For 4 years when I worked as an investment analyst in New York City, I didn’t step into the grocery store once. I’m not exaggerating. The grocery store was actually around the corner from my apartment like a block away and I had no idea it even existed. I ordered in, ate out, or picked up every single meal I ate. It’s not easy to avoid disaster when eating out, or ordering in from restaurants, but it can be done. In fact, you can still get a leaner body even if you eat out all the time.

The 3 keys when it comes to eating out in my humble opinion are: (1) portion control, (2) preparation, and (3) customization. I’m assuming you understand what constitutes healthy food vs. unhealthy food and nutritional balance. If you don’t, you should check out: Best Nutrition Guide You Don’t Know About: Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid.

1) Portion Control

Most restaurants are going to serve you way more food than you need. We’re in America, the land of big everything, which is reflected in portion sizes. Even if it’s a healthier meal, you’ll probably be served HUGE portions.

Contrary to what your parents may have told you growing up, you should think twice before cleaning your plate when eating out. Eat only until you are satisfied, NOT full. I encourage you to leave some leftovers so you can eat it as a snack the next day. Remember, overeating at any meal makes it easier for your body to store fat, plus you’ll feel sapped of energy afterward.

2) Preparation

Preparation is a bit trickier, because you can eat thousands of calories without knowing it. I didn’t realize chicken cutlets were deep-fried until after college when I became the owner of an incredibly expanding waist. Another big issue with going to restaurants is ordering foods that are sautéed in oil, butter, or other calorically dense fat.

For example, 3 tablespoons of butter is 330 calories., which can easily be soaked into a chicken breast, or some fish. It’s a frustrating feeling eating a thousand calories worth of food and your hunger is still not satisfied. The best way for food to be prepared is grilled, baked, or steamed. Can you avoid calorically dense food every time you go out? Maybe not, but I just want to make you aware of it.

3) Customization

Customization can be summed up by the following advice: always create your own meals. If we ever grab lunch together, the chances are roughly 97% I’m going to customize my meal. The most common trap to look out for is that entrées may come with sides that we want to avoid like French fries, chips, onion rings etc.

Please don’t accept eating awful food just because a meal comes with it! Instead, ask for salad, rice (even white rice is better than fries for sure), corn, or any other wholesome, natural foods that are offered. In addition, I always ask for a wheat wrap, or wheat/multigrain bread if something comes with bread.

Be different. Be bold. Customize your meals. I think this is the most important tip of all.

If you keep these 3 keys in mind, you will successfully avoid the treacherous, waist expanding pitfalls of eating out at restaurants.

P.S. I realize I didn’t list every tip, so if you have any other tips that have helped you, please leave a comment below. Also, if you have any questions about eating out, I’m happy to help!

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21 Comments

  1. profile avatar
    Aleks Kopec Mar 30, 2010 - 10:47 #

    Marc, what is the healthiest approach to ordering Chinese food? What about sushi?

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Mar 30, 2010 - 13:08 #

      Hey Aleks,
      Thanks for leaving a comment. Regarding the sushi, I’m not sure what are smart dishes to order, because I (gasp) never eat sushi, which is almost sacrilegious being a New Yorker. I’m hoping someone else can leave a comment to help out. I will also ask this question when I have an interview with a nutritionist on the blog in the future.

      Regarding Chinese food, the big thing that has helped me is specifying that I want an entree steamed, instead of fried, such as steamed chicken with vegetables. I think you’ll be impressed with the tasty flavor of the tender chicken without the excess sauce. Then you can just get the sauce on the side if you like. Hope this helps!

  2. profile avatar
    Hank Mar 30, 2010 - 13:47 #

    A little extra time in ordering translates to a big savings in calories with no loss of nutritive value. Great post especially for those of us who eat out almost every night.

  3. profile avatar
    Leila Mar 30, 2010 - 13:52 #

    This is valuable and applicable info; thank you. I’d also add that sodium is so prevalent and it helps to eliminate salt where possible. Or use salt-substitutes. Similar concept for sugar & sugar-substitutes. But I don’t know which substitutes are safe/healthy and which could cause only more complications in health after prolonged use.

  4. profile avatar
    Joanne Mar 30, 2010 - 17:50 #

    Yes, I totally agree with all the suggestions. Recently I went out on a blind date and had to search high and low on the menu for anything that wasn’t going to be nutritionally empty. The waiter came back twice before I was even ready to order – kind of awkward because I didn’t want to seem overly high-strung. It took a while but I ended up getting steamed seafood…the date ended off well.

  5. profile avatar
    Alicia Mar 30, 2010 - 18:49 #

    Thanks for the great post Marc! I am definitely guilty of eating past the point of fullness. However, I actually sometimes order a completely custom meal i.e. I ask for a grilled chicken breast with sauce on the side when a burger joint only lists a grilled chicken sandwich. I would say to everyone not to be afraid to customize your entree and pick out the healthy items on a menu to create your own meal. And if a dish you really like comes with deep-fried chicken, ask for it grilled.

