How often do you go out to eat? If you’re ultra-busy between work, school, and family responsibilities, dining out might be a regular thing.
Is that so bad? Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s possible to hit the drive-thru or eat at a restaurant, stay within your daily calorie limit, and get the right portion of macronutrients.
But do you take the time to calculate calories in your favorite restaurant meal?
If you’re training with a goal in mind to build muscle, get lean, or transform your body, your diet may be even more important that what you do in the gym.
Can you dial in your diet by eating out all the time?
It’s possible. But most people can’t handle it.
Let’s be real. Most of the time, dining out means eating more calories, carbs, and sugary drinks and desserts than what you would get from a home-cooked meal.
For example, take a look at the calories and macros in a combo meal like a biggie-sized burger, fries, and milkshake. Some of these monster-sized meals top out at 3,500 calories with a lot more saturated fat and added sugar than you should be eating.
Not exactly the kind of fine dining that’s going to get you shredded. Right?
When I headed to Las Vegas for Olympia 2017, I knew eating out all the time wasn’t going to work for a lot of reasons. So I pre-ordered a block of pre-cooked meals, and even bought a cheap microwave for my hotel room. That made it a lot easier to hit my daily calorie and macro targets, even while traveling.
But the reality is, dining out is a regular thing for most people. In a recent Gallup Poll, researchers found that about half of all adults eat fast food at least once a week.
If you genuinely don’t have time to cook at home or prep your meals, you’re bound to hit the drive-thru for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Does that mean your fat-loss goal is going to end in failure? Not at all.
There are plenty of ways to keep your diet on track when you do go out to eat.
1. Count calories.
If you’re planning to order at a chain restaurant, check the calorie count and macro profile for the foods you plan to order on the restaurant’s website or with an app like MyFitnessPal. And if it fits your macros…enjoy.
2. Avoid going hungry.
I’m a fan of eating smaller meals throughout the day. It’s a great way to help keep hunger at bay, and avoid overeating when you do go out to eat. You’ll need to plan ahead, but this can save you from blowing your diet when you’re staring down a restaurant menu.
3. Skip the bread, chips, and refills.
Lots of restaurants prime you with bread, chips, and free drink refills. Forget about it, OK. Just get straight to ordering your meal. This stuff is nothing but empty calories and carbs you don’t need.
4. Drink water.
Here’s the skinny on a typical 32-ounce soda, the standard at many restaurants these days. A regular 32-ounce Coke will set you back about 300 calories and contains 86 grams of carbs.
Is it worth it? No. Even if you’re trying to add mass, this isn’t the way to a calorie surplus. Drink water. It’s typically free, and contains zero calories.
5. Soup or salad.
Here’s another great way to help you avoid eating too many fries and destroying a dessert later. Start with a soup, leafy green salad, or side of fruit, first.
Even though some soups and salad dressings can be higher in calories and sodium, soup or salad first is still a better option than more fries and chocolate cake later.
Order a to-go box with your meal.
Instead of eating an entire meal when you’re dining out, put half the meal in a to-go box when it’s served. Or split a meal with someone else.
It’s kind of crazy how much a typical serving size at a restaurant has changed over the years. For example, 20 years ago a restaurant meal of spaghetti and meatballs would set you back about 500 calories for the day.
Today, that same meal is double the size and about 1,000 calories. And things like French fries, soda, burgers, are all biggie-sized compared to a decade ago.
7. Grilled, baked, or steamed
Here’s where keeping it healthy when you order out can get tricky. Pick items off the menu that are grilled, baked, or steamed like fish, meat, and vegetables. If there’s nothing on the menu like that, fried food is probably your only option, and you may want to think about going somewhere else.
8. Pick your protein.
Getting adequate protein is one of the most important nutrition goals you can follow when you’re strength training with a goal to lose weight, burn fat, or build muscle. But you won’t find protein in piles of fries, chips, or buns. When you order out, pick a lean protein source like chicken, low-fat beet, turkey, or fish to help you hit your macro goal.
9.Customize your order
Ask the chef if you can customize your order. It’s a common request at many restaurants to accommodate people with food allergies and special dietary needs. And it’s possible to customize some fast food meals. Ask for no added oil, butter, sugar, or salt, for example. And get sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side instead of lathered on your food.
10. Eat more vegetables.
Here’s an easy way to tell if the restaurant you’re at stands a chance at serving something healthy. Can you order a side of vegetables? A small number of fast food restaurants have fresh vegetables on the menu. But most don’t. If you are going out to eat, pick a restaurant that at least gives you a fighting chance to stay within your calorie and macro goals. Vegetables are low in calories and carbs, but high in nutrients, to help you stay on track.
Looking for a meal plan to help you achieve your goals? Check out my customized nutrition and training plans designed to help you shred fat, build muscle, or transform your body.
- Shah, K. (2014). 3,500 calorie combo at Red Robin is the ‘single unhealthiest’ chain restaurant meal. Eater.com. From: https://www.eater.com/2014/7/30/6178881/3500-calorie-combo-at-red-robin-is-the-single-unhealthiest-chain
- Dugan, A., (2013). Fast food still a major part of U.S. Diet. Gallop. From: http://news.gallup.com/poll/163868/fast-food-major-part-diet.aspx
- Bailey, E. (2017). Dining out in good health. National Academy of Sports Medicine. From
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Portion distortion. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. From: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm