Eating out plays a huge part of in all of our lives – whether it’s during our working day, part of our regular social lives or just an on special occasions. It is something that can be difficult to avoid and yet many of us try to avoid it when going through a fat loss phase, as we simply don’t know how to manage it.
Our guide to eating out will hopefully show you that eating on the go or eating out for pleasure doesn’t have to be avoided and can be factored into everyday life whilst staying within your set calorie limits. Ultimately, eating out shouldn’t blow your weekly calorie budget or be an excuse for not hitting those targets … you just need to know how to deal with it.
There are several things you can do in advance that will help. Firstly, alter your mindset and don’t panic. Secondly, be prepared. Take a read of our guide to learn some tips and tricks that will keep you on the right track for your fat loss goals.
One of the problems that eating out throws at you is the fact that the food you eat is likely to be higher in calories than the food you would prepare at home. For several reasons – portion sizes, ingredients and cooking methods. So, allowances will need to be made with your calorie budget.
Another potential problem is finding out exactly how many calories a meal contains. Some restaurants and food outlets will provide this information but at other times you will have to rely on an app, such as My Fitness Pal, for help or make your best guess. With a little detective work and determination you can usually get around this problem.
If you know that you are going to be eating out, for example going out for dinner that evening, you can restrict your calories earlier in the day. It’s a good idea to save a chunk of your daily allowance so that you can really enjoy your meal without trying to restrict your calories too much while out. Aside from the enjoyment factor, it’s far easier to restrict your calories earlier in the day if you are eating at home and have more control over what you eat and how it’s cooked.
Target total daily calorie intake – 1500 kcals
Meal out allowance – 900 kcals
Remainder – 600 kcals for breakfast and lunch that day
If you are prepared and have worked this out in advance it puts you in a good position for the day as you can plan your earlier meals accordingly.
And vice versa … if you are eating out at lunchtime, for example with a client or because you are travelling, you can alter your calorie allowance for dinner that evening.
The other option is to look at your weekly calorie intake, rather than just your daily intake. You won’t lose fat in a single day (which is why we take weekly weight averages) so you can do the same with your calorie intake. Add up your daily calories over the week and divide by seven to get the average.
If you know that you are only eating out once during the week you can ‘save’ some calories each day from your daily budget to make up for the extra that you know you will ‘spend’ during your meal out. It’s like saving money and then spending it on a treat at the end of the week.
Again, using the example calorie allowance of 1500 kcals per day (total 10,500 kcals per week), if you know that on Saturday you are going to eat out and expect to consume around 2000 kcals in total that day, you can reduce your calorie intake on the days leading up to it.
So, rather than eating 1500 kcals Monday to Friday and then eating 2000 kcals on Saturday, pushing you over your weekly average, just drop your daily intake on the other days, like this:
Monday – Friday eat 1400 kcals (100 kcals less than your usual intake).
Saturday eat 2000 kcals.
Sunday eat your 1500 kcals as normal.
5 days x 1400 kcals
1 day x 2000 kcals
1 day x 1500 kcals
Weekly total: 10,500 kcals
This approach to a meal out makes the other days of the week manageable as you are not cutting your calorie intake too drastically but it gives you flexibility on the day you eat out.
You can always alter your daily intake by more or less on the days leading up to the meal out, depending on the meal, the occasion, and how much you plan on eating or drinking (don’t forget alcohol contains a lot of calories that need to be factored in to your plan too)!
Tips and Tricks
Using either of the options we just described above to give yourself ‘extra’ calories to use for a meal out you still need to consider ways to keep within budget. Eating out is way harder than eating at home as you have less control over portion size, the way the food is cooked, and the ingredients added, such as dressings, oils, marinades, sauces, and so on.
You can, however, use these tips to make keeping within your calorie budget easier:
- Ask how the food is being cooked, for example baked, fried, steamed, poached, grilled, etcetera. Anything fried is likely to be higher in calories as it will be cooked in oil. Steaming, poaching and grilling are generally healthier methods of cooking.
- Ask for dressings and sauces to be served separately so you can add your own, giving you control over the amount you add. Or you may choose not to add any at all. Remember, sauces and dressings can be deceptively high in calories.
- Choose the leaner protein option on the menu as these will be lower in calories than protein sources containing more fat. For example, choose chicken breast over chicken thigh, tuna steak over salmon, fillet steak over Ribeye.
- Be aware of the calories in drinks and don’t waste your calorie budget on drinks that can be easily substituted! Choose low-calorie alcohol drinks if you choose to drink alcohol at all. If you are drinking soft drinks choose diet or low-calorie options, such as Diet Coke rather than full fat coke or sparkling water instead of other fizzy drinks.
