Tips for healthy eating when dining out

Dining out. We all do it.
Whether it is for work, pleasure, convenience, travel, an event or for really, no reason at all.
Eating out is part of our lifestyle. 

But is it possible to stay fit and healthy when eating outside of the home?

Despite close to 50% of all food spending from Americans being at restaurants, fast foods or food away from home, there was once a time when eating out was costly and inconvenient and an insult to your grandmother to compare her home-cooked meal to food served in a restaurant. 

Karel told me that when he was growing up in Czech, they rarely ate out. Eating out was reserved for very special occasions and he said that for him and his siblings, it was a chance to practice their good manners. 

Today, you don’t need a special occasion to have someone serve you, wait on you, prepare food for you and clean up after you.  Meal prep at home is far from a valued and necessary skill with available food at every street corner.  For many, cooking is a bothersome, time-consuming task that has little place in a busy lifestyle. Clean-up, dirty dishes, fear of preparing bad-tasting food and burdensome meal planning are among the most common reasons as to why many people do not make the time to prepare and eat home cooked meals. Throw in training for a triathlon and you have a list of excuses as to why you can’t find time to properly fuel your active lifestyle.

Supersized, calorie, sodium and fat laden meals are of concern for the public as health professionals continue to associate chronic diseases and obesity to our growing fast-food nation in a fast-paced, sedentary society.
No one said that eating out is a horrible thing but if your “occasional” eating out, turns into “daily” eating, consider the following tips to help you stay on track with healthy eating to support your active triathlon lifestyle.  

Tips for healthy eating when dining out
-Before spending all your energy on how to eat “healthy” outside of the home, consider working on a at-home, real-food, balanced diet for most meals per week, along with eating more mindfully - eating with a purpose. If you eat well most of the time you don't have to stress about the occasional times. It's important that when you do eat out and if it is for a special occasion (or at least has a purpose), a you can eat a meal utside of the home without feelings of guilt. If you have a really great reason to indulge, like a birthday or special occasion, enjoy it! Recognize that it's ok to say "no thank you" to the office brownies that always end up in your eye sight on Friday and saying "yes please" to a slice of cake at a family members birthday. Enjoy the cake as you cherish memories with others. 

-Don’t bank all of your daily calories for your special meal. Modify a snack or two to save 200-400 calories but avoid going into the meal starving by “saving” calories or you will risk overeating, sending your blood sugar out of control (and even your blood pressure) and heavily over-indulging at the upcoming meal.

-If eating out is an occasional treat, enjoy it! It’s not about what you eat occasionally that affects your health but rather what you eat on a day-to-day basis. Be inspired, try something new or indulge in a feel-good way. I just LOVE trying new foods/meals that inspire me to be more creative in my kitchen. Consider a day/time for eating out when you can be in the moment and enjoy the full dining experience (with feel-good food choices and not stressed and exhausted).  Be sure you savor each bite (to prevent overeating) and try to eat in a way that allows you to feel better after you eat than before. Order something that you can eat occasionally because you love it and pass on neutral foods.

-Ever consider burning calories as you treat yourself? Rather than eating out dinner and having dessert immediately after, consider driving elsewhere for something special for a treat. If roads are safe and weather is nice, bike to your closest ice cream parlor or park at least one-mile away and enjoy a 15 minute walk to and from a local bakery or ice cream shop and enjoy a small treat while walking. Perhaps the thought of driving somewhere else for a dessert may make you second guess the need/desire for the treat in the first place while at the restaurant.

-Be creative with eating out. Review online menus ahead of time so you don't have to be extremely selective and needy as you ask the chef to re-do a menu option to meet your needs, (although, many restaurants today will cater to your personal dietary needs, sometimes with a small extra price). For me as a vegetarian athlete, I know what fuels my body and when it comes to paying for food, I want to pay for happy tummy foods, with great flavor and presentation. Do your homework ahead of time so that when you eat out with friends or family, you are able to find a place that you are excited about and thus, are able to order something that is worth the money and time for having someone else prepare your meal.

-Be smart with “healthy” selections. Each restaurant will have their own definition of healthy whereas you may see a “healthy” option with “only” 1300 mg of sodium. Or, perhaps or a vegetarian meal loaded with cheese and butter and over 1500 calories. If you are going the healthy route while dining out, keep in mind as athletes, we need meals, not lettuce on a plate. Spending $15 on greens for a “meal” is not my ideal way to enjoy a dining experience and feel fueled and satisfied. Just because something is “healthy" doesn’t mean it will meet your needs. Use your skills from your developed healthy daily eating routine to better understand how to choose or create a meal outside the home (from restaurants to fast food to the salad bar) that will leave you fueled, nourished and satisfied after eating.

-Don’t be afraid to be a leader. Order first so that others around you will feel inspired by your choices rather than feeling as if you have to join the crowd. You never know who you will inspire when eating out. Also, a special request such as asking for dressing on the side, doubling the veggies, asking how the protein is cooked or asking for no salt added is likely going to make a big difference as to how you feel during and after eating. Don’t hesitate to order from the lunch menu at dinner (if possible) for a smaller portion, combining appetizers or sides for a meal, splitting an entrĂ©e or ordering one dessert for a group.

The key with eating out is that you enjoy your dining experience, and perhaps, feeling a little ore inspired to try new foods/recipes at home. As athletes, we want to eat healthy but we also deserve to indulge. If eating out every now and then is your "treat" - enjoy it!

As you apply these tips to your dining experience, always remember to leave the restaurant feeling better (satisfied) than when you arrived (hungry) and motivated to get right back to your normal healthy living routine. 

Although eating out may seem convenient, quick and often healthier than eating at home, there’s nothing more valuable for your health and performance needs than being your own waiter and chef to fuel your body with own personal “triathlete in training” menu.