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Flexible Dieting Hacks For Eating Out

Avatar Nutrition Staff

September 11, 2017


If there is one thing flexible dieters are good at, it’s tracking their food. They’re experts at reading food labels and measuring serving sizes, and they’re certainly not afraid to indulge in the occasional treat.

But when confronted with the idea of eating out, many flexible dieters go into panic mode!

Hardcore disciples of flexible dieting may have no problem eating pop tarts since the macros are listed on the box, but without a nutrition facts panel to guide them, they suddenly become anxious.

After eating a meal out and unsuccessfully attempting to find the macros in their tracking app or online, uncertainty abounds.

“What ingredients were used to make this dish?”

“How much of each was used?”

“What type of ground beef was in there—85/15 or 80/20?”

“How the heck am I going to plug this meal into my app?”

To complicate matters further, even when restaurants list the macros of their menu items online, these are not always accurate. With so many uncontrolled variables, accounting for the macros in restaurant food can be quite a challenge, and there will always be some degree of error. The struggle is real.

But this doesn’t mean that you should avoid eating out.

dinner party

While it’s true that eating out reduces the accuracy of your macronutrient calculations, the reality is that unless you want to live as a hermit, you need to deal with eating out at some point! Further, the whole reason most people choose flexible dieting is because they want to make progress but also enjoy life. When done right, there’s no reason that you can’t eat out in moderation and still achieve your goals.

Here are 9 tactics that experienced flexible dieters use to make eating out manageable:

1. Decide how lenient you can afford to be

Your goal will dictate how strict you need to be when it comes to eating out. It’s important to realize that if your goal is to get REALLY lean, increased accuracy and adherence will be required. In these situations, you may need to save eating out for special occasions, or you may need to avoid eating out altogether. For example, eating out a few days before a physique competition may not be the best idea! However, if you are like most people attempting to lose weight, you can afford to eat out in moderation.

2. Fast to create room for more food

Restaurant food is notoriously high in carbs and fat, so the more carbs and fat you have available to spend on your meal, the lower your chance of blowing past your targets. If you know you’ll be eating a lunch out, you might want to forgo a big breakfast in favor of a smaller one, or you may even want to skip breakfast altogether—yep, intermittent fasting does have its benefits!

If you plan on going out for dinner you may choose to save calories by eating primarily protein and veggies leading up to the event. By reserving a big chunk of your calories for dinner—think 40-70% depending on your targets—you’ll open yourself up to a world of meal opportunities.

3. Keep in mind the number of macros you have left when choosing a dish

Before choosing a dish, you need to know exactly how many macros you have left to work with. If weight loss is your goal and you’re down to poverty macros, a salad with dressing on the side may be your only feasible choice. If you’re reverse dieting or trying to build muscle on a high-calorie diet, you might be able to not only have that burger and fries but dessert as well! Knowing how many macros you have left to spend at any given point is key in choosing the right meal to help you meet your targets.

4. Look up the macros of the meal before you order

Plan ahead.

Five minutes of research can save you a lot of sanity later! Many restaurants list the macros of their dishes online, so if you know ahead of time where you’ll be eating, you can decide on a meal before you even arrive!

red robin macros

An example of Red Robin’s nutrition menu online.

If the restaurant doesn’t post their nutrition online, you may need to order something that’s simple and fairly easy to track, or you can do your best to guestimate or even use the macros from a similar dish that’s already in your app or online (see tips 5 – 7).

5. Simplify and/or customize to create your own meal

The simpler the dish, the easier it is to account for.

That is to say, a 9 oz. cut of steak, baked potato, and steamed veggies is easier to track than an intricate lasagna dish with lots of uncertain ingredients. Also, don’t be afraid to customize! If you’re worried about ‘ghost calories’ from chefs being liberal with oil or butter, request no butter, no added oil, and sauce or dressing on the side.

Further, if you don’t see anything on the menu that you think might fit, you can always ask to modify one of the meals. For example, if you want a steak but believe that the side dishes they come with will put you over your macros, ask for a steak salad. Or ask for rice or a potato with no butter. These are easy ways to save calories on a meal!

6. Guestimate and overestimate

If you need to guestimate the macros of your dish, some extra work and experience may be required, but you can still do well! As you become a seasoned flexible dieter, you’ll start to learn what a cup of rice or a tablespoon of oil looks like, and you’ll also become familiar with the macros making up different food items.

If you aren’t sure what’s in a particular dish, google the ingredients and take a stab at it from there. If your goal is fat loss or minimizing fat gain, give yourself a cushion and overestimate by about 10%. Also, realize that chef’s love to add extra fat to food. When oil is visible in your dish, you may want to log an extra tablespoon of oil toward your meal. When guestimating, accept that you’re never going to be 100% spot on, and that’s okay.

7. Use macros listed for a similar meal

If your restaurant doesn’t list the macros for a dish and you don’t feel comfortable guestimating, use the macros from a similar dish that is already in the database of your app or posted online. If there are several macros listed for the same dish—let’s say totaling 700, 900, and 1,100 calories—take the average. Or, if you’re really concerned about fat gain, take the highest number you find and overestimate by 10% to be on the safe side.

8. Drink alcohol sensibly

Alcohol is certainly not off limits, but you must account for the macros. Since alcohol itself contains seven calories per gram and acts like both a carb and a fat in some aspects, you can use your carb or your fat calorie allotment to tally up your drinks—or even take some from both!

For example, if a light beer has 100 kcals, that would equate to 25 grams of carbs (100/4=25) or 11 grams of fat (100/9=11.1). If you choose to count the drink toward carbs and fat, you would track this as 15 grams of carbs (60/4=15) and 4.5 grams of fat (40/9 = 4.44). All you have to do is find out how many calories are in a drink and adjust accordingly!

But be mindful when drinking, because some drinks have upward of 500 calories, and that can add up quick!

9. Eat mindfully

Some occasions call not for tracking, but simply for mindful eating.

For example, if you’re celebrating your wedding anniversary or your dad’s 60th birthday, there’s no need to be anal. This isn’t to say you should unhinge your jaw and eat everything in sight, but practice moderation and enjoy the moment. Indulge in a slice of cake or two, but don’t load up first on tons of carb-rich potatoes and pasta. Have that burger and fries, but swap that sugary soda out for diet soda or water. If you eat mindfully and practice moderation and self-restraint, you aren’t going to wake up 5 lbs heavier the next day. Keep in mind that even if you are up a pound or two, some or all of that may be short-term water retention.

Eating out doesn’t have to mean putting your goals on hold. If you use these tips and practice mindful eating you will be able to progress towards your goals without putting your social life on the back burner.