What to Eat at a Restaurant While on a Weight Loss Diet

When I speak of you being on a weight loss diet— I mean you trying to deliberately cut down your intake of food, or to reduce the amount of calories you’re eating, so you can get to your ideal weight— which aligns with your long-term goals.

And if you’re trying to lose weight— if you’re trying to reduce your food intake or your calorie intake— it’d make it easy for yourself if you have certain guidelines in place for occasions when you have to go out with friends, family or colleagues to social events.

These food-related situations are not under your control because there’s tasty food being cooked by someone else; usually with a lot of oil and fat content. And it is going to be chaotic to adhere to dietary restrictions unless you have a suitable framework in place.

These occasions don’t have to be a cause for sabotage to your weight loss progress.

For most people, when they go out to eat with friends at restaurants— they consider that a cheat meal— which is a wrong way to look at things when it comes to building sustainable habits around food. Because it creates an all-or-nothing mentality.

“I’m on track whenever I’m home and when I’m cooking my own meals.

But whenever I’m eating outside, I’m going to completely turn off that part of my brain which keeps food habits in check. And it’s going to be a cheat meal.”

If you have that mindset, it’ll be impossible for you to sustain your weight loss results long-term. So even if you make some progress, you’ll most likely offset that whenever your next cheat meal or day comes around.

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First things first. You can’t eat out every week if you’re trying to lose weight.

It’s not what you eat in one meal that gets you results nor is it what you eat in a day. It is the average of what you do every single day over a long period of time.

And if you’re eating out every week— that’s a meal or a day when the food being cooked is not under your control. If you’re not able to control the input side of things i.e., the food you’re putting into your body and you have no control over the outcomes i.e., your scale weight. There’s no point obsessing over the number on the scale when it inevitably goes up.

Because you can only control the inputs. And if you want to have predictable results, you need to make sure the inputs are 100% dialled in.

This means buying your own groceries, cooking your own meals and not eating out all the time.

You’d see that people who maintain a healthy body weight don’t eat out a lot. And even when they do, it is rarely a full-fledged feast.

But for people who struggle with their weight, every occasion of eating out becomes a chance to indulge without inhibition— a full-course meal, juices/smoothies to go with it, a cocktail on the side.

With this, even if they were to stay on track for the entirety of the week, just that one meal during the weekend can offset all progress.

graphical representation of how a bad weekend can ruin a diet

When you have sudden spikes of high calorie days it raises your weekly average calories even when you had been on track previously.

To avoid this, instead of thinking of your diet as an on-off switch— that you’re ‘on’ your diet throughout the week, but you’re ‘off’ your diet during the weekend— think of it in terms of a dial that goes from 0 to 100.

100 being your diet completely dialled in. But when the weekend comes around you can turn it down to maybe 50 or 60. Not completely to 0.

Don’t let your adherence be binary.

You cannot eat out spontaneously. Spontaneity with food intake and a low-calorie diet are incompatible.

If your friend calls you and says they’re coming over in the next 10 minutes to pick you up for a snack at the new burger place or the neighbourhood all-you-can-eat buffet— it’s a terrible idea. Especially when you’re new to your weight loss journey.

You don’t have the tools and skills to navigate such advanced situations yet.

Right now you have a difficult time staying on track even in your home environment. Eating out in an unpredictable environment with minimal time to plan ahead is a recipe for disaster.

You cannot do this as a beginner. It’s impossible.

Maybe after 2 to 3 years when you’ve built up skills and you have a good idea of the calorie content of different foods, what works for you, what kind of strategy you can implement during sudden food-related events— only then can you gradually allow yourself to go out spontaneously.

This will only come with experience and time.

Until then, always plan at least 12 to 24 hours in advance for meals outside. This is so you have sufficient time to plan the rest of your day in terms of food.

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You need to have a clear idea in your head about what you’ll eat before you even leave the house.

Spontaneity in timing food-related outings is a bad idea. So is spontaneity when it comes to picking the foods that you’d eat when out.

If you have weight loss goals, you need to plan ahead of time. Period.

Say you have planned ahead of time about when and where you’re going to eat. How do you go about deciding what to eat at the restaurant?

The first thing that you need to focus on is a lean protein source. Your main dish has to contain a lean protein (meat, fish, egg, tofu, paneer, soy, etc.) as it’s primary ingredient.

And to add to this, you would ideally try to hit most of your protein goal well in advance during the rest of your day.

The second priority would be getting something with vegetables like a salad without dressing.

Grilled chicken fits both these criteria. It’s a lean protein source that is usually served with a side of vegetables and some rice/potatoes in most places.

The main reason for these two things is because lean protein and vegetables are both filling. So when you eat them, you feel full and you’d be less tempted to overeat and over indulge.

This is crucial especially in an environment where other people have different goals than you and will most likely order foods which don’t align with your requirements. If you’re tempted to take bites from their plates, these calories can add up fast.

Making sure your meal is filling acts as insurance against that.

