I started to write this post several months ago and then left it on the back burner because I felt that I had not yet mastered the art of eating out without consuming way too many calories and sabotaging my weight loss efforts. In fact, I pretty much avoided the issue altogether by bringing my lunch to work every day, avoiding as many lunch meetings as possible, and then saving all of my extra Weight Watchers points for the occasional splurge on dinner and drinks with friends on the weekends. It got to the point where I was becoming downright anti-social. The mere thought of having to attend a business lunch or lunch meeting at the office and wasting my extra Weight Watchers points stressed me out and filled me with resentment.
Since I am an attorney and a writer who has to network and attend receptions, conferences, lunch meetings, etc. all the time, I realized that, if I was going to make this a lifestyle change and not a diet, then I would have to figure out how to integrate eating out into my weight loss regimen.
I do not profess to have mastered the art of eating out. Every now and then I return from a restaurant or lunch meeting unhappy because I attacked the bread basket or scarfed down cookies or a brownie out of sheer boredom or dissatisfaction with the food at a departmental meeting or drank too many margaritas and needlessly added extra PointsPlus values to what otherwise would have been a relatively healthy meal. However, I have developed a few strategies that generally keep me on track.
First, if I attack the bread basket out of starvation, I limit myself to one piece, choose high fiber bread (i.e. rye or whole wheat) and dunk it in a little bit of olive oil or butter (no more than a teaspoon). The fat from the butter or olive oil and the fiber from the whole grains smooths out the carbs and keeps the bread from turning into instant sugar and giving you massive carb cravings.
The best thing is to avoid the bread basket altogether and order a garden salad with dressing on the side or clear broth or shrimp cocktail for an appetizer. These items are low in calories and take the edge off your hunger so that you don't overeat the entrée. The best salad dressing is a tiny splash of olive oil and a drizzle of balsamic or red wine vinegar. If they don't have that, then order a low-fat or fat-free vinaigrette or french dressing on the side and put no more than two tablespoons on your salad.
Grilled seafood or boneless skinless chicken breast or pork tenderloin or lean steak are your best options. Just be sure to watch your portion sizes. A lot of restaurants give you double-sized portions. A portion of meat is no larger than the palm of your hand or a deck of cards. Ask your server for a container for leftovers and pack half the entrée away. Instead of fries or white rice, ask for a baked potato or broccoli or steamed asparagus or the vegetable of the day. You might as well work on getting in your 7 to 11 daily servings of fruits and vegetables while you are at the restaurant. If you order a baked potato, don't load it up with butter and sour cream – if you do, you are defeating the purpose of choosing it over fries. Instead, use only a dollop of sour cream (the restaurant is not likely to have low-fat sour cream) and some chives if they have them.
If you order rice, make sure that it's brown or wild rice. Although brown rice has just as many calories and carbs as white rice, the fiber in the brown rice will help keep you fuller longer and won't turn into instant sugar in your body and give you carb cravings. Wild rice is actually not even rice – as a result, it doesn't have as many carbs or calories.
Try a high protein grain instead of rice like quinoa – which originated in South America. Also, I would avoid ordering pasta in restaurants since most of them don't offer whole grain pasta and they give you huge portion sizes and slather it in rich sauces. Even the marinara sauces can have lots of oil and some cream in them.
Avoid anything fried, breaded, creamed or blackened as those things tend to be ridiculously high in fat and calories. Also, be wary when ordering salads as some of them can be higher in calories than a Big Mac. A Caesar salad, for example, is never low-fat and is usually high in calories. Order a house or garden salad instead and add some protein (i.e. grilled shrimp or chicken breast or lean steak). If there are a lot of nuts or cheese in a salad, that racks up calories. If the salad has fried chicken or tons of croutons in it, you are not doing yourself any favors. If the salad is slathered in a high fat dressing, go for the petite beef filet or the grilled chicken and some garlicky green beans instead.
If possible, I like to check out the menu of the restaurant I am going to online and scope out some good food choices. If the restaurant has nutritional information online, that's a bonus. Get to know your local restaurants so that you are always able to suggest some that have figure-friendly choices on the menu (and good food and service of course). If you have a craving for dessert, share it with the rest of the table. Better yet, go for fresh berries with a dollop of whipped cream (remember those daily fruit and veggie requirements).
If you must have alcohol, limit yourself to no more than two drinks and avoid pina coladas and other high calorie concoctions. Order a glass of red wine or a light beer instead.
Finally, if you end up overindulging, it's not the end of the world. Just be super virtuous for the next few days, drink lots of water to wash out all the junk you put into your body and get in some good workouts. You'll feel better after that.
I hope I've given you some strategies for eating out without busting your diet or your waistline. Let me know how it works out.