If the thought of dining out while you’re on a diet brings about sudden anxiety, feelings of peer pressure, or resent, or — even worse — if dining out isn’t an option for you at all, then you’re doing something wrong with your fitness program. Social engagements with friends, family, and coworkers are a healthy and absolutely necessary part of life.
The Main Idea:
Through my many years of flexible dieting, I’ve stumbled across many winning strategies that allow me to dine freely with absolutely no feelings of guilt or resentment. Here’s gist of what I normally do:
- Almost always plan ahead
- Skip the free bread before the meal
- Order a salad to start instead
- Implement some sort of portion control
- Drink lots of water with the meal
- Limit high-calorie cocktails and beverages
- Utilize healthy substitutes (if necessary)
- Never EVER skip dessert (I’m serious!)
Don’t Overcomplicate Things
Seriously! At the end of the day, unless you’re eating out every single day, multiple times per day, it’s really not the end of the world! Have some fun and let loose a little!
Besides, there are pretty much two major factors that contribute to longevity of life:
- being social
- being active
So what good is a healthy active lifestyle filled with lots of exercise and good eating, if you can’t break a few rules every once in a while at social gatherings to help lengthen your lifespan? Food for thought. 🤔
Speaking of food, I frickin’ love it! All kinds of food from various cultures; I eat it all! Although I’m quite comfortable around the kitchen, there are certain international dishes that I just can’t quite seem to nail. That’s when I resort to dining out.
In fact, I just finished having dinner not too long ago and, utilizing the exact tactics I’m about to share with you in this article, I’m feeling really good about myself right now since my meal will have no negative impact whatsoever on my body or goals.
By the end of this article, my hope is that you, too, can learn how to make smarter decisions when dining out so you can enjoy your social life with family, friends, and coworkers alike without worrying too much about breaking your calorie bank or feeling guilty when you get back home.
When you’re done reading, leave a comment down below to let me know if I succeeded with that. If you like these tips (or even if you hate ‘em), leave me your thoughts. Your feedback is important and helps me improve the way I create content on this blog. 😃
Here’s exactly what we’ll cover in this article:
- Learn to Plan Ahead
- Skip the Bread Basket
- Start With a Side Salad
- Manage Your Portion Sizes
- Make Healthier Meal Decisions
- Drink Water With Your Meal
- Limit High-Calorie Cocktails
- Never EVER Skip Dessert
Feel free to use the navigation box above to skip ahead at your leisure. I think all of these tips are important; a large arsenal of strategies keeps you ready for any situation! However, if one tip in particular is really screaming at you right now, heck, go after it!
1. Always Try to Plan Ahead
Let’s be honest: There’s nothing better than eating out. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s sociable — and if you pick your restaurants right, the food is always delicious! 🤤
With that being said, it’s really easy to get yourself into trouble if you don’t plan ahead!
ii. Figure Out How Many Calories You’re Allowed to Eat
If you’re not currently planning your nutrition around a target calorie amount, you’re doing yourself a HUGE injustice.
If you need help figuring out just how many calories you need to eat daily to achieve your specific goal, check out our 100% free Calorie Calculator. 👈
Need to know exactly how many calories you need to eat to for your fitness specific goal? We’ve got a calculator that does that for you!
If you know exactly what I’m talking about right now because you’ve been doing this whole “eating healthy thing” for a while now, then you already know what that amount is.
So, head to dinner knowing what your limit is and eat within it. Simple stuff.
Alternatively, you can utilize one of my favourite dieting strategies ever. 👇
iii. Bank Some Extra Calories Earlier in the Day
By far, one of the most successful strategies that I implement when planning ahead for an upcoming social event is what I like to call “calorie banking”.
If I know that I’ve got dinner plans or an event on a specific day, I always plan ahead and make a conscious effort to fast or eat minimally throughout the earlier portion of the day leading right up to chow time.
The benefit? Your appetite will be HUGE and you get to go absolutely crazy! Duh!
Seems logical, right? Yup. I think so, yet nobody seems to ever do this. 😕
Now, if you’re into intermittent fasting, this’ll be an absolute cinch for you since you’re likely already following this type of eating schedule on a daily basis.
If you’re NOT practicing intermittent fasting, however, this may be a bit more challenging for you and my advice would be as follows:
- Cut your typical breakfast and lunch portions in half OR replace them with a lower-calorie snack instead (breakfast bar, fruit, yogurt, protein shake, etc.)
- Drink lots of water throughout the day to keep your stomach feeling full which will help a bit with hunger cravings
For the most part, this should keep you satiated until din din where you can, of course, eat super flexibly since you’ll have so many extra calories saved up for the day.
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The Bottom Line:
If you learn to consistently plan ahead, you can avoid the #1 mistake most people fall victim to when dining out: making poor hasty decisions.
2. Skip the Bread Basket
Listen here! I’m half Italian! So if there’s anybody who understands your affinity for bread, it’s me! Fresh bread, especially when slathered in butter, is my kryptonite. 🤤
To put this in perspective for you, I once ordered a fresh loaf of bread from a local bakery here in Toronto, and ate the entire loaf — while it was still nice and warm 😈 — on the 20-minute drive home.
Yup. It wasn’t even sliced; I just ripped away at it like a frickin’ savage with crumbs flying everywhere! Took me damn near 10 minutes just to vacuum it all up afterwards. 😄
Need a little more perspective?
I could literally eat an entire loaf (or two) of fresh restaurant bread plastered with butter for dinner along with a few glasses of wine and just call it a night!
Except we all know that’s just not happening!
Bread somehow vanishes into thin air once you eat it — like magic — and suddenly you’ve got room for more food in your stomach than you did before you ate the bread!
How? Nobody knows! It’s an unsolved mystery!
My point is, if you’ve got bread issues like I do…
“Skip the damn bread!”
It’s loaded with fast-digesting insulin-spiking calories and, when you factor the butter into the equation, it’s just not worth it.
Finally, the biggest problem, BY FAR, with the infamous bread basket is that it never ends! You can literally just keep saying, “Can I have some more bread please? 😁” and they’ll just keep bringing the stuff over!
Trust me — it’s better to just quit before you even begin. 😄
The Bottom Line:
If you’re not a bread monster and you can restrain yourself to eating only a small slice or two, then, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, just skip the bread.
3. Start With a Side Salad
Eating a starter salad before your main meal helps in one major way: It pre-activates your digestive system which will help give you a more true sense of when it is you’re actually full when you start eating your meal.
Also, salads (and vegetables in general) take a longer time to chew and swallow. More chewing + less frequent swallowing = longer meal time. ?
Ultimately, this means that your brain will now have the time to register when your stomach is actually full to maximum capacity.
So, remember: Always eat your vegetables first!
There are so many times when I’ve got that feeling like I’m absolutely STARVING, only to get through only half of my meal and realize that I’m pretty much at my limit.
It’s easy to get carried away when you’re eating out, but if you’re pre-fed on salad or the veggies from your main course, you can quit eating when you’re actually full and just take the remaining food home as leftovers.
The Bottom Line:
I hate to admit it, but mom and dad were right; always eat your vegetables!
4. Manage Your Portion Sizes
Managing your calories and portion sizes is, of course, a huge factor during any meal of the day and on any diet, not just the odd occasion when you’re dining out.
However, when we’re eating out with great company, we tend to let our guard down just a bit more, and overeating can happen quite easily.
Here are a few simple tricks to help you become a master of portion control:
i. Order 1–2 Appetizers Instead of a Main Course
This tip isn’t one I personally use on a regular basis, but a good friend of mine, Linda, uses it almost every single time we eat out together.
She probably doesn’t even know that I’ve realized that she uses this tactic because I’ve never brought it up to her, but I’m very observant. 🧐
The beauty is that it actually works two-fold since she normally gets more variety in what she’s eating while simultaneously managing her total food intake in a very strategic way.
Appetizers normally have smaller portion sizes and therefore fewer calories than a normal main course or full course meal would have.
One caveat, of course, is to be sure to stay away from appetizers such as nachos, for example, which 1) are massive calorie bombs; and 2) typically come in HUGE serving sizes.
On the odd occasion, Lin runs into problem #2; when this happens, she just ends up splitting the appetizer with me. Yay! More food for me! 😃
ii. Order a Half Portion (or Share Your Meal)
It’s quite rare to have this first option at a restaurant unless they’re extremely health-conscious, but if half portions are available to you, use them!
Simple logic: Restaurant portion sizes are usually TWICE the amount of what you would eat if you were serving yourself at home. So a half portion is really just restaurant lingo for a “standard” portion.
If this option isn’t available to you, then you can always just split a meal with someone!
I know some people are rolling their eyes right now saying, “OMG! But that’s so tacky and embarrassing!” 🙄
If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I don’t give a s#!% about what people think of me or the things that I do. 😄 And you shouldn’t either! It’s quite freeing actually!
Besides, there are generally no rules about sharing your meal, and if there are they’ll be listed right there in the menu — “No sharing allowed.”
