To someone with my passion for fine food, eating sensibly while dining out used to feel like attending a concert with earplugs on. You really have to wonder what’s the point of doing it in the first place! For me, going out to eat has always been more about the food than anything else . . . experiencing the creativity of some of today’s top chefs, savoring new tastes and flavor combinations. . . life is too short to eat boring food and there are too many good things out there I have yet to try!
But the good news is, the more you care about food, the more you find yourself learning about it. And by making more informed choices, you’ll find it quite possible to continue your epicurean adventures without having to make up for them by spending every free minute in the gym. Here are a few of the strategies I have found most effective.
1) Don’t try to manage a budget and a diet at the same time. Think of dining out as an indulgence and an adventure. This will naturally draw you toward more expensive restaurants, but those are the places that will be more willing to work with you if you ask them to tweak the menu a bit to accommodate your diet.
2) Follow an eating regimen that is relatively easy to explain to a waitperson. My own low-carb regimen doesn’t usually represent a major challenge. Trying to reduce the amount of fat you’re consuming also goes over pretty well, but good old-fashioned calorie counting can be a headache for everyone concerned.
3) Do some homework before you walk in the door.
a) Target a restaurant that offers something you don’t usually eat or wouldn’t cook at home. Food from more exotic parts of the world is becoming more readily available all over the country, and even “strictly American” chefs are being influenced by new flavors and ingredients. Eating something you haven’t had before will focus your attention on what you CAN eat, rather than the things you are trying to steer clear of.
b) Check the menu on the restaurant’s website to make sure there are some things you’ll be able to enjoy while staying on the straight and narrow path. If each entree comes with a particular accompaniment that has obviously been planned to enhance it, it’s a good idea to call the restaurant in advance to see if they will consider substitutions, such as replacing mashed or fried potatoes with a green vegetable.
c) Whether you request a substitution over the phone or directly to your waitperson, be sure to pay the chef the appropriate respect by saying something like, “I’m sure the sweet potato cake was intended to complement the seasoning of the pork, but I’m trying to avoid starches right now. . . do you think he (or she) would allow me to substitute a vegetable? It’s okay if you charge me a little extra.” Then see what they propose for you. I’ve found that often, when I offer to pay a little extra, I end up getting my veggies without having to do so, whereas if I make a point of trying to get a substitution for the same price, I may be told to just order a vegetable from the a la carte side of the menu.
4) Order wine by the glass. Limit yourself to two glasses, one before the meal (while others are eating bread or other diet-destroying fillers) and one with your main course. Yes, this is more expensive than sharing a bottle with your dinner companion, but you will also have the opportunity to try two different wines, which can further enrich your dining experience.
5) Make a point of having SOMETHING at the end of your meal, even if it isn’t truly dessert. If you are lucky enough to find a dessert souffl or a zabaglione among the dessert options, consider sharing one with a friend. . . the high egg content of these desserts means they are high in protein and usually the sugar content is much lower than it would be in a cake or pie. I will often ask for a cheese plate, which is fine if you are rationing your carbs, but another good strategy is to have a cup of some unusual tea or coffee (with the sugar substitute of your choice). Again, treat yourself to something you don’t usually have rather than sitting there watching your friends eat.
Remember, you don’t have to over-indulge or have an intense chocolate dessert to enjoy yourself, or feel as though you are doing something special. And after all, you are eating more sensibly in order to take better care of yourself so you certainly SHOULD feel special.