There are two words that can seriously take the shine off of anyone's efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle: "I can't." The minute you start saying that, you start stacking up the frustration debuff, which almost invariably leads to some kind of indulgent meltdown that can cause a huge setback or completely derail all the good work you've done. We want to feel good about the choices we are making, and most people don't feel good when they say the words, "I can't."
... Unless, you know, they are responding to a question like, "Can you stick this razor-sharp sword into your eye?" That question, fortunately, doesn't come up much in polite conversation. One that does, however: "Would you like to go out to eat?"
Ah, yes. Our old nemesis, the restaurant. I've written in the past about how it's easier to eat at a restaurant after some advance research to find the good choices on the menu -- but what if it's a spontaneous outing or the restaurant doesn't have any obviously good choices? What if you don't know where you're going before you get there, or the restaurant doesn't have its menu available online? There are a lot of factors that can make dining out a challenge when you're trying to watch your caloric intake, but that doesn't mean you have to avoid those situations altogether. There are several tricks you can stash up your sleeve to keep the "I can't" debuff at bay and enjoy your meal without taking too much damage in the process.
Recent studies have shown yet again that water is one of your best friends if you're trying to cut back on your calories. Over the years, the benefits of water have been touted to the point where you'd think that all you need to do is drink 8 glasses of water every day to lose weight, but I'm afraid it isn't quite the miracle beverage that we once thought it was. What drinking water is, however, is a calorie-free way to put a little bit of substance in your belly before a meal. According to the research linked above, subjects who made it a habit of drinking two glasses of water before every meal lost more weight and had a tendency to keep it off. Simply put, they just didn't have enough room in them for all those extra calories.
As soon as you sit down in a restaurant, you should order a glass of water and do your best to get a few of them in you before you start eating. With that kind of pre-filling in place, you're already less likely to eat more than you should.
Hold the bread, please
There are a lot of restaurants these days that start off with the calories the minute you sit down by plopping a heaping basket of freshly baked bread in front of you. What's worse, this bread is usually accompanied by some kind of olive oil dip or a flavored butter. It isn't always bread, but chances are, if you're getting unlimited refills on anything other than your drink at a restaurant, it's probably not going to be that good for you. It seems to me in many cases that the whole point of these tasty pre-appetizers is to start lowering your food inhibitions before you even take a look at the menu.
If you have a consensus from everyone at the table that extra calories aren't necessary, you can always decline the bread basket before they even put it down. If not, see if you can get your companions to agree that one basket is enough. If you do decide to indulge in the bread, don't be so quick to cover it in butter or oil. In most cases, freshly baked bread is delicious on its own and doesn't need anything to enhance the flavor.
Broiled or grilled (but watch out for butter)
When you're looking over a menu, try to focus on entrees that are broiled or grilled, but make sure you tell your waiter that you would like the cook not to cover your entree in butter before doing so (the phrase many restaurants refer to is ordering the food "dry"). There's nothing that will counter the health benefits of grilling faster than a half a cup of butter. While we're on that subject, a coating of butter is frequently used to enhance the flavor of grilled steaks, as well. Seemingly healthy-sounding dishes are often pushed way overboard in the calorie counts by unspoken additions to the food like this. If the person taking your order is unsure whether or not the kitchen uses butter for grilling or broiling, ask him to go to the kitchen to find out.
Share and share alike
Restaurants these days tend to serve up far more food than the normal person needs in a single serving. When I was recently researching the menu at P.F. Chang's for an article about healthy dining during Gen Con, I discovered that many of their entrees actually contained three or four full servings! If you're dining with someone who has tastes similar to your own, you can get around this by sharing a plate with them. In fact, many restaurants will actually serve a meal on multiple plates for a nominal charge (usually $1-2 for the additional serving). Not only will this cut calories out of your meal, it will save you and your partner a few dollars in the process without giving up the "luxury" of being waited on and having your own entree.
Get a to-go box
If none of your friends wants what you are hankering for, another great way to get around the "too much food" dilemma is to ask for a to-go box with your entree -- not after you've finished eating, but as soon as they put the food down in front of you. Before you take the first bite, pack up half of your food in the to-go box, close it up and move it away from your plate. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" is appropriate here. Many people continue eating well after the point that they are full simply due to the fact that they are enjoying the food and it is still sitting right there in front of their faces. By packing half of your meal away, you're removing that temptation and at the same time ensuring that you'll be able to get a second meal out of your tasty entree.
The best weapon you may have against the dreaded dining out experience is the person who you are paying to take care of you while you're eating. Do not ever discount the value of a good waiter or waitress. These people are in there every day dealing with all kinds of diners and their bizarre dietary restrictions. If you're unsure what might be the most calorie-conscious choices to make, ask your waiter what he or she would recommend. Take a moment to briefly explain what your preferences are ("I'm trying to cut back on calories," "I'm avoiding carbs," etc.) and see what he thinks would be a good choice in that scenario. If he is unsure, ask if he would mind checking in with the kitchen to see what the chef would suggest. In some cases, you may find that the chef will be willing to make you something that isn't even on the menu (depending on the establishment, of course; I'm not exactly sure I'd want the master chef behind the counter at The Waffle House experimenting with my food).
The people who work in the restaurant you are dining in have a vested interest in making sure you are a happy camper, so if you're not clear on what might do the trick for you, feel free to use their knowledge. In a perfect world, they are going to go out of their way to make sure you get exactly what you want. (And yes, I realize there are restaurant staffers who really don't give a hoot about you or what you want and just want to shuffle you out of their hair as quickly as possible, but if that happens, you'll know where not to eat again in the future.)
Enjoy the experience
Enjoyment is perhaps the most important thing to remember when it comes to dining out. You aren't really going to a restaurant just for the food. You're going for the company. You're going for the atmosphere. You're going because you don't want to spend the time cooking or have to worry about doing the dishes after you're finished. You're going for the experience, and the food is only a small part of that. Try to focus a little less on the food and a little more on the overall meal. When put into perspective, it's easier to make wiser choices in the food if you aren't convinced going into your dining experience that food is the only thing you're getting out of it.
As long as you keep a level head about yourself, it's really easy to avoid saying "I can't" and make restaurant dining part of your overall healthy lifestyle.
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