When you’ve got fitness or weight loss goals set in your sights, every decision you make throughout the day matters. How many steps you take, how much water you choose to drink and how many veggies you put on each plate, all help you move closer to - or further away from - your ultimate goals. One such decision that comes into play is dining out. No matter if you’re headed out to pound beers for happy hour with co-workers, or to a dinner party with friends, or to a big family meal, it's important to know how to feel comfortable in making healthy decisions that don’t compromise your goals. There are two important ways to look at dining out when you’ve got diet, health or fitness goals to achieve. The first is how to make good decisions that help you stay on top of your nutrition and the second is how to make trade-offs so that you still enjoy those nights out.

Making Good Decisions While Dining Out

There are several things you can do to prepare yourself for a night out. If you’re headed to a specific restaurant, you can look up their menu beforehand and give yourself an idea of the choices you’ll have to make. Going into the restaurant with a good idea of what you’ll order plus any changes you need to ask for will make the process a lot less stressful. A complete meal would be one with a lean protein, at least two vegetables and a healthy fat option. Once you’re at the restaurant, here are a few tips to make your meal a little lighter/healthier: 

  • Ask for sauce on the side;
  • Skip anything fried;
  • Ask for no added salt;
  • Stick with a grilled, lean protein option;
  • Swap pasta or rice for a side of vegetables;
  • Ask for a lettuce wrap instead of bun or bread.

If it’s a party or dinner where you aren’t sure what will be served, do your best to make sure your nutrition during the day is the best it can be. Fill up on the good stuff early on so that the unknown at dinner doesn’t seem so scary. Remember to stay adequately hydrated throughout the day and try to drink a full glass of water before heading out. Eat a light snack before you leave home. Munching on a small apple, a handful of almonds or some carrot sticks will help you avoid the bread basket at the restaurant or the bowl of chips at your friend’s house, and it will also help you with portion sizes during the meal.

Making Trade-Offs so You Still Enjoy Your Meals

Food choice matters and so do calories when you’ve got diet goals to achieve, but that occasional night out isn’t going to make or break your progress. While it is important to do your best to make healthy choices while dining out, it is equally important to have a flexible attitude towards your meals. If you’re constantly stressed about food choices or about eating out, chances are your quality of life is going to suffer because of it. Inflexibility leads to feelings of guilt or remorse when you, inevitably, make a less-than-healthy decision. It can also increase the chances of binge eating or yo-yo dieting, not to mention you probably won’t be able to fully enjoy the happy hour, dinner party, family dinner, etc if all you can do is focus on the food you can or cannot have.

Here are a few trade-offs you can make during the day so that you can let yourself off the hook a bit while dining out:

  • Have a protein shake at lunch so that you’ve got some extra calories “in the bank” for dinner
  • Skip the fries, rice or pasta so you can enjoy a slice of dessert instead
  • Instead of a calorie-packed salad (you know the ones I’m talking about!), opt for steamed vegetables so that you can also have a small side of fries.

At the end of the day, the choices you make day in and day out carry much more weight than the things you do once in a while - like having a night out. Use these tips to make healthy food-related decisions at a restaurant or party, but don’t forget to enjoy your choices as well, as both of those things are important not only for your continued progress but also for your psychological health. Learning how to be flexible with food choices will help you make healthy eating a long-term commitment that you actually enjoy instead of a short-term “can’t wait until it’s over” diet.

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