Surviving Restaurants

Since I started my weight loss journey, I’ve made it a point to continue eating out in restaurants regularly.  While the over-sized, fat-laden meals at restaurants can be kryptonite to those of us trying to lose weight, dining out has always been a big part of my own personal weekend time…and I’m never going to be willing to give that up entirely.

While Tuesday night takeout and Thursday night pizza have all but ceased, my boyfriend and I still go out to dinner (or at the very least pick up five dollar footlongs) on Friday nights and Saturday nights, and I often indulge in a quart of chicken and broccoli and brown rice on Sunday evenings. 

I’ve never been a big bar or club girl.  Instead, I get my jollies from searching out moderately-priced BYO restaurants where I can relax and talk and catch up – and, well, eat yummy food – with friends and family.

I love to eat.  I love going to restaurants.  So I figured I had to find a way to make restaurant meals part of my weight loss efforts – or I’d never be able to stick with my new lifestyle.  What I discovered was that there truly is a way to dine out more than once a month and still shed pounds.  Here are some of the things I do:

1.) Google the restaurant.  Most restaurants post their menus, some complete with nutritional information, right on their website.  The nutritional information for many chain restaurants can also be found on websites like Diet Facts or Calorie King.  That’s when I compare my options and determine the healthiest (and most POINT-friendly!) meals, complete with salad/soup options and possibly even dessert – try sorbet or frozen yogurt, fresh berries and cream, or a fruit-based slice of pie.  Of course, depending upon how they’re prepared, chicken or fish (which I don’t eat) are almost always healthier options that will leave you feeling more satisfied than, say, a heaping bowl of white pasta with garlic bread. 

I often skip cocktails, appetizers, and desserts, but sometimes I go out with friends who do elect to partake in the extras, and it’s much easier for me to join in – without the temptation to splurge on creamy spinach and artichoke dip or molten chocolate cakes - if I’ve already committed to my order in advance. 

2.)  Search for “healthy” words. There are certain key terms I look for when scanning a restaurant menu: grilled, steamed, baked, lean, broiled, whole wheat.  Look for chicken, fish, or pasta prepared with lemon, garlic, herbs, or other seasonings as opposed to entrees doused in rich, creamy sauces.  Go for marinara or marsala sauces instead of alfredo or hollandaise. 

If you’re unclear how a dish is prepared, ask your waiter.  One particular chain restaurant we frequent has been known to pour butter all over their side of “fresh steamed broccoli.”  They do not advertise this, of course, but when their on-line nutritional information indicates that the broccoli is several hundred calories, you start connecting the dots (not to mention, butter on veggies tastes damn good…and I can certainly tell the difference.)  I asked the waiter how the broccoli was prepared, she confirmed my suspicions, and from now on I ask for no butter on my vegetables.  Another chain dumps hollandaise sauce on an otherwise innocuous spinach and mushroom omelette.  It’s simple: ask for no sauce. 

3.)  Just Ask.  That brings me to my next point.  Don’t be afraid to open your mouth when it comes to ordering your food.  Ask for your meal to be prepared without oil, ask for dressings and sauces on the side, or ask to swap the french fries that come with your turkey burger for a baked potato or a side salad.   Request that croutons, cheese, and salami be left off your house salad (and try dipping your fork into the dressing instead of pouring it on!)  At breakfast, order “dry” whole wheat toast instead of white toast that has been slathered with butter.  See if the chef will prepare that delicious pasta dish with whole wheat pasta, or if you can get your veggie wrap in a whole grain wrap.

The moral of the story is that most restaurants are more than accommodating, and as long as you’re polite, your waiter will be happy to bring you a meal that’s exactly the way you want it.  You’re shelling out your hard-earned money on this food – so why not get what you want?

4.)  Watch portion sizes.  Some people ask for a take-out carton as soon as their food reaches the table.  I prefer to keep my portion-control issues to myself, so I often physically divide the meal in half on my plate.  I eat the first half, put down my fork for a few minutes to gauge whether I’m still truly hungry, and then go from there.  

I’ve always been a meat and potatoes kind of gal, so I simply stick with lean cuts of steak, like top sirloin, and opt for the six oz. cut instead of the 16 oz cut.  

You can also use visual cues to determine portion sizes.  Think of a deck of cards when digging into protein, and make a fist to see how much pasta you should enjoy from that gargantuan bowl your waiter just brought to the table.

