Keeping Your Restaurant Calories Low (May 18, 2013)

For my May 18th article about dining out on a caloric budget (no matter the genre!), Tips for Eating Away From Home, either click here or keep reading!


What could be more enjoyable than a leisurely lunch out with friends, a big family dinner, or your weekly pilgrimage to the local pizza joint?

Fitting into your jeans is more enjoyable. Actually liking the way you look in your bikini is more enjoyable. Not feeling bloated, sluggish and heavy is much, much more enjoyable.

Eating out is a pleasurable and seemingly unavoidable part of our culture. Whether it’s a first date, a meeting with clients, catching up with old friends, or just an excuse to get out of the office, we go to restaurants. A lot. In fact, according to a study by Mandala Research, we (Americans and Canadians) eat out five times a week.

Why do we do this? Well, aside from the social reasons, it is terribly convenient to enjoy someone else’s cooking. You can avoid the grocery store, the prep work, the stress of cooking … and restaurant food just tastes so darn good.

It tastes so darn good because it is generally loaded with salt, sugar, oil and butter.

By far, the most popular restaurant meal is lunch; we average about three lunches per week in a restaurant. This is exceedingly problematic for maintaining (let alone losing) weight, as lunch is generally thought of as a lighter, smaller meal than dinner. So, we eat lunch out, and then go home and have our big, hearty dinner. The problem is that there rarely is there anything light or small about lunch out.

With enormous portions and fattening ingredients, even meals on the healthy choices menu at many restaurants have well over 650 calories. Add a slice or two of bread and a glass of wine, and you’re headed toward a 1,000-calorie lunchtime.

You do not want 650 calories at lunch, and you certainly do not want 1,000 calories at lunch.

There are ways to avoid this terrible, butter-induced fate. I’ll help you through the perils of this dilemma and ensure your meals are enjoyable for you and your body.

My first, and most unavoidable piece of advice is that of abstinence. Pack your own lunch. Save going to restaurants for special occasions, and both your love handles and your wallet will thank you. That said, if you are going out to eat, I have some easy-to-remember tips to keep your calorie count in check.

You want to order water instead of a cocktail, wine, or beer. Alcohol is full of empty calories and by skipping two glasses of wine, you’re already saving yourself 200 calories. Also, just say no to the pre-dinner bread and butter.

Generally, try to abstain from appetizers and starter soups or salads. If you’re with a group and are dying for a little something, order one appetizer and share it. And while a cup of soup or a little salad to start may seem harmless, they can tack on at least 200 calories to your meal. Your entree will be more than enough food — just wait for it.

Now, advice can differ radically depending on the genre of restaurant in which you’re dining; I can give you all the advice in the world about ordering salads, but that doesn’t help you if you’re out for sushi. With that in mind, I’m going to break this down by some of the most common styles of restaurant, and you’ll have your bases covered no matter what comes your way.

If you’re eating in an American style restaurant (you know, the popular chain restaurants near the big-box stores or a downtown pub), the high-calorie options seem quite obvious. Steer clear of ribs, burgers, wings, and fries, and you’re doing well, right?


Even the salad menu in these restaurants can be treacherous. Most of the salads offered are what I call candy bar salads. If your salad involves any of the following: cheese, creamy dressing, anything friend, copious amounts of croutons, “candied” (i.e., coated in sugar) bits, bacon, mayonnaise, a heavy dose of nuts, or any fatty meat product, you’re ordering a candy bar salad.

Candy bar salads are supremely popular. This is no surprise, as bacon and ranch dressing taste better than just plain lettuce. But remember, fried chicken, even if it is on top of a salad, is still fried chicken. Just saying the word salad doesn’t give you a free pass. In fact, these enormous salads can have anywhere from 800 to 1,000 calories, and as many grams of fat as a cheeseburger. If that is what you want, fine. But if you’d like to avoid it, try ordering a large garden salad, topped with grilled lean protein (chicken breast, salmon, or shrimp), and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. If you aren’t in the mood for a salad, try ordering grilled fish or chicken with steamed veggies on the side.

Sushi is a great choice for a healthy meal, right?

Well, it can be. Avoid anything labelled as crispy or tempura (i.e., deep fried), and stay away from rolls with ingredients like cream cheese, mayonnaise, or any creamy sauces. Request brown rice, and consider forgoing the rolls all together. I love sashimi, which is just thinly sliced pieces of raw fish. Finally, don’t forget to reach for the low-sodium soy sauce—you’ll thank me in the morning!

If you’re out for Thai or Cambodian, try a simple vegetable stir-fry with chicken, shrimp, or tofu. Avoid noodles, anything fried or crispy, or anything with the word creamy in the description. Ask for brown rice, or scratch the rice and request extra veggies in its place.

Having Indian? Resist the urge for a naan and a samosa, and don’t order anything containing the words creamy or butter. Look for red sauces, full of spices and flavour.

If a Mexican fiesta is calling your name, try splitting some fajitas with a friend. They’re self-serve, so you can control your portions and even omit the tortilla all together. Be sure to top with fresh vegetables instead of sour cream and cheese, and ask your waiter to go easy on the salt.

No matter what style of food you’re eating, remember you aren’t contractually obligated to consume every last morsel on your plate. Ask for a doggy bag, and you have tomorrow’s lunch covered.

Give these dining out tips a try and you’ll not only look better, but you’ll feel better too. Of course, you’ll want to go whole-hog once in a blue moon, but save that for special occasions and truly enjoy it. Bon appetit!

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