The internet is a wonderful thing … it enables us to easily plan ahead by checking out the menu before we even step foot in the restaurant. Many places these days put their menus online, so if you can, we advise taking a look before you even leave the house. Choosing your food in advance can help to ward off the ‘screw it, I’m just going to let my hair down’ approach to a meal out.
We’ve all done it … gone out with the best intentions and then seen our absolute favourite meal on the menu and just gone for it. Even knowing that it will throw us off track we simply can’t resist. This is OK on occasion as you can’t be expected to show restraint all of the time but if it becomes a regular habit it’s not going to help you achieve your goals.
Planning ahead and making the decision about what to eat before you get there takes away the temptation to get that extra side, or have a dessert as well as a starter, or choose the most tasty-sounding, calorie-laden dish on the menu.
Putting the emphasis on the social element of the meal takes the pressure off the food side of the meal. There’s no reason not to enjoy your food of course but just making a planned, informed decision will really help to keep you on track and form good habits.
If you are involved in the decision-making process of where to eat out (as opposed to being invited to a meal at a pre-set venue), viewing menus in advance can also help you to choose a restaurant or type of cuisine that suits you and your needs. Some restaurants offer lower calorie options, for example Zizzi offer ‘Skinny Pizzas’ and Prezzo do ‘Light Pizzas’.
When eating out always consider your options, such as which cuisine is most likely to be the healthiest and contain the least calories. For example, you have a choice between an Indian and a Japanese restaurant. Which do you choose? The Indian food is most likely to be higher in calories as a lot of it is cooked in oil, ghee or cream. Japanese restaurants are more likely to offer lower calorie choices, such as sashimi and plain boiled rice.
Once you have chosen your cuisine, you then have more choices to make! What to choose from the menu? It’s always worth comparing foods, and even if the menu doesn’t offer the calorie information for each option, you can work out which foods are likely to be higher in calories.
Going for an Indian?
If you did opt for an Indian meal, the ‘drier’ dishes, that is those with less sauce, are likely to be lower in calories. A chicken tikka or chicken shashlick with plain boiled rice will contain less calories than a creamy chicken korma with fried rice.
Opting for Chinese?
Chinese food is also likely to be pretty high in calories but again there are options. Anything in batter or fried is going to be higher in calories, such as spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken balls, crispy shredded beef and fried rice. Lower calorie choices would include grilled chicken, prawns and boiled rice. But watch out, as even lean sources of protein (chicken and prawns) covered in a sauce may be way higher in calories than you expect.
Ultimately the portion size will dictate the calorie contents of the meal, so this is something that you will have to pay close attention to as well.
If Pizza Express – or a similar high street Italian-style restaurant – is your go-to don’t be tricked into picking a salad because it’s the low calorie ‘healthy’ option. Some salads are just as high in calories as a pizza or pasta.
Look at all the ingredients in the salad if this is your favoured food and use your common sense to work out whether it is going to be the lower calorie option. For example, some salads are covered in high-calorie dressings, contain breaded chicken pieces, fried lardons or other calorie-laden ingredients.
Foods are often given labels like good/clean or bad/dirty foods – salads are clean, pizzas are dirty – but this isn’t necessarily the case so we need to look beyond these labels. If we continue to think like this our diets can quickly and easily backfire on us.
Instead of using these kinds of labels, when choosing from a menu think about what actually goes into the food and how it is cooked. In an Italian, a thin crust pizza with a vegetable topping might just be your best option.
In more of a pub grub mood?
Pub food can vary massively, from traditional pub grub to high-end gastro but the basis on which to choose your meal remains the same. Again, it is all about looking at the ingredients, thinking about how foods are cooked, asking for sauces and dressings to be served separately, and watching your portion size. Remember, you don’t have to eat everything on the plate!
Many dishes in an English-style pub are served with chips, or have the option of chips, but these are automatically going to bump up the calories in the dish. If you have the option, opt for new potatoes or a different side, such as vegetables or salad (but watch that dressing!).
Fried foods are a definite regular on pub menus, such as fish and chips. The batter on the fish and the fact that it has been fried will make this a calorie-dense meal. Pie and mash is another British classic but pastry is a high calorie food product so possibly best to steer clear if you are trying to keep your calories low.
Steak very often appears on pub menus too and this could be a good option to choose without a sauce. If you choose a lean cut such as fillet or sirloin and order it with a side of veggies or salad, you’re on to a winner!
Fish or seafood, as long as it’s not battered, covered in bread crumbs or smothered in sauce, is definitely a low-fat, low-calorie winner too.
Lunchtime eating on the go
Sometimes there’s no avoiding it, you just need to grab lunch on the go. So, what are the best options when it comes to grabbing a sandwich if you haven’t got time to make your lunch at home and take it with you?
