Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How to: Eat healthy when away from home – Pt 1

One of the goals I made for 2010 was to work on my blog. And one of my big plans for my blog (and the things I enjoy writing about the most) are blog series posts generally involving how-tos or tips and tricks.

Today I'm going to introduce a few things to you. The first is a tag on some of my posts that say: Tips and Tricks. This will allow you to easily search through my posts to find the informational blogs. While I won't do it today, at some point I am going to filter through all my tags and reduce the number of tags I actually have so it's even easier to find stuff. But that will have to wait for another day. I also will go back and back tag some old posts with this new Tips and Tricks tag so you can go back and find those too if you are newer to my blog.

Anyways, the second thing I'm going to introduce is a new blog series - Eating away from home. Since I'm about to start school and have night class and labs twice a week, I'm obviously going to have some dietary changes. The major change will be eating away from home the nights I have class or lab. The second change is making sure that I am prepared with breakfast and lunch for work the day after my class. But, we'll go more into that later. I'm going to share recipes, tips and show you what I'm doing when I'm eating away from home during this time period.

To introduce this I'm going to start with two introductory posts - one on eating at a restaurant and another on eating "convenience foods" at school or work (or even home) when you are short on time and can't make yourself a full meal.

Part 1 - Surviving the restaurant experience.

I think eating at a restaurant is one of the most stressful things about being a healthy lifestyler and watching what you eat. The only MORE stressful thing is probably eating at someone else's house where you don't have options, because at least in a restaurant you can choose from a variety of selections. But, nonetheless eating out was very traumatic for me when I started my healthy journey. I used to view it as a cheat time and that I could order anything I wanted because "it's a special time" or "I don't really like salad and that's all they have that is healthy", etc. etc. But what I've learned over time that eating out is everything that YOU make it to be and if you want to be healthy, it's actually pretty easy.

Now, there is a variety of general restaurant tips out there about menu key words to avoid and tips that tell you to only eat half your meal and take the rest home, etc. etc. Frankly, while I appreciate these tips, I'm going to assume you guys know them all and I'm not going to review them. If you are looking for these very basic tips about eating at a restaurant, SparkPeople has a WONDERFUL collection of restaurant articles that can help you here. Instead, I'm going to give you some tips that are outside of the normal advice. These are the things that REALLY helped me feel comfortable eating out.

1. Making eating out the special occasion, not the norm.

You know I have to start with this one. The easiest way to master the restaurant is to stop eating there as much! The easiest way to be healthy is to prepare food yourself and control exactly what you are eating. Next time you are going out to eat, think why? Are you being lazy and don't want to cook? Are you in a situation where you really need to eat out due to a lack of time, convenience or otherwise? If you are meeting friends could you just as easily have them over to your house and make a healthy dinner there? Is it a celebration and you are treating yourself? Ask yourself these questions to cut back on eating out. It saves you a lot of money and calories!

Make eating out a special time and you will be more inclined to stick to your healthy eating habits. If you are healthy at home, you will want to be healthy at the restaurant, right? Why does eating out ruin your "healthy streak?" It doesn't! Being healthy doesn't stop when you leave your house.

2. Never view eating out as impossible.

A lot of times that Matt and I decide to eat out, he worries that I "won't be able to find something to eat". And every time, I tell him - I will find something, don't worry. Matt's worries COULD be true of people with limiting diets, like vegans, vegetarians or people with certain food intolerances, but I am not on one of those diets. Therefore, I should be able to find something I will enjoy that is moderately healthy almost anywhere we go. And if I find myself in a situation where I can't find something healthy, then I can always say - I don't want to eat here OR practice moderation with what I eat.

Also in this mix is viewing certain restaurants as "off limits". The more you do that, the more you're going to crave those places. If no place is ever off limits then you will feel more confident with your abilities to choose a healthy meal (which means you probably WILL choose the healthy meal). Obviously there will be exceptions to this rule, but in general leave your options open.

I live in Texas and Mexican food is a HUGE deal down here. I used to throw all Mexican restaurants out of the mix because I didn't feel like I could eat a healthy meal. At the end of this post, I'll tell you how I've finally changed that mindset and now eat Mexican food without issue.

3. Take control of your decisions about the food and the restaurant.

Where you eat and what you put into your mouth is YOUR decision only and you have to remember that when eating out. Don't feel like you have to order a burger because everyone else is having one. Also don't feel like you have to go to a restaurant just because someone else suggests it. Always ALWAYS exercise your option to choose the place you go, what you order and how much you eat of your meal. If you find yourself ordering something that is a splurge for you, don't eat all of it. You don't have to be a member of the clean plate club. Take leftovers home. Leave it on your plate (if you don’t want to eat it again) or just share with someone. Restaurant portions are huge and sharing meals is the BEST thing that I do now.

4. Look at the menu differently

A lot of times the "healthy items" on a menu are boring because they are the same things as every restaurant, right? Grilled chicken with veggies and salads. So look at the other options with an open mind. See a chicken dish you like but don't like the sides? Look around for other sides you might like more and ask to substitute them. Also, check the appetizers. This is a HUGE tip that I have learned. We don't normally think of appetizers as entrees, but say you like crab cakes and see them on the appetizer menu. Ask for the crab cakes, with a side salad and steamed veggies. See what I mean? Pick and choose the things that you want and put them together. If all else fails, just ask for the waiter to make you a salad with whatever you want on it. If you start looking at what's on the menu and breaking it all down, I bet you can find something you will be really satisfied with.

