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 macro targets (or come close!) even when you are not in control of the food.
If you count macros, you will be confronted with the challenge of figuring out how to hit macros when you are not in control of the preparation process. Read on to see 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, at social gatherings, or other food situations you find yourself in where you are not in charge of preparation.
For example, if you have a timeline attached to your goals for a leaner body composition, every meal matters and you probably 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 choose 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.
For most, however, being more flexible with macro tracking for a few days will not completely deter them on the path to their goals. Take an honest assessment of your goals and the decide if going slower or quicker towards them feels best.
carve out space for meals before eating out
Restaurant meals will likely pack more carbohydrates and fats than if you tried to recreate the same dish at home. Professionals tend to 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?! That’s because chefs tend to lean on seasonings, marinades, oil and butter, my friend. There are a couple things that you can do to make restaurant meals better fit your macro targets. You can:
- 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. If you’re not likely to choose something that’s prepared with a lot of butter or oil such as dressings, sauces or marinades you might pad about “1 tsp olive oil” in your diary. Alternatively, if it is likely that your meal will be prepared lots of yummy layers of unknown ingredients, you might pad more like 3 tsp or 1 Tbsp of oil in your diary.
- Save about one third up to one half 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.
- Leave space for your meal by emphasize protein and non-starchy vegetables in the meals you eat throughout the day leading up to the meal not prepared by you. Chances are, the restaurant meal will be lacking in protein, so it’s in your best interest to eat protein-rich foods before you dine out.
- Swap carbs for fats OR fats for carbs. This is termed “flexing your macros” and allows for you to eat over one macro while eating under the other. You’ll still aim to hit protein targets and total calories. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram. When swapping one for the other it will be in about a 2:1 ratio of carbs:fats, which ensures your total calorie are still on target. For example, if you’re choosing a dish that will put you 30 g over your carbohydrate target, you’ll need to be ~13-15 g under your fat target in order to hit your total calories for the day.
Use available Nutrition information to Track Macros
Some restaurants publish nutrition information online so this should be the first place you look. Thought it’s usually fast food and chain restaurants that post nutrition information, there’s a chance the place you’re eating keeps nutrition facts online as well.
It’s likely that the nutrition information available online will not exactly match the meal that’s in front of you, but do not let perfection paralyze you. Will you be getting the exact same amount of grilled shrimp or exact portion of cheese as what’s posted – probably not, but it’s close enough. Remember, there are many flaws in a macros approach, but even in its imperfections, it’s still the most effective way to achieve body goals.
ESTIMATE MACROS TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY
So, let’s say you’re not eating at a fast food place or chain restaurant. You’re wondering how you might track macros for a meal where the nutrition information is not available.
Here’s what you should not do: search broad terms for mixed dishes in your food diary. If you type “breakfast bowl” into your food diary, you’re going to see over 100 different versions of that bowl ranging from a couple calories up to 1000+, none of which have the same ingredients as the meal in front of you. Instead, you’ll log each ingredient as you see it in front of you:
- 2 eggs scrambled
- 1 ounce cheddar cheese
- 1/4 cup black beans
- 1/2 cup cilantro lime rice
- 1/4 cup pico de gallo
- 2 ounces turkey sausage
choose options you can guesstimate the macros for
Depending on how strict you are to your macro targets, it might more 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 with dressing on the side topped with grilled or raw protein food
- fajitas, tacos or stir fry
- wraps, burgers or sandwiches with sauce on the side, made with grilled or raw protein foods
- standard American fare with a choice of protein + vegetable + grain or starchy vegetable
- omelette with easy-to-identify ingredients
- burrito style bowls, breakfast bowls, buddha bowls
- fruit and fruit salad
- grilled or raw vegetables with self-serve dips such as dressing or hummus
make alterations to your meal where possible
There are probably some small tweaks you can make to meals that you don’t prepare yourself to be a bit more macro-friendly to your personal targets. Here are a couple of things you can do to keep calories and fat macros down in a restaurant meal.
- ask for the sauce on the side for salads, burgers, sandwiches
- choose fresh, baked, blackened or grilled over fried, breaded or crispy protein options
- choose plain or dry options over cheese smothered, sauce-heavy options
- choose whole food options over mixed dishes such as mayo-based dishes, casseroles, pasta salad, tuna salad
- ask for extra protein or go back for seconds on protein-rich options
- opt for a plate with lots of fruits and vegetables
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. Review this list of thing you have control over even if tracking macros is not possible.
- review menus before you go and pick an option the suits you best
- choose to eat before you go to a social event instead of going in starving
- bring your own food options to a social outing if choice is limited
- eat until you’re 80% full, not 100% or 120%
- skip dessert, alcohol or anything else you absolutely do not want
- split dishes with friends, bring food home with you
- err the side of overestimating and slightly undereating your macro targets to account for extras in prepping and cooking
- make a macro balanced plate with protein, fat and carbohydrates
The awesome thing here? You don’t have to track perfectly for macros to work for you. You can absolutely see success in a macro tracking approach by estimating your eats when you dine out, especially if most of the meals you eat away from home are made with real, whole food and are macro balanced on your plate. Don’t let perfect stop you up from tracking altogether.