This is undoubtedly a useful tool in your quest to manage your calorie intake when eating out.
You want to sit in for this round up or take it to go?
Ok, poor attempt at humour aside this article contains 21 strategies you can use to help you manage your calorie intake when eating out.
Whether you drink more water before meals, check the menu ahead of time or save some calories to eat the foods you want, there’s no shortage of tools at your disposal.