Our food environment has changed drastically in the last several decades. We’re surrounded by cheap, highly palatable foods everywhere! Portions are bigger, plates are bigger, utensils are bigger. Because of technological advances in farming, production and transportation, we can consume nearly any type of cuisine we want - from all over the world.
These trends make restaurant eating an enjoyable and worthwhile experience but it can be difficult to navigate accurate macro tracking while dining out.
If tracking macros is your way to stay on top of your health, body composition or athletic performance goals, it’s not a matter of if you will need to track macros while eating out, but a matter of when you will need to track macros while eating out. Here are some considerations to help you nail your macro goals while eating away from home.
Take an honest assessment of your goals
You goals will dictate how strict you need to be when it comes to eating out. For example, if you have food sensitivities or a timeline tied to your goals for a leaner body composition, you will need to be more accurate and more strict about what you choose to eat. In these situations, you may need to save eating out for special occasions, or you may need to avoid eating out altogether. Restaurant meals are a calorie and macro bomb, and for some, it’s simply not worth the saving or manipulating you’ll have to do to make it work within targets.
Carve out some space for your restaurant meal
Guarantee a restaurant meal will pack more carbohydrates and fats than if you tried to recreate the same dish at home. Restaurants cook with more fats and oils - they make use of brining, basting and marinating all along the preparation process. Ever wonder how a chicken breast prepared by you at home tastes completely different than when you order it at a restaurant?
There are a couple things that you can do to increase accuracy with your macro targets. You can:
>> Practice intermittent fasting. Skipping breakfast and eating lighter throughout the day can help you stay on track with your macro goals as you save for a meal that will likely be higher in carbohydrates and fats.
>> Pad your diary with fat macros. Consider adding 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp of oil to account for fat that your meal is cooked in, depending on what you plan to eat.
>> Save about a third of your calories for your restaurant meal, primarily from carbohydrate and fat macros. Depending on how much you’d like to splurge and what you order, be prepared to “spend” anywhere between one third and one half (or more) of your calories on your restaurant meal.
>> Emphasize primarily protein and non-starchy vegetables in the meals you eat throughout the day leading up to your restaurant meal. Chances are, the restaurant meal will be lacking in protein so it’s in your best interest to eat protein-rich foods before you dine out.
Choose a restaurant that has nutrition information online
There are several ways to find restaurant nutrition information. You can do a general google search, inquire via the website contact form, or ask for it in person. As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to jump to your food diary for the nutrition information without looking at a restaurant website first, but it will do in a time bind.
If you have control over where you eat in a social situation, pick a place that you can find nutrition information easily or you know you can easily identify the ingredients in your food.
Attempt to estimate your meal by using a similar menu + nutrition information from another restaurant
If there is not information available online for the restaurant you’re interested in, you can pull a similar menu from a different restaurant and pre-log the meal in your diary using the nutrition information found online. Here are some menus you might reference for American fare: Red Robin, Applebees, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chilis.
As for other ethnic cuisines, see some of these resources:
Carbohydrate counts (nothing else!) for different ethnic dishes. consider using this as a baseline to find the most accurate information on My Fitness Pal food library
Tips for picking macro friendly Indian dishes
Example macros Thai dishes
Example macros for sushi
The idea is to get close. By prioritizing protein, padding some extra macros in the dairy, intermittent fasting, and picking a macro manipulatable option, you will get close to your macro goals.
Select a meal that you can guesstimate the macros
Depending on how strict you are to your macro goals, it’s going to be essential that you pick meals that you can easily identify the ingredients to log appropriately.
Here are some examples of tougher-to-track meals:
Pasta dishes with meat, cheese, sauces
Burritos with a lot of ingredients, cheese, sauces
Mayo based chicken salad, tuna salad
Breaded and deep fried options - onion rings, chicken tenders, fish
Here are some examples of easier to track meals:
Salads, dressing on the side, grilled or raw proteins
Wraps or burgers or sandwiches with sauce on the side, grilled or raw proteins
Standard American dinner with a choice of protein + vegetable + grain or starchy vegetable
Fajitas or tacos
Breakfast, brunch options
Tacos where you can easily identify the ingredients
Stick to the game plan, lean on common sense
Eating out should not “freak you out.” Don’t avoid going out and enjoying yourself because you feel stuck to a goal macro target or type of food. Take the suggestions outlined above and incorporate the ones that will work for you. Remember, if you’re not feelin’ it, you can recreate great dishes at home with a third to half the calories and macros. Eating out can be more about the company you have and the experience you’re creating versus the actual meal itself.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with a few simple behaviors that promote mindful eating in restaurants:
Pick your dish before you leave home
Taking half the dish home
Splitting meals with a friend
Skipping the breadbasket
Asking for items things on the side
Eating until you’re 80% full, not 100% or 120%
Skipping dessert and alcohol
Erring the side of overestimating and slightly undereating
Avoiding deep fried, “smothered”, “pastry puffed”, cheesy, taco shells, bread bowls
Eating whole, real, natural ingredients in PFC balance