5. Know what you want

These next two tips are a little conflicting, so I'm going to combine them under one number and give them both to you at the same time to make my point. If you don't want a salad or grilled chicken (like I mentioned before), then get what you really want. If you don't get what you really want, you're more likely to binge later. But remember moderation, remember the skinny girl rule, "You can have it all, but not all at once" and remember to make it healthy however you can. If you really want a pizza, ask for light on the cheese and swap the fatty meat toppings for veggies. If you really want a pan fried chicken breast, ask a friend to split it with you and order veggies as your sides (I've SO done this before with Heather). But remember, there are limits to this rule.....

Remember what else you're going to have (or had!) that day or week and ask yourself if you really need this dish you crave NOW or if you can have it at home. If you can make a homemade pizza at home that is JUST as tasty and will leave you just as satisfied, don't order a pizza when out. If you really want enchiladas but know that Amy's makes a frozen enchilada you love that is healthier, choose something else. So yes, order what you want, but also practice moderation and make trades where you can. You might not want to order a salad, but if you know you're having an indulgent meal the next day, just order it and enjoy your splurge tomorrow. You can enjoy your more healthy swap for the food you are craving at home the next day. Just because you have a craving doesn't mean you should give into it at that exact moment.

The day we flew to Jersey for Christmas, I had a starbucks oatmeal in the morning at the airport. Lunch was VERY indulgent because I had an authentic Philly cheesesteak on our way to our destination. It was worth every bite and calorie. That night we had dinner at a steakhouse and I really wanted steak. But, knowing that I had steak earlier in the day and knowing this was one of the few times I'd be able to order whatever I wanted while we were there, I chose a grilled chicken dish with spinach, a salad and mashed potatoes. Sure the mashed potatoes were also a big of a splurge, but I balanced it out with the rest of my meal.

6. Plan ahead

I've always been one that knew what I would eat before I went to a restaurant. Often, I choose to go to a particular restaurant because of one dish they have. But recently, I've started choosing what I'll eat before I go and make my decision final. (I track my food, so I usually enter my food before I go to the restaurant too.) Once arriving at the restaurant, I check the menu or with the waiter to make sure my previous selections are available and then I set my menu down and I don't look at it again. This keeps me from being tempted by items on the menu. Since I'm hungry when I get to the restaurant, I'm more likely to pick something that "sounds good" instead of what is really healthy for me. Making my selection in advance, when I'm not hungry, allows me to use a level head in my selection and I'm less prone to slip up that way. If you can't look at the menu in advance, search the menu for the healthiest options available and once you find one that you would enjoy, set the menu down. The more you look at that menu, the more you will second guess your choice or your first instinct.

7. Know your dining guests

I've mentioned sharing plates earlier. I am a big sharer and I will generally just eat off your plate without asking if I knew you well (sorry!). If I go to a restaurant and I know I really want something that isn't my best option but someone else is getting it, I'll ask for a bite. Or, I'll ask my dining companions if we could split plates, so I get to have some of what I want and some of what is healthy. I know this is probably hard to do all the time, but just try it and see if it works for you.

For example, tonight Matt and I are meeting a friend at a Mexican restaurant. The key to eating Mexican food for me is to order a small entree. Since I love chips and salsa, I know I will eat a lot of them. Ordering a small entree means that I have less food to eat and I can enjoy the chips and salsa without feeling stuffed or guilty. Today I'm really craving fajitas, but that is not a small entree. I know I will over-do it if I order fajitas. I know I should order black bean soup and a side salad because it's fantastic at this particular place. So I have probed my guests by asking what they will order. When they asked what I'm ordering, I told them my dilemma. Both of my dinner guests offered to split fajitas with me. Even if they change their mind and don’t want to split meals, I know I they would give me one fajita from their plate and I can order my salad and soup. And if they decide they don’t want fajitas, I will live with just my soup and salad! Yes, I'm kind of annoying - but I  am eating a healthy meal and still having a small taste of what I really want. Plus, I guarantee you there are others in every situation that wouldn't mind sharing at all. There's no harm in asking, right?

So that's it... those are my tips for eating at a restaurant successfully. Sure you'll have triumphs and you'll have other times where you blow it. But don't worry, it's just one meal. One day, you will get more comfortable and more confident I promise. One book that really changed my views on eating out was Bethenny Frankel's Naturally Thin. It's a great read! To end, I'll share one last successful restaurant experience with you from this week.

I was invited to attend a friend's birthday dinner this week on a night where I had to work very late. The dinner was at a popular italian/pizza place. I decided that packing a dinner to bring to work the best in case I had to work late. When I was finished work with enough time to meet my friends for dinner,  I remembered that my work group is treating me to a birthday lunch this Friday. We are visiting a different popular italian/pizza place where I have already planned to order a custom pizza (veggies please!). I ate my packed dinner at work and attended the birthday party, arriving just in time for everyone's food to come. I was full from dinner and didn't feel the need to eat off people's plates. I saved money by not eating out and I simply ordered a club soda with lime and enjoyed the company of my friends. Because really folks, it's about the company, not the food.

If I can do it, YOU CAN DO IT!

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