Dining out on program – can it be done with success?
We all know the feeling: you’re invited out to dinner, and while stoked to see your friends and de-stress after a busy work week, the dread starts to kick in about how you’re going to stay on track with your nutrition program. You can’t be bothered fielding questions and comments about your lifestyle, feeling average the next day because you’ve eaten inflammatory foods that will set your digestive system on fire, or propelling yourself further away from your goals – but you still really kind of want to go.
The same goes when you are invited to someones house for a meal, or it’s the season for holiday feasts. Maintaining a healthy relationship with food and navigating yourself through a family and/or friend gathering can be a difficult task when you’re working towards your goals. Read more about navigating food during the the holidays here.
We get it, we’ve all been there, and the truth is there is no single answer as to how to manage this for everyone. Sharing conversation over food is probably one of the single biggest cultural activities we engage in – and has been so for thousands of years! Just because you’re dialed in and on program doesn’t mean you should have to forgo a social life. But nor does your social life need to take precedence over eating in a way that makes you feel good. To know how to best approach this dilemma it’s important to ask yourself a few questions:
Am I prepping for a competition, meet or contest? Do I need to make weight or ensure performance?
Are my athletic or aesthetic goals the priority in my life right now, or are they one of many personal pursuits I am undertaking?
Is my goal to improve my overall health and well-being in a long term, sustainable way or am I focused on shorter-term, finite goals where precision is key?
If you’ve identified yourself as being in a precision-focused stage where performance and body composition is the number one priority, then you are going to want to execute a high-precision approach.
If you’ve identified yourself as being lifestyle focused, with goals which are significant, but not the overarching factor dominating your day-to-day, then you’ll want to take a lifestyle approach.
Note that these approaches are not static – at some points you may fall into the high-precision camp and other times the lifestyle camp. This is healthy and expected. Even top-level athletes have to have a little down time. Your approach is no reflection of your value or commitment, it is simply a different method of executing your plan.
The High-Precision Approach
This approach is about using the same principles you do at home and taking them with you wherever you go. Its accuracy focused, so you’re going to want to pre-plan, stick to basics, develop a mental database, and have a few tricks up your sleeve.
When utilizing the high-precision approach you’re probably going to want to have some conversations with friends and family. Ensure they understand that your goals are your focus, and while you would like to partake there may be occasions when it’s inappropriate to eat out, and that the frequency will likely be low. It is helpful to assure people that your approach is not a reflection or judgement on anyone else, however, this is extremely difficult to do. Demonstrating this though action is often the best route: continue to be socially involved – bring a tea or coffee, or your own food from home where possible, and keep the focus and conversation not on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food choices, but rather about the other things going on in your lives.
Whenever possible try and choose the restaurant. Chain restaurants with over 20 locations are required by law to publish their nutritional info and many others do as well. Sushi is another great choice (check out MTMM’s sushi cheat sheet to help with this!). When unable to choose the location stick to basics: order a protein such as grilled chicken, steak or fish. If an appropriate meal is not on offer you can usually ask for steamed or baked potatoes, rice, or another grain to be added alongside some steamed veggies. Requesting your meal be prepared without the addition of sauces, butter and oils can make this very easy to track.
Once your food arrives you have two options: bring out the scale and weigh/log it, or, take a picture of your plate with your hand beside it for reference so you can log it later at home and know the approximate amounts.
Bonus trick: have a few go-to restaurants and weigh their portions the first time you order then keep a running list. While there will be some minor variation most will not change too significantly between visits.
Always check out your food when it arrives and build in a little buffer for fats – it’s likely some extra will sneak in, whether in be purposeful by the chefs, or a result of contamination. Also remember that protein will cook down by 1/3, so dependent on whether you are selecting a ‘cooked or ‘raw’ entry this could make a big difference.
This approach isn’t perfect - you can’t expect food to be prepared in as controlled an environment as it would at home, but it’s pretty darn good. In a high-precision approach you are still going to want to limit the amount you eat out.
The lifestyle approach is all about achieving your goals, but it looks at the broader picture of long-term success and sustainability. It is the approach most people should be taking most of the time. Essentially, it’s that happy middle ground between binging or throwing your plan out the window and bringing your scales to the restaurant.
Like the high-precision approach you’re going to want to plan ahead: choose the restaurant where you’re able to, check out their nutritional info online, and preload entries into your macro tracker before going out. Deciding in advance will keep you from selecting the deep fried, sugar laden items when you get to the restaurant starving. It will also help ensure you aren’t dramatically under on certain macros, causing you - in a state of starvation - to blow out elsewhere (i.e. because you’ve ordered the chicken breast with lettuce, “hold the dressing,” and are now short 20g of fat, you indulge in a side of truffle fries, clocking in at 450 cals). It also might surprise you what items actually fit well into your nutritional plan. For instance, an ahi tuna steak and asian slaw salad might even leave room for a cheeky glass of wine or carefully selected dessert.
If the restaurant you’re going to doesn’t have something that you’re super excited to eat, then stick to basics – order a grilled protein with a side of veg. Just because you’re out doesn’t mean it needs to be a big night on the town. Save the splashy meal for one you’re stoked for.
Knowing that restaurant nutritional info is likely to be imperfect, over-estimate a touch if you’re looking for fat loss, to provide yourself a buffer
Ensure you’re setting yourself up for success by modifying the rest of your day slightly to make room for the upcoming meal
Always front-load your protein to ensure you meet your targets (it is extremely unlikely you will find large protein servings in meals out unless you are headed to a steakhouse or similar).
Don’t skip meals leading into the event: this will just have you feeling hungry and anxious. Instead ensure you are eating balanced meals throughout the day, but if you know you are going to be eating somewhere that’s a little more generous with carbs or fats than would be your baseline, hold back a few of those macros to buy yourself some room.
Finally, enjoy your meal guilt-free! There’s nothing worse than going out and spending your time worrying about how many grams of fat are in your salad. Enjoy your friends, enjoy the food, and simply jump right back on program the next day – you might even benefit from the little bump in metabolic rate that comes from a refeed!
Your approach to nutrition should enhance your life, not detract from it! If you’re having difficulty finding that happy balance, talk to one of our coaches who can help guide you through the process and give you tools specific to your unique situation. Visit our How To Start page and message us for a complimentary one-on–one assessment with an MTMM nutritionist!