I also make it a point to keep my hands out of the bread basket, and if I’m having Mexican, to portion out just a few chips (and plenty of salsa) and put them on a separate plate to avoid mindless munching.  Believe me, those extra bites can add up really quickly!

5.)  Bring your own.  Okay, okay, so this may be a tad excessive.  However, I’ve been known to toss “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” spray in my purse before hitting up the local diner for breakfast, so that I can enjoy my side of grits without blowing 100 calories on a single pat of butter. 

Some fellow Weight Watchers tote their food scales or serving spoons around so that they know exactly how many ounces of chicken they’re eating or how many teaspoons of cream they’re pouring into their coffee. 

My boyfriend and I almost exclusively seek out BYO restaurants, which not only saves us money but also allows me the luxury of knowing exactly how many POINTS I’m drinking.  Bringing my own Chardonnay also eliminates the temptation of yummy apple martinis and other sugary cocktails that pack hundreds of calories a pop. 

Dozens of Splenda packets are buried at the bottom of my purse, and I always pop my own popcorn and sneak it into the movies.

(Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do!)

6.)  Slow down.  Ask anyone who has ever dined with me, and they will confirm that I am probably the world’s slowest eater.  My boyfriend has devoured his entire meal before I’m finished tasting my third or fourth bite.  My method is to take a bite, put down the fork, take a sip of water, and then proceed to the next.  When you’ve had your fill, flag down the waiter ASAP for a take-out box, or physically push the plate away from you.

Eating slowly makes dining out a more fulfilling experience.  Not only can you focus on chatting with your companions, but it gives the brain plenty of time to signal to your stomach that it’s full – a process that has been scientifically proven to take upwards of 20 minutes, believe it or not. 

7.)  Have a snack.  One surefire way for me to end up overeating at a restaurant is to show up famished.  If I’m utterly starving when I sit down at the table, I’m much more likely to order soup, salad, appetizers, dinner, and dessert.  The hungrier I am, the more tempting everything on the menu suddenly sounds, and the harder it is for me to order wisely.  While, in theory, it makes sense to “save” your daily calories/POINTS for a restaurant meal, I can tell you from experience that if you starve yourself all day, that plan will backfire the moment you get that menu in your hands.

While I try to lighten up my usual meals on days I know I’m going out to a restaurant, I always have a small snack right before I go.  Sometimes I munch on a handful of Kashi crackers or a light string cheese, or grab an apple or banana to eat in the car on my way there.   I eat just enough to tide me over, but not so much that it’s going to ruin my appetite (as if that were even possible!).

8.)  Indulge (sometimes).  This all isn’t to say that I haven’t been known to swipe a roll or share a dessert.  If there’s something you really want, you can have it.  Just be sure to make better food choices throughout the rest of your day, or by spending a bit more time in the gym that afternoon.  

If you’re trying to lose weight, that doesn’t mean you have to skip out on gabbing with girlfriends over a hearty Italian meal on Friday night, and it doesn’t mean you have to tell your hubby that you can no longer go out for breakfast with him on Saturday mornings.  Restaurant dining (and eating in general) is such an integral part of socializing with friends and family – not to mention co-workers - in our society, and I’m always saddened when someone confides to me that they make up excuses to get out of going to company luncheons or birthday celebrations for friends because they don’t feel they can eat at a restaurant without blowing their weight loss efforts.

While I have to be even more careful about what I order when dining out (I do weigh in on Sunday mornings, after all!), I’ve managed to lose 90 pounds while still eating out at least three times a week.  Trust me, it can be done!


  1. All very good tips and since I blew it this morning and got texas toast french toast with butter and sugar this morning on my very first outing with WW, I will take them all to heart. Thanks for posting this. :-)

    • Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for checking out my restaurant tips – I hope they help!

      Believe me, we’ve all made some not-so-point-friendly choices when dining out at restaurants – including yours truly. Just remember that it’s ONE meal, and you’ll do better next time!

      If you have Twitter, feel free to follow me @jenniferlnelson for blog updates. I’d love to hear from you. :-)


  2. We rarely go out. I love to cook and prepping my own meal. I always see to it to have something healthy for the whole day so thanks a lot to this blog at least when I decide to go out and dine I would I know what to do better …

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  1. [...] and even though I was careful and followed all of my own rules about dining out (see my post about Surviving Restaurants), I know from experience that a bigger meal the night before weigh-in typically results in a [...]

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