There’s no point in ordering a HUGE meal that you know you aren’t going to finish, especially if you’re just going to throw away what you don’t eat.
Which leads me to this…
iii. Stop Eating When You Begin Feeling Full
This is the easiest and most natural way to portion control.
And this one might seem like a no-brainer for most people, but if you grew up with immigrant parents like I did, then this will be something you can totally relate to.
My entire life I was always told, “Don’t waste food! Finish everything on your plate! People are dying of starvation in other parts of the world!”
As a child, this always made me feel as though if I didn’t eat single everything on my dinner plate — down to the very last rice grain — that I was going to be responsible for the death of some unfortunate individual in another country who I’d never even met or seen before. 😔
This might sound ridiculous to some, but believe it or not, for years I hadn’t actually given this much thought at all and I would always just continue eating until my plate was dishwasher clean and I was blue in the face.
Naturally, as I grew throughout the years, I realized just how entirely ridiculous this was and that it was perfectly fine not to finish my entire meal in one sitting if my stomach was at or nearing max capacity.
This tip is especially important when you’re dining out since, as you already know, restaurant portion sizes are 2x the amount of what you’d normally eat at home.
What’s the morale of this story? If you were raised with this same mentality and have self-sabotaging subconscious programming like I once did, just make a continuous conscious effort to stop eating when you feel full.
Besides, that’s what takeaway containers are for! 🙂
The Bottom Line:
If you can implement some form of portion control that works for you, then you won’t even have to focus on calories or worry about overeating at all.
5. Make Healthier Meal Decisions
If you’ve been following me on this blog for any period of time, then you should already know that I’m a HUGE advocate of flexible dieting.
Truth be told, I don’t like subbing out delicious goodies for healthier alternatives when I’m eating out and I don’t want you to either! That ruins all the fun!
If you’ve followed tip #1 and planned ahead by utilizing the calorie banking strategy I spoke about earlier, then you can likely avoid this tip altogether!
But if for some reason you already overate for the day OR you’re simply super focused on your diet and would rather eat as healthy as possible while keeping calorie consumption low, here are some great ways to do that:
i. Order a Healthy Salad with Extra Protein
Soooooo… I’m totally NOT a fan of ordering salads at restaurants. For one, they just seem ridiculously overpriced for what you’re getting; secondly, they’re just so boring! 😑
However, if you MUST or if you’re just the “salad type”, this tip is pretty much dieting 101: Order the biggest and “tastiest” salad on the menu and double up on the protein (chicken, fish, shrimp, steak, tofu, tempeh — whatever floats your boat).
There’s really no further explanation here. 😄
Unless, of course, you’re being SUPER healthy or you’re simply strapped for calories, then you’ll probably want to follow this next trick as well. 👇
ii. Ask for Sauces and Dressings on the Side
This should come as no surprise: sauces, dressings, condiments, dips, and spreads are all major calorie-bombs. They’re normally loaded with densely-caloric fats, highly-insulinogenic sugars, or — even worse — both.
If you’re worried about extra calories in general, it’s always a good idea to ask for these on the side.
The truth is, the chef doesn’t care about sticking to the nutritional information that’s listed on the menu; that s#!% is just listed there for you as a guideline. 😄
Instead, they’re more concerned with delighting your taste buds, having you enjoy your food, and making sure that you do not send the meal back to the kitchen.
Their recipe for success? Lots of butter. Lots of cream. Lots of salt. Lots of sugar. Lots of delicious sauce.
Speaking of sauces…
iii. Opt for Tomato-Based Sauces Instead of Cream-Based
If you’re itching for pasta, which you probably shouldn’t be if you’re trying to eat “clean”, stick with a tomato-based sauce to cut down majorly on calories.
Alfredo and rosé sauces are loaded with calories since they’re made with full-fat dairy and LOTS of butter, which is what makes them so rich and delicious. 🤤
Tomato sauce (and salsa), on the other hand, is actually a very healthy alternative. It’s relatively low in carbs and sugar, and it’s much, much lower in calories.
iv. Swap Out Your Sides for Healthier Alternatives
This is much easier to do than you might think and it’s not all that extensive. Here are a few of my staples:
- For breakfast, I’ll usually swap out my hash browns or home fries for freshly sliced tomatoes and/or fruit. The servers never seem to have a problem with this and it usually comes at no additional cost.
- In general, if I’m ever low on calories, I’ll swap out my starches (rice, pasta, fries, mashed potatoes) for vegetables. Honestly, more veggies is always a win in my books whether I’m eating healthy or pigging out.
