I’m a huge advocate for preparing and packaging your food. This has a whole bunch of advantages. It’s often more affordable and you know exactly what’s going into your meals, making it easier for you to follow healthy eating. That said, it can be quite difficult to completely avoid eating out.
Families spend time together eating at restaurants. Colleagues organize meetings over coffee or lunch. Brunch with friends, wine and dinner. Even more in the Philippines, I noticed that eating out is such a social and festive activity.
Because of this, instead of completely living like a hermit and avoiding all dates around food or drink, I found ways to make smart, healthy choices when dining out. Here are my tips on how to navigate restaurant menus and order like a fit boss!
1. Start with protein
The first thing I do when I open the menu is scroll through it to find the protein options. Protein is the king of nutrients and can reduce hunger and boost metabolism. Good quality protein is a must in every meal I eat. Lean options are best. Opt for chicken breast, tuna, white fish, shrimp or lean beef. If you don’t eat meat, some good sources of non-meat protein are beans, peas, broccoli, and eggs.
The way they are prepared is also essential. Choose from grilled, steamed and baked options or even sashimi. Avoid crispy meat which usually means fried. It’s also heavy on oil, sauces, condiments, and breading. You could save over 200 calories per meal just by avoiding extra sauces and condiments!
2. Pack the vegetables
Now that you have the protein base, add the vegetables. Green vegetables are very rich in vitamins and minerals, but in restaurants they can also contain unnecessary fat, sugar and salt. Be careful!
A simple side salad of raw, fresh, leafy green vegetables is best. Same principle as protein, I avoid extra calories by saying no croutons, creamy dressings and heavy toppings. I always order a balsamic vinaigrette (or none at all), and ask for it on the side so I can only have as little as I want. If a salad isn’t an option, steamed, grilled, roasted, or baked vegetables also work, but again, ask for less salt and oil.
3. Stay away from liquid calories
This is one of my favorite tips for maintaining a healthy diet. The best way to cut down on extra calories is to drink only water, black coffee, and unsweetened tea.
Fiber, healthy fats and protein help us feel full and energized. Unless it’s a low-sugar, high-protein drink, most drink options available in restaurants are high in calories and low in nutrients, leading to consuming empty calories. . I recommend keeping your drink choices simple. If you’re bored, add lemon to your water and stevia to your coffee or tea if you can’t curb that sweet craving.
4. Control your portions
You’ve chosen what to eat, and now you have to decide how much to eat. It differs from person to person – age, weight, height, activity level. That said, the general rule is that if you’re trying to lose weight, you should eat fewer calories than you burn. If you’re trying to win, you eat more calories. And, if you’re trying to maintain yourself, you’re eating the same number of calories you’re burning.
In my experience, most restaurants in Manila are a bit hit or miss when it comes to portion sizes. Sometimes you get big portions, and sometimes you get too few. It is even more complicated because carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice and bread, are more available, and there is not enough lean protein and vegetables. A rough but useful guide to judging portion sizes is the manual method:
Protein: One palm-sized portion for women and two palm-sized portions for men (use the base of the palm, not including your fingers)
Vegetables and salads: One fist-sized portion for women and two fist-sized portions for men
Carbohydrate-rich foods: One cup portion for women and two for men
Healthy fats: One thumb-sized serving for women and two for men
5. Be picky
After making all of these specific, healthy choices, you might think you’re being too picky. It doesn’t matter, be picky! Some restaurants may not like it, but try to customize your order, if that’s what is needed to make your meal healthy. As long as you’re nice and your demands are reasonable, you should be allowed to have your meal however you want. So get out the cheese; ask for less oil or no sugar and less salt!
I always say that nothing beats cooking your own food. The more you can control, the better. Plus, even if you have my advice handy, you need the strength to say no to all decadent and unhealthy food temptations. God knows there are plenty!
Ordering at a restaurant can seem daunting, but if you’re motivated and have a plan, there’s no reason to derail eating well. You have this! Build a directory of restaurants and healthy menu choices. Keep this list of options in your back pocket, so the next time someone asks you what you’d like to eat, you’ll know exactly what to say!