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Whether it’s date night with a loved one or a solo meal on a business trip, finding healthy options while dining out can be tough. With someone else making the food, it’s all too easy to get too much of, well, everything.
But, there are ways you can reclaim some control over what ends up on your plate and in your belly. Here are nine nutritionist-approved tips for sticking to your wellness goals while dining out.
1. Plan ahead. It’s always a good idea to have a few go-to places in the back of your mind where you know the menu and are confident you can order something both delicious and nutritious. If you’re not in charge of picking the restaurant, try to find the menu online in advance so you can make a plan for what to order. If you go into the restaurant with your decisions already made, you’ll be less likely to cave to some of the more tempting, but less healthy, options.
2. Ask yourself, “What can I replace?” If an item is fried, ask for it grilled. If the sandwich has mayonnaise, ask to replace it with avocado or just mustard if you’re watching fat. If your meal comes with fries or chips, ask for a side of veggies or salad instead. Always think of one thing in your order that can be replaced with a healthier option. Small tweaks can have a big impact.
3. Try an appetizer over an entree. If there is a nice selection of seafood or veggie-based appetizers, consider skipping the entree and having one or two healthy appetizers for your meal. Often, appetizers are closer to a typical portion-size than an entree and can be equally delicious!
4. Skip the bread basket. If you want to eat something prior to the meal, order some veggies to snack on while you wait. If you know the restaurant has your favorite bread, you don’t need to abstain, but drink a full glass of water before helping yourself to try to keep it at a single slice.
5. Eat your veggies first. Scientists have found that those who eat a big veggie salad before the main course eat fewer calories overall than those who skip right to the main entree. But remember, salads shouldn’t be heavy. Opt for a lighter dressing (like vinaigrettes) and avoid unhealthy additions like fried noodles and bacon bits.
6. Order fish or a vegetarian entree instead of meat … and hunt for hidden sources of fat. Fish is typically the healthiest animal protein option on a restaurant menu, so it’s usually a safe bet (just make sure it’s not fried). Vegetarian entrees, such as a bean or lentil dish, are a great option as well. Most importantly, beware of any menu description that uses the words creamy, breaded, crisp, or stuffed. The dish is likely loaded with hidden fats—much of it saturated or even trans fats. Other descriptions to be wary of include buttery, sautéed, pan-fried, deep-fried, au gratin, cheesy, and scalloped.
7. Go halfsies. A Center for Science in the Public Interest survey found that restaurants often serve two to three times more than nutritional labels would list as a serving. If you know you’re at a restaurant with large portion sizes, ask the server to box up half the entree before it gets to the table (hello, tomorrow’s lunch), or share an entree with a friend or date.
8. Choose your cocktails wisely … and make sure to hydrate! If you order an alcoholic drink, be mindful of drinks with a juice-base—like margaritas or piña coladas. They can have a lot of added sugar that will only up the already high calorie count. Opt instead for a glass of wine, light beer, or vodka and club soda.
Drinking water will also slow you down, help you enjoy the food and drink more, and let the message get to your brain that you’re full—all before your plate is empty. Try having a full glass of water before your food even arrives, then sip water throughout your meal.
9. Eat mindfully. Studies have shown that when you slow down your eating, you tend to eat less. So, while eating out, focus on the company and atmosphere more than your plate. Chat in between bites, put the fork down every now and then, chew more, and slow down your pace. Your body and belly will thank you.
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