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How to Master a Menu: Your Guide to Nutrition Strategies When Dining Out

We've all been there - feeling overly full and uncomfortable after a restaurant meal. Maybe you had to discreetly unbutton your pants under the table or couldn't wait to get home to your elastic-waist sweatpants. Dining out is supposed to be an enjoyable experience where you can try new foods, catch up with friends, and avoid doing dishes. But for many people trying to achieve nutrition goals, eating out often comes with a side of stress.

Without proper strategies, the change of environment, social pressure to keep eating, getting distracted by conversation then looking down at a clean plate, and let's face it - the delicious food, can feel like the perfect recipe for going overboard.

This leads to feelings of guilt, deprivation, and like you've "blown" your diet before you've even taken the last bite.

But here's the truth I remind clients: We're all human and dining out is a huge part of life and being social. Instead of worrying about what not to do, let's focus on smart nutrition strategies when dining out without food rules or guilt.

Keep reading for my dietitian-designed tips to savor your meals out while continuing to make progress towards your nutrition goals.

2 girls eating a healthy meal at a table

As a registered dietitian, my approach encourages clients away from food rules and guilt and towards looking inward for signals from our body that we’re satisfied and have had enough to eat. However, I know that this can take time and practice, so I’ve included other practical tips to get started with.

Check in With Your Hunger

You’ve probably already heard the saying, “Don’t grocery shop hungry”. When we’re at a restaurant, we have access to all of the choices on the menu (much like we would the aisles in the grocery store). Arriving at a meal already hungry takes away from our ability to ask ourselves what actually sounds good and to stop when we’re full. It’s likely we’ll over-order, and thus overeat, just because we weren’t feeling satisfied before dining.

Before heading out, pause and do a hunger check-in on a scale of 1-10. If you're ravenous (3 or below), have a light snack to take the edge off overeating. Aim for a snack high in protein, like nuts, hard boiled eggs, or a protein bar or shake to satisfy your hunger.

Levels of 4-7 are the sweet spot for being tuned into hunger cues. This is where we want to be when ordering; pleasantly hungry and awaiting our meal.

Load Up on Veggies First

When looking over the menu, start by scanning for the vegetable options like salads, veggie sides, and broth-based soups. Order one or two of these first to build the foundation of your meal. Veggies are packed with fiber to promote fullness, plus they provide a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. By prioritizing vegetables, you'll automatically work in more nutrition and likely end up feeling satisfied on less of the richer, higher-calorie foods. You can then complement your veggie selections with reasonable portions of proteins and whole grains.

Be Mindful with Bread

Many restaurants bring out a bread basket or chip basket shortly after being seated. Instead of mindlessly munching before your meal arrives, pause and check in with your hunger levels first. If you're quite hungry, have a reasonable portion of the bread or chips, remembering that there are still mains to come. If only slightly hungry, it may be best to skip it and get more satisfaction from your main meal.

Stay Hydrated

Be sure to sip on water, seltzer or unsweetened beverages throughout your meal. It's easy to mistake thirst for hunger signals. Proper hydration can prevent overeating and will help you better tune into your body's satiety cues. If drinking alcohol, be sure to alternate with glasses of water to stay hydrated. Alcohol can dull your ability to recognize fullness cues and may stimulate appetite.

Savor Each Bite

Once your meal arrives, slow down and practice mindful eating. Notice the flavors, textures and aromas. Chew thoroughly and appreciate the ambiance and company you're with. When you're present and relaxed, you're more likely to recognize feelings of satisfaction. To do so, it’s helpful to have a ‘fork down between each bite’ strategy; it takes 15-20 minutes for our brain to recognize fullness, so taking time to enjoy a meal can maximize satisfaction and help prevent overeating.

Pack Leftovers Right Away

If you have the intention to take leftovers home, ask for a to-go box as soon as your meals arrive. Portion out what you plan to eat onto your plate, and pack up the rest before digging in. Restaurant portions are often larger and less nutrient dense than those we’d make at home, and it's easy to get overly full when eating directly out of larger restaurant portions. Additionally, most of us aren’t having appetizers and dessert as part of our weeknight home cooking.

With some strategic thinking, restaurant meals can be an enjoyable experience rather than something to dread. Whether it's a special occasion or simply a break from cooking, going out is about more than just the food. It's about connection, tradition, celebration and making memories.

I encourage you to think about the different roles food can play beyond just nutrition - nourishment, culture, gathering with loved ones. With that mindset, along with tuning into hunger/fullness cues and being present during your meal, you can absolutely savor your time out while continuing to make progress towards your nutrition goals.

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