As the number of the people in the U.S. vaccinated against the virus continues to climb, more people are heading back inside to do something they maybe haven’t done since spring of last year: Sit down for a meal at a restaurant. “I haven’t personally eaten inside of a restaurant since March 12, 2020,” says Angel Planells, a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It will definitely be a little weird.”
Some people throw dietary plans to the wind when they dine out. It’s a treat to start with, and the food is almost always cooked to delight rather than leave you feeling good the next day. (I would never cook myself a steak and a crab cake on a random weeknight, but that’s always what I crave when someone else is cooking.)
If you’re enjoying being back out in restaurants, but not enjoying how they make you feel, there are lots of ways to go out for a meal in a way that’s still conscientious of your personal eating goals.
Think About the Big Picture
It’s often helpful, Planells says, to think about your restaurant experience in relation to whatever else you’ve done that day. Have you eaten vegetables with any of your other meals? Did you exercise at all? Did you miss breakfast? “These things may help steer you during your meal choices,” he says.
It might make sense to go for a smaller breakfast and a lighter lunch if you’re going out for dinner, according to Kate Patton, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Looking at the menu ahead of time is also a good way to home in on healthy options so you’re not tempted to stray from your pre-planned choices. Additionally, you should also think about what you definitely want to have versus what you can possibly skip.
“If you’re getting alcoholic drinks or sodas, all those calories can add up,” Patton says. “Maybe get the alcohol but not dessert, or vice versa. Try to make those tradeoffs according to what you feel like indulging in.”
Embrace the Sides
Sally Albright was on to something. Meg Ryan’s character in the film When Harry Met Sally was always big on getting things on the side. Ryan played it as joke, but Planells says it’s still a great way to health-hack your restaurant experience. If you’re getting a salad, ask for the dressing on the side. If you’re getting something with a sauce, ask for the sauce on the side. If you’re getting a burger—yeah, you guessed it—ask for the bun on the side, or just skip the bun altogether.
If on-the-side isn’t your thing, then at the very least you can opt for different sides to go along with your entree. Planells says that a mixture of foods—protein, complex carbs, and fiber—can help us feel more satisfied because the body works harder to break down food. Imagine splitting a heavier entree and filling the gaps with some vegetables—you’ll be satiated, not stuffed.
And when it comes time to pick the main component of your main course, lean proteins that are baked or grilled are generally the way to go. Fish, chicken, leaner cuts of other meats—your intuition is a good guide here.
Take Your Time
It also helps to remember that going out to eat is an enjoyable experience. You’re probably venturing out with friends or family for the first time in a while, so order a couple of snacks, relax, talk, hang out. Don’t just inhale your main course immediately—and know that slowing your roll can be your secret ally. “It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it’s full, so try to eat slowly,” Patton says.
By vacuuming down your plate, you run the risk of thinking you’re still hungry as your body races to catch up to the amount of food that’s now in your stomach. Eating at a leisurely pace provides the time your body needs to process the meal.
Control the Portions
Restaurant portions are generally much larger than what you’d fix at home. So don’t forget about splitting meals, Patton says. If you’re going to a favorite restaurant where you know the portions are bigger, plan to share the meal with one of your companions. And always remember that you don’t have to eat everything off your plate; that’s why restaurants created to-go boxes.
Don’t rely on your willpower, either—do it before you tuck in. “I encourage folks to cut the meal in half, put it in a to-go container, and enjoy the rest,” says Planells. “You get two or three meals for the price of one. It’s beneficial for your waistline and your wallet.”