- Don’t feel like subbing out starches altogether? Opt for whole grains instead (quinoa, brown rice, whole-grain buns and tortilla wraps, etc.)
That’s really all there is for substitution tricks. No need to get creative here.
Again, if you were smart and planned ahead, you can avoid substitutions altogether.
Wondering why I didn’t mention substituting regular fries for sweet potato fries? Although this “healthy swap” is really popular, it really isn’t as “healthy” as people think.
At the end of the day, both of these items are deep-fried, which is totally NOT healthy no matter how you stack it up. The calories will be the same for both: very high, that is.
So, at the end of the day, if you actually prefer regular french fries over sweet potato fries, then just stick with those instead. 😄
The Bottom Line:
It’s actually not as difficult as people think to eat relatively clean foods while dining out. Rather than make excuses, just make healthier choices instead.
6. Drink Water With Your Meal
I’m sure you’re already aware of just how important water is to your overall fitness goals; however, if you’re not — or even if you just want to learn a new thing or two — you should definitely check out this article. 👈
Right now, I’m going to quickly and specifically discuss how you can use water as a tool while you’re dining out or even having a night out for drinks.
Water essentially helps me do 2 important things during social events:
- eliminate the urge to overeat
- balance out the dehydrating effects of alcohol consumption
i. Water Reduces Your Urge to Eat More
This one is kind of a no-brainer, but drinking water before a meal, with a meal, and in between meals tricks your brain into thinking your stomach is full.
A great tip if you’re headed out for dinner and are low on calories, for example, would be to drink a huge glass of water before dinner. Then you’d likely be satisfied with just a small appetizer (or two) or a smaller meal choice.
Alternatively, if your mission is to eat big, let’s say, and skip dessert (which I would never ever ever recommend, of course) drinking lots of water after your main course will certainly crush your dessert cravings since your stomach will be full of water.
Soda water works especially well here because of the effects of the carbonation.
ii. Drinking Water Balances Out All of the Alcohol
If you’re anything like me, I LOVE to drink, but only socially. I don’t drink alcohol on a regular basis by any means — though I do enjoy the occasional glass or two of red wine during solo dinners.
Social outings and events at restaurants, bars, and other functions are ESPECIALLY my time to shine and let loose a bit (okay I’m lying… a lot)! 🥴
If you’re an “experienced” drinker like I am (like that’s anything to boast about), then one thing you’ve probably learned over the years is just how dehydrating alcohol can be.
The general tactic I’ve always used to counterbalance this is to have a glass of water with each drink to negate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol.
Also, if you usually prefer to drink your spirits straight, and you want to feed two birds with one scone, you can use one of my favourite tricks of all. Drink vodka waters, rum waters, cognac waters, or whatever else tickles your fancy.
The Bottom Line:
Drinking more water is, of course, always a good thing; however, while dining out, it helps greatly reduce the overindulgence of food in between meals.
7. Limit High-Calorie Cocktails
Speaking of alcohol, as I’m sure you gauged from the last tip, I love drinking socially. Unfortunately, the most delicious cocktails pack some MAJOR punch in the calorie department.
Look, you’re having a night out on the town! I get it! And I want you to have fun and live a little! By no means am I saying that you have to avoid these drinks entirely — that’s totally not my speed; just don’t go crazy!
i. Be Mindful of the Calories
Alcoholic cocktails and mixed drinks might seem innocent, but they’re far from.
In reality, they’re packing a s#!% tonne of hidden and empty calories, which is what makes them so delicious in the first place.
Your average cocktail or even a healthy large glass of red wine can be upwards of 300–500 calories. Yeah — you read that right! 😅
If you’re following the most renowned nutrition tip in the world — “don’t drink your calories” — then you’d know to stay very, very far away from these. But when you’re out and about trying to have some fun, I’d rather you not stay away from them entirely.
So let’s just get a bit creative with the strategy here instead…
You need to understand something about cocktails: The reason most people drink them non-stop is for two reasons:
- They’re wildly delicious, of course
- They’re trying to get drunk and these drinks usually aren’t made that strong
If the OBVIOUS mission here is to get drunk or a little “tipseh”, then why not just tell your bartender to add some extra oomph to your cocktail? Seems logical, right?