  6. profile avatar
    Athena Mar 30, 2010 - 20:03 #

    Another option to help with portion control is to divide your meal when it arrives at the table and get it wrapped to go before you eat. As for sushi, I find it’s best to avoid the huge, elaborate rolls some restaurants create. They usually have mayo and can be fried. The healthiest options are simple rolls or nigiri and of course, sashimi. Some places offer brown rice sushi as well as sushi rolls made without rice.

  7. profile avatar
    Greg Mar 31, 2010 - 11:29 #

    Thats a great post Marc. I eat out more than I probably should and could use the tips. I always have problems with portion control and my fiance yells at me! Now that I am hearing it from a professional also I should start to listen. Keep the good posts coming…

  8. profile avatar
    Pat Mar 31, 2010 - 13:54 #

    Great post! I don’t understand why wheat/multigrain bread isn’t the default bread in this country by now! It’s better and better for you than white.

    Also, one big thing to remember when in a Japanese restaurant——> tempura=evil!

  9. profile avatar
    Saurabh Apr 03, 2010 - 14:29 #

    Great suggestions Mark. Since I mostly eat out, I suggest readers to focus on foods that are good in their natural state and require little time in the kitchen. The less cooked the food, the better off you are. So if you’re eating sushi, get sashimi; if seafood then salmon (since salmon already has natural oils, chefs don’t have to do much); if at steakhouse, get sirloin (if you are a true foodie, then tartar)… you get the idea. Soups, salads, and grilled appetizers can further minimize damage. Avoid desserts (instead chew a gum).

  10. profile avatar
    Steve Apr 05, 2010 - 12:06 #

    Hello, I was refered to this site by a friend and wow is this site informative. I’m still reading some of the prior posts you had but I will definitely be revisiting this site on a weekly basis and spreading the news about it, thanks!

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Apr 05, 2010 - 22:17 #

      Thanks Steve for the kind words. I’m really looking forward to adding A LOT more content! FYI, you can become a fan of BuiltLean.com on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/builtlean. Thanks again for the compliments!

  11. profile avatar
    Dave Apr 05, 2010 - 13:48 #

    I eat out all the time. I will keep these tips in mind. Thanks!

  12. profile avatar
    Sam Apr 19, 2010 - 16:29 #

    Rule number 3 is really annoying. If you need a custom tailored meal that doesn’t even exist on the menu then cook it at home or go to a restaurant where they serve that. Asking for extra veggies or a salad instead of a pile of mashed potatoes is one thing but creating your own frankenstein plate out of various menu items is tedious and annoying and takes up precious minutes for both the server and the kitchen.

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Apr 19, 2010 - 21:17 #

      Hey Sam, your comment made my day. Thanks. “Frankenstein plate?” That’s hilarious. My goal with BuiltLean.com is to give a bunch of useful suggestions and ideas, some of which you can choose to apply to your life.

      I do think you make an important point about not annoying the staff. I think it’s important to ask for what you want, but in a tactful way. Ii usually takes me 10 seconds to order when I customize my meal, which 99% of the time is (1) changing a side, (2) asking for extra meat, or (3) sauce on the side. Choosing restaurants that have meals that are healthy is obviously important and something I should have mentioned in the article, so thanks again for your comment.

  13. profile avatar
    Justin Jun 09, 2010 - 22:55 #

    I used to work in a sushi restaurant. In addition to some of the posts above about going for simpler rolls and rolls with salmon in it, I have to say AVOID any roll with spicy sauce. I’ve had to make spicy sauce before and it is about 60% mayo. Some places add mayo to their wasabi too, so just be aware of that.

    Another general piece of advice is to remember the calories from your drinks. Two cups of soda can run 200+ calories

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Jun 09, 2010 - 23:48 #

      Justin, great tips. Thanks!

  14. profile avatar
    Rob Jun 14, 2010 - 10:32 #

    You should edit the article to add the points you included in your reply to Sam about exactly what constitutes a “customization”.

    “I customize my meal, which 99% of the time is (1) changing a side, (2) asking for extra meat, or (3) sauce on the side”

    You talk about customizing your meal, but only that you do it and not what it is, I just felt that it was missing from the article.

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Jun 14, 2010 - 11:14 #

      Hey Rob, I think you have a good point. I’m trying to lay the ground work for the site because it’s only a few months old, but I do intend to go into all 3 topics I mentioned, especially customization in more detail. In fact, I have an article planned where I analyze a standard lunch and then customize it. Should be good! I think it’s an extremely important topic, so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  15. profile avatar
    Toni Jul 05, 2011 - 13:51 #

    I have a useful tip as far as controlling the portions of my healthy restaurant meal: I always ask the server if I can take half of the entree home so I can just eat one half. I get two great meals for the price of one while having a healthy delicious meal waiting to be eaten the next day for either lunch or dinner. Works for me.

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry Jul 10, 2011 - 17:43 #

      @Toni – Very cool. Thanks for sharing.

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