Once protein and veggies are taken care of, you can add in a plain carb source like rice, bread or mashed potatoes (without butter). If you ordered grilled chicken, this is already taken care of.

Don’t order foods like fried rice, French fries, etc. The carb source should be plain. People vilify carbs for being fattening but that’s a misconception. It’s not the carbs. It’s the high-calorie cooking methods used to cook the carbs— deep frying, dipping in mayonnaise, lathering bread with butter— avoid these mistakes.

No one got fat from eating boiled potatoes. But people put on weight all the time from eating French fries.

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This framework should form the crux of whatever you’re consuming.

How you go about implementing these principles will depend on what is available to you in the restaurant you’re eating at.

Similarly, if you’re eating at a buffet, you would plate your meal in such a way that half of your plate has salad/vegetables, the other half equally split between a lean protein and a plain carb source.

Don’t go for second servings. And eat slow.

plate showing different portion sizes

Are there foods that you should avoid while eating at a restaurant?

Yes.

You should ideally avoid anything that has gravy or is cooked in some kind of sauce.

Gravies and sauces are cooked with a lot of oil and butter to enhance the flavours. These will add to your calorie intake without even you realising.

Dipping bread in a rich sauce or eating your rice with gravy is a strict no-no.

Avoid calorie-rich drinks and beverages.

So no smoothies, juices or soft drinks. If you want a drink, drink water. Or get a diet soda.

Stay away from alcohol as much as possible, unless your social occasion absolutely demands you have a drink in hand. Then you need to stick to a clear spirit like gin, whisky or vodka.

Avoid cocktails at all costs. One glass of cocktail can be equivalent to one meal. And before you know it you’d have consumed calories equivalent to 3 full meals.

Don’t drink beer. No one stops at one pint. You’re also more likely to lose inhibitions around snacking when beer is freely flowing.

Now let’s talk about how to eat less when you’re eating at a restaurant.

The first thing you need to realise is that less does not mean less quantity of food; but it is about consuming less energy i.e., calories.

If you ate 2 big bowls of salad, that’s a lot of food in terms of quantity or volume. But it’s not a lot of calories. It has the same amount of calories as half a pizza slice.

But 2 big bowls of salad would fill you up; it’s unlikely you’ll be able to finish them even. But you could eat multiple slices of pizza in one sitting; even the whole box.

So when you’re trying to control how much you eat— it’s less about the quantity and more about the energy content in the food.

That’s why we go back to the initial guidelines— pick something with lean protein, some vegetables and a plain carb source.

If you just stick to those guidelines and eat like you normally eat, you’d feel satiated. You’d not have to consciously worry about eating less because good food choices would automatically ensure you don’t overindulge.

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If you make the right choices, should you still track calories when you’re eating out?

The short answer is no. Because you can’t.

You would not know what is there in each dish. It’s impossible to know.

I recommend setting a calorie allowance for yourself; for most people this can range anywhere between 700 and 1500 calories for one average meal outside. This is provided you’re conscious of choices.

If eating without inhibition, you can easily eat over 2000 calories in one sitting. That is more than some people’s daily energy requirement. Imagine if you repeated this multiple times a week, every week.

Restaurants use extra oil, dressing and fat to make everything taste better. So you have to account for that. It’s better to overestimate calories for restaurant dishes than underestimate them.

So keep between 700 and 1500 calories in reserve and block it out for the day in your food diary app.

Every single experience you have when you are eating out should become a reference experience.

You should be able to reflect back upon it and track the progress that you have made.

What was according to plan?

What could you not do?

Could you have hit your protein goals in a better way?

What could you have done more efficiently?

And the next time you go out to eat, what are the mistakes that you will not repeat?

Because if you go out and keep repeating the same mistakes, you’re not learning. If you don’t learn, you won’t build the skills you need to sustain weight loss long-term, and to be able to deal with spontaneous eating events.

You need to be able to reflect on the actions you took during the restaurant outing.

And be able to recalibrate your behaviour for the next time.

Building a catalogue of these reference experiences of you having eaten out multiple times in different settings and at different locations— will let you develop a fair idea of what systems work for you.

This is how you hone your skills around navigating food-related situations while staying on track to achieve your weight loss goals. It’s a skill like any other. It requires deliberate practice to master.

This experience would also carry over to occasions when you have to travel. And when you have no control over meals being cooked for days at a stretch.

However, this learning process would occur over years; not months or weeks.

If you have been trying to reach your weight loss goals for a while now, but are struggling a bit in the process.

It’s probably because of a lack of consistency, a lack of guidance or a lack of support.

If you’d like a 24×7 support system to hold your hand and guide you through the process till you get to your goals, you should consider 1-on-1 coaching with Workday Physique.

Ajitesh Gogoi is an online fitness coach and the founder of Workday Physique™. His mission is to empower busy executives to achieve their weight loss goals. And transform them into their most confident selves.
Ajitesh Gogoi

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