By doubling the amount of alcohol, which contains less calories than all of the additives, you can avoid drinking several sugary drinks, and instead, have only one or two. 😉
If you’re a fan of mixed drinks, the other obvious trick of course is to swap out the sugary soda or fruit juices with more diet-friendly low-calorie mixers.
ii. When in Rome, Drink Red Wine Like the Romans Do
Okay… so that’s not quite how the expression goes, but it sounded pretty cool! 😄
Honestly, if I’m ever given the choice, my go-to drink is always red wine. And if you’re a fan of the stuff like I am, this should always be your first pick in the alcohol department.
Best part? Red wine is ALWAYS appropriate at dinner events and evening soirées.
As you’re now aware, alcohol is laden with calories; empty ones at that. So if you absolutely must drink at a social event, why not choose the healthiest option of them all?
Ummm… yeah! NEWS FLASH: Red wine is pretty healthy stuff.
Without going into too much detail here, this stuff is loaded with antioxidants and also promotes healthy gut bacteria. In addition, it’s been said to help improve your cholesterol and there’s even research that supports its attribution to a longer lifespan.
Win-win-win! Sign me up please! 😃🍷
The Bottom Line:
One or two fancy cocktails is fine and likely won’t break your calorie bank. However, go crazy and you could set yourself back a few days worth of progress!
8. Never EVER Skip Dessert
This final tip may seem counter-productive to the theme of this article, but as the famous saying goes, “There’s always room for dessert!”
I live by this! Primarily because I have a massive sweet tooth, but also because, “scientifically speaking”, if there’s one time that you should actually eat a bunch of sugar — other than right after a workout — it’s right after a meal.
All of the fat and fibrous vegetables (hopefully you had lots of those) in your meal slows down the digestion of those fast-digesting sugars and carbs.
Also, my Italian side won’t let me finish a meal without a shot (or double shot) of espresso (black) and a soda water before and afterward to cleanse my palette. So that’s also always part of my “meal finale” so-to-speak.
If you’re a coffee lover, a coffee or espresso after a meal acts as an awesome pick-me-upper and helps you avoid that sluggish feeling you get after indulging in a huge satisfying meal.
As you can probably tell, dessert time has a special place in my heart 😊❤️ and so I rarely skip dessert after a meal when I’m dining out. If you share these sentiments, then I don’t want you to skip dessert either!
BUT! Keeping with the theme of this article, if you’re really low on calories, feeling especially guilty, or just really stuffed after your main course, here are a few tactics to include dessert without any hard feelings:
ii. Order the Restaurant’s “Tiny Dessert”
Most restaurants are aware that people have become more health-conscious, and almost every single restaurant that I eat at has got some form of “tiny dessert”.
It’s usually either a freshly baked soft cookie and scoop of ice cream, a tiny two-bite brownie with whipped cream, or a smaller piece of cake than normal.
Simple stuff, right? Small dessert! Less calories! Happy taste buds! Win-win! 🤤
iii. Opt for a Coffee Instead of Dessert
Though this is a very rare occasion for me, sometimes you’re honestly just not in the mood for dessert! “But, Mark, you said to never EVER skip dessert!” 😠
Yes! And I stand by that! But look… maybe you’re stuffed like a turkey (though I’ve personally never made that an excuse) or maybe you’re really focused on the positive momentum of your new diet and you don’t want to be thrown off track.
Listen, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. In this case, don’t “skip” dessert per se, just swap it out for a “dessert coffee” instead. Sounds better, right? 😉
And order a fancy one like this ☝️ so you feel a bit better about yourself. 😄
In addition to limiting all of those extra calories, you’ll also gain the advantage of receiving all of the awesome benefits correlated with drinking coffee.
The Bottom Line:
Seriously though… never, ever, ever, ever, ever skip dessert.
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Food is life, man! I love eating, drinking, and having a good time. And if you’re reading this article, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to presume that you do too!
As promised at the beginning of this article, I hope I was able to give you a new outlook on how you can still dine out without A) feeling guilty about it; B) making too many sacrifices; and C) setting yourself back.
I personally use many of the tips and tricks outlined in this article. So you can bet your money that they’re tried, tested, and true.
Oftentimes I’ll even receive a comment or question from someone while I’m eating like, “How do you eat like THAT and still look so great?” That never gets old and it’s always flattering.
And then I just hand them a business card and direct them to this article. 😄
So there you have it! Those are my top tips that I implement to eat “healthier” and with more freedom whenever I dine out. Give them a try and let me know what you think!
I’m interested: What are your thoughts? Do any of these stand out to you? Have you used any of these tips before yourself? Do you feel like any of these adjustments are too sacrificial? How hard do you think it would be for you to implement these kinds of changes? Leave a comment down below and let me know!