How to hit macros at restaurants – without stressing over menus

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Of all the misconceptions in the dieting world, one of the most painful is that eating healthy and eating out are mutually exclusive. My experience with teaching hundreds of clients the principles of successful macro tracking for their body goals has proven time and time again that it is completely possible to hit macros at restaurants — even when you know the chef is heavy-handed with the butter in the kitchen.

If you count macros, you will be confronted with the challenge of figuring out how to hit macros at restaurants. Here are 6 considerations to help you nail macro goals while eating away from home.  

Take an honest assessment of your goals

Your goals will dictate how strict you need to be when it comes to hitting macros at restaurants. For example, if you have a timeline attached to wanting a leaner body composition, every meal matters and you need to be accurate with tracking your macros. In some situations — like if you’re going on a beach vacation in two weeks or participating in a fitness competition — you may want to avoid eating out altogether. More often than not, 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

I 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 macros at restaurants. 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. 
  • Account for extra fats and oils in your restaurant meal by pre-logging fat macros in your diary ahead of time. Consider adding 1 tsp. To 1 tbsp. butter or oil 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 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.

Choose a restaurant that has nutrition information online

There are several good ways to count macros at restaurants with public 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 the My Fitness Pal 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 identify the ingredients in your food, like when you build your own burrito bowl at Chipotle.

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 — all of which have detailed nutritional information readily available on their websites.

As for other ethnic cuisines, see some of these resources:

  • Guides for Mexican, Sushi, Italian menus 
  • Tips for picking macro friendly Indian dishes
  • Example macros for  Thai dishes
  • A rundown of common sushi items

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 be in the ballpark of 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 you can easily identify the ingredients to log appropriately. Below are some examples of tougher-to-track (especially if you’re not the one preparing the dish) and easier-to-track meals.

examples of “tougher-to-track” meals
  • Pasta dishes with meat, cheese, sauces
  • Burritos with a lot of ingredients, cheese, sauces
  • Soups, chili
  • Mayo-based chicken salad, tuna salad
  • Breaded and deep fried options, e.g. onion rings, chicken tenders, fish, chips
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 where you can easily identify the ingredients
  • Breakfast options, e.g. omelets, breakfast meat, toast

Stick to the game plan, lean on common sense

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. However, you can’t go wrong with a few simple behaviors that promote mindful eating in restaurants:

  • Pick your dish before you leave home
  • Take half the dish home (ask for a box as soon as the meal is served!)
  • Split meals with a friend
  • Skip the breadbasket
  • Ask for dressing and sauces on the side
  • Eat until you’re 80% full, not 100% (or 120%!)
  • Skip dessert and alcohol
  • Err on the side of overestimating macros
  • Avoid deep fried, smothered, pastry puffed, cheesy, taco shells, bread bowls
  • Eat whole, real, natural ingredients in PFC balance

Take any of the tips outlined above and incorporate the ones that will work for you. Remember, if you’re not feelin’ it, you can likely recreate great dishes at home for a fraction of the calories and macros. 

But, also, don’t let tracking macros stand in your way of eating restaurant meals! You shouldn’t spend your life avoiding going out and enjoying yourself because you feel stuck to a goal macro or type of food. After all, eating out can be more about the company you’re with and the experience you’re creating versus the actual meal itself.