Dining out: A treat or a habit?

When I was a kid in the late 70’s/early 80’s going out to eat was a treat. When your birthday came along you’d get excited because that was the one day of the year you got to go to your favorite restaurant. Fast forward to 2015 and we are a restaurant nation. Eating out is no longer a treat, it is habit. An unhealthy habit too. Studies have repeatedly shown that frequent dining out is related to higher body weight.

If you dine out of the home regularly you may be handicapping your weight loss efforts. Even if you go only to restaurants that report calorie counts on menus, these counts depend on the preparer being strictly adherent to portion sizes. In my 7 year stint in the restaurant industry I noticed a tendency to go beyond the standard portion to keep the customers happy. Healthy lifestyle is easier with minimal reliance on eating out, but that can be tough with a hectic life. Here are a few behavioral strategies for changing your approach to eating out:

1. Gravitate back to “treat frequency” – Track how many of your meals each week are take-out or at restaurants, then figure out how you can slowly bring that number down. You might also set a limit on restaurant visits and once you hit your limit, eat in for the rest of the month. I once challenged a patient who ate out for lunch every single weekday to see what would happen if he packed lunches instead for a week. He lost 5 pounds in one week! You may be surprised at the impact of a small change like cooking one more dinner a week or bringing your lunch.

2. Do Your Homework – Most chain restaurants and fast food joints make nutrition information available and this is accessible via their website or your garden variety weight loss app (e.g., MyFitnessPal, Lose it). Before ordering, look up the nutrition information for the menu and select a meal that reasonably fits into your daily goal. Keep in mind though that if the serving size seems too good to be true relative to the calorie count, it probably is.

3. Short List – Make a short list of restaurants that have healthy options. Some restaurants have many, others have few or none. Avoid restaurants that are a set up for overeating by only visiting those that you have a good track record of portion control.

4. Order Half – Many restaurants serve double, triple, even quadruple portion sizes. Research shows that the larger the portion we are served, the more we tend to eat. To get your portions down to size ask the server to split your meal in half and box it up before bringing it to the table. This way you don’t have to know-when-to-say-when while you are eating.

5. Seafood diet — Use restaurants as an opportunity to eat healthy foods that have a short shelf life or are a pain in the butt to prepare—like seafood and fresh vegetables. Make a pact to order grilled, broiled, or steamed fish and veggies when available at restaurants to increase your intake of these foods in general and to avoid higher calorie options like red meats and fried foods.

6. Cut the starch — Restaurants are notorious for over-portioning starches because starches are cheap. They provide enormous servings of potatoes, pasta, rice, and bread, but rarely do you get a giant portion of veggies, fruit, or lean meat. This is how they trick you into thinking you got a good deal. Swap out some of that cheap-o starch for vegetables, fruit, beans or whole grain options when possible.

7. No Pasta Rule – Related to #6, pasta is the biggest scam and diet danger of restaurants– period.  Even though I am Italian (!), I make it a rule to never order pasta dishes in restaurants because they have tons of calories due to the volume of noodles and the oil in sauces. In Italy, pasta is served as a small side dish, not in the giant bowls like they serve in the US. Unless you are splitting with 3 or more people, pasta dishes are just too high in calories to be diet-friendly. I’m going hard core on this one and suggesting a no-pasta rule while at restaurants.

8. Order high-willpower foods — I call a “high-willpower food” one that you enjoy but do not tend to overeat. For example, I love black beans, but I would never be tempted to eat 1000 calories of them in one sitting. French fries on the other hand… it’s like I have an extra stomach for those!  High fiber and/or high protein foods settle the appetite, which allows you to stay in control of your willpower; but high starch, salty, and/or sweet foods stimulate appetite, which will tax your willpower. Stick to your high-willpower foods at restaurants.

9. Facebook. One reason we default to going out to eat is that it’s 5p and we can’t figure out what to make for dinner. To find some new quick and healthy dinner recipes post on Facebook that you are looking for everyone’s very favorite, healthy, go-to dinner recipes. This way you get the best-of-the-best of what other people are making for din and refresh your dinner rotation (and theirs!).

10. Rewired. Eating out may evolve from treat to habit for another reason: the richer foods served by restaurants make home-cooked meals seem less enticing. This may make us decreasingly motivated to put the time into cooking. Why settle for oven-baked chicken when you can have Kung Pao chicken at the corner Chinese restaurant? When we get used to eating high sodium, high sugar, and/or high fat foods, our usual foods will start to seem bland in comparison. If you notice frequent cravings for certain restaurant dishes or highly palatable foods, you may be slipping down this path. Step away from those restaurants for a while to reset your palate.

Got additional ideas? I would love to hear them!

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  1. Think about your bank account! Eating out all the time is just as expensive as it is unhealthy. You can save SO much money by just cooking all of your meals at home.

    Thanks for posting this, definitely some great ideas here 🙂

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks for your comment! You make a great point. It would be interesting to see how much $ savings one gets from reducing the number of trips to restaurants. Even a fast food meal can cost wildly more than a home-cooked meal!


  2. Aaliyah says:

    Great article and helpful information. Thank you for sharing eith us. Thank you so much.

  3. I like that #8, going to try that next time. 🙂

  4. Jill says:

    This is a great article…and I can attest to saving a LOT of money when I quit going out to eat. I do not eat out except once a month because I am determined to stay healthy and I don’t know what they put in the food or how big the portions really are.

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