Eating Out Without Eating More

Portion sizes in restaurants may be out of control, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.

On the last day of school this past June, we took our kids out for ice cream – it’s a first and last day of school tradition we’ve been keeping up since they started kindergarten.

We ended up at the local shop of a national chain known for its really large frozen concoctions, which we normally eschew in favor of a single scoop. But on that night I was feeling reckless and ordered a small shake, thinking it would be an enhanced version of my single scoop – milk added, maybe some sauce. But after our server had lopped in four – yes four – scoops of ice cream, and then added sauce (did I mention I had ordered a small?), I started to panic.

Of course I had no trouble finishing it – I had paid for it after all – but the regret was deep, especially later after checking the company’s website to find out I had consumed 1,060 calories in a little over two cups! That’s about half the calories I need in a full day.

Research shows that when we eat out, we eat more. Part of that is a celebration mentality (hooray, I don’t have to cook tonight!), but the numbers are less than celebratory. A person of normal weight who would average 550 calories per meal at home consumes 825 calories when they eat out. An overweight or obese person who would consume roughly 625 calories per meal averages 900 calories when eating away from home.

Here’s where the calories add up: based on a survey of 28,000 dishes served by 245 restaurants, a typical appetizer has 700 calories, but that number can easily jump to 1,145. A typical entrée has 590 calories, but more than a quarter have close to 900. All that is in addition to an average 210-calorie side dish, 410-calorie side salad (plus 150 for dressing) and 360-calorie non-alcoholic beverage.

Add on dessert, rolls or other baked goods and you’re looking at an extra 355 calories.

So just how can you still enjoy your meal out without letting the calories knock you out?

Like many of you, I have eyes bigger than my stomach, and sometimes I very greedily want it all, but one of the best things I ever learned how to do was split my plate. Let’s face it, plates and platters at restaurants are HUGE, and they mean to fill ‘em with food that’s high in fat, salt and sugar because those triple-threat ingredients are high on the food addiction scale and keep you coming back for more.

When we’re out, my husband and I, more often than not, split an entrée, even if it’s a big burger, because the accompanying sides fill in the volume difference. We’re also prone to ordering appetizers as entrees, especially soups which are extremely filling but low quantity (and usually have a roll or bread on the side).

And lately, when we’ve been forced to eat fast food, usually while on a road trip, I’ve taken to ordering the kids' meal. It’s just enough food to fill me up without making me feel awful about the choice.

Another option is to choose restaurants that offer small plates and flavorful ethnic dishes to share. That way everyone get to taste, but no one has to finish it all. Finally, if a restaurant hasn’t posted the calorie counts on its menu – ask for them. Simply seeing those number might inspire you to make a different choice.

Eating out can be like navigating a minefield, but you don’t have to return home walking wounded. Simple strategies to can help make your dining out experience even more enjoyable and still celebratory, without ditching healthy habits entirely.


Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at mary@betterplate.com

Isle D Belle September 17, 2012 at 01:19 PM
We eat out every Friday night, usually at the same Italian restaurant. They give us huge servings of delicious food. We have established a habit of bringing our take out containers with us, so we usually eat up to half and then take home the rest for lunch or dinner the next day. We do this at every restaurant we go to, so we don't feel guilty about wasting food we paid for and we each get at least two meals out of our night out. We also don't overeat. Using our own containers saves us from using the styrofoam that so many restaurants provide for take home left overs.
Mary Porter, CHC September 17, 2012 at 02:37 PM
I love the practice of bringing your own containers - less to throw away and easy to store. Plus extra meals ready in a minute and already paid for. That's great value and great sense! Thanks for sharing this idea.


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