If you have the time, preparing your lunch and taking it with you gives the advantage of being able to control exactly what goes into it. This way you know it was made fresh from scratch and how many calories it contains. However, it’s not impossible to get a healthy, low-calorie lunch deal when you’re out and about.
Most supermarkets and many cafes/delis offer meal deals – usually a sandwich or salad, a drink and a ‘snack’ – but there is a vast choice of foods on offer within this kind of deal. All packaged supermarket foods will show the calories and nutrients on the label so it’s easy to check these out before you buy. And most supermarkets offer a ‘low calorie’ range so it’s worth trying these (not all of them taste of nothing!).
So, compare calories and choose a lower calorie sandwich or salad (again watch out for any extra calories in the dressing), choose water, sparkling water or a diet drink instead of a bottle of Coke or other fizzy drink containing loads of sugar, and for the ‘snack’ option choose a pot of fruit instead of a bag of crisps or a brownie.
You can save yourself a lot of calories just by reading the labels and making the healthier choices. If you’re eating out every day (because of work, for example) extra calories add up over the week and make a big difference to your daily average calorie intake.
Daily coffee habits
If you are eating out every day or ‘eating on the go’ you are quite likely to be grabbing a coffee or two as well. Waiting for the train to work in the morning? Stopping at the services as you drive up the motorway? Meeting a friend in town for a catch up? There are so many times that we just ‘grab a coffee’ without really thinking about the consequences but guess what, drinks contain calories too!
In fact, coffee can contain a hell of a lot of calories if you’re getting something like a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks. There’s no need to cut out your coffee completely though, as this would potentially make life miserable and therefore not be sustainable. Instead, we suggest you think about how many of these calorie-laden drinks you have in a day or over the course of the week, and make a few small adjustments.
Order a smaller size than you usually do, add less sugar, swap whole milk for semi-skimmed milk, and so on. If you can stomach it, try switching out your coffee for a tea or limit yourself to one a day. Just bear in mind that successful and sustainable fat loss will come down to you adopting habits that last. It’s therefore important that you actually like the alternative food or drink that you replace your favourite with.
How to track calories
It can be tricky to accurately guestimate calories when you are eating out but some restaurants do now offer this kind of information on their menus or online. It is also possible to find this data quite easily for high-street chains such as Pizza Express, Zizzi, Wagamama, Pret, Nandos and so on, on the My Fitness pal (or similar) app.
If you’re using a tracking app, you can just search for the specific meal you are going to eat, like you would any other food, and enter it. Or, if you have pre-chosen your meal you can find the information on the restaurant’s website before you even leave the house (or search for it on your phone while in the restaurant but it’s probably more polite not to use your phone then!).
If you can’t find the calorie information on a tracking app or restaurant website you are going to have to make your best guess. But a guess is definitely better than sticking your head in the sand and thinking you can eat whatever you feel like because you can’t count the calories. Don’t get caught up in the ‘if I don’t record it, it didn’t happen’ approach.
If you need to guestimate you can either search for each individual ingredient and guess the amount – for example 75g of pasta, a tomato-based sauce and 10 king prawns. Or you can just make your best guess at the total amount of calories, based on something similar you have eaten before, and just enter the calorie figure.
If you are tracking macros you will have to guess the amount in weight for each macronutrient – protein, fat, carbohydrate – and enter in manually. To do this, you will need some understanding of macronutrients and how to visualise them, so for most of us recording the calories will be fine.
How you approach a meal out is as important as the meal itself. Preparation and planning are key, as is mindset. You don’t need to deprive yourself to keep hitting your calorie targets. Making eating out as stress-free as possible will help you to achieve your goals while still enjoying your food.
Approaching a special meal out by reducing calorie intake during the days leading up to the meal, or on the day itself, can make it far easier to stay on track with your nutrition targets. Selecting the restaurant most likely to offer lower calorie meals is also a benefit of planning ahead, as is choosing your actual meal before you go out by finding menus online.
If you eat out every day, thinking ahead and gathering information from the internet can really help you to choose the best places to eat and the lowest calorie options that you will still enjoy. Reading the labels is also super-important to find the best meals or meal deals.
If you regularly grab food or drinks on the go, making a few simple substitutions will help across the week. Tracking calories and just being aware of how many calories are in certain foods and drinks will make it easier to make smart choices.
Being aware of potential pitfalls, such as the ‘hidden’ calories in salads, sauces, dressings and marinades, and learning to choose the leanest sources of protein will all go a long way to help you. And then controlling portion sizes will keep you on target.
Limiting alcohol or swapping out high-calorie soft drinks for diet or low-calorie versions will save you from ‘wasting’ calories.
And finally, stop thinking of certain foods as good or bad and instead make common-sense choices about which foods are healthier and/or lower in calories.
If you have a blowout, make sure you get back on track and don’t use it as an excuse to give up! Tomorrow is another day. Keep on tracking.