We’ve all shared a meal with The Health Nut at some point or another. You know, the one who orders something with 23 substitutions, asks for something that isn’t on the menu, or takes three bites of her dry salad before announcing that she’s stuffed.
Wait, does that sound like you? Sure, your clean eating intentions may be well-meaning and even admirable, but you have to be careful about your tactics if you don’t want to be banned by your friends from all future social events that involve food. Instead of making all those substitutions or ordering off the menu, use these 8 simple tactics to order smarter while still avoiding calorie or portion overload.
1. Make your choice ahead of time.
Restaurant peer pressure? That’s a thing. Studies show that we tend to be influenced by the food choices of those around us, meaning that you’re more likely to splurge on the burger and fries if that’s what your friends (or even the strangers sitting near you!) are eating. Your move: decide ahead of time what you’ll order by looking at the restaurant’s menu online. And don’t be afraid to use humor if your dining companions start hounding you to just get the cheesecake because you deserve it: “I know it sounds silly, but put it into your calendar on your phone so you have a visual reminder,” says registered dietician Frances Largeman-Roth, author of Eating in Color. “And feel free to hold it up to your friend and say, ‘See, it says right here that I’m treating myself to a glass of wine, not dessert!’ ”
2. Start with a salad.
Doing so can automatically slash your meal’s calorie count by nearly a quarter. When Cornell researchers gave women a 100-calorie appetizer of either a salad or garlic bread, those who had the salad ended up eating 21% less of their main course. Sure, the fiber-rich veggies are more filling than empty-calorie carbs, but there’s a psychological element at play, too: Kicking off your meal with a healthy plate of greens might help remind you of your health goals, making you more likely to eat until you’re full, not stuffed. (Looking for more ways to live a healthy and wholesome lifestyle? Check out Heal Your Whole Body and lose up to 13 pounds in just a few short weeks!)
3. Don’t assume sizing down is better.
You’d think that having the option to order a half meal portion or a regular ice cream cone instead of a large would be a good thing. But weirdly, research suggests that doing so might backfire, perhaps because you end up assuming that the smaller portion is a “normal” size, even if it’s still more than what you’d serve yourself at home. The takeaway? Ignore the menu labels that mention size. If your order seems bigger than what you’d eat at home, immediately portion off the food you aren’t going to eat (have it wrapped up, if you can) so you don’t even have to think about whether you’ll eat it.
4. Go ahead and be basic.
In general, the more components a dish has, the more calories it’ll pack, says registered dietician and certified natural chef Rachel Begun. You can steer clear of ingredient overload by sticking with a dish (like a salad or fish) with no more than four add-ons, the majority of which should good-for-you things like fruits or vegetables, nuts or seeds, or beans. Keep animal-based proteins to no more than two, tops. Think a grilled chicken salad with bacon or cheese, but not both.
5. Pour your own wine.
Because your friend or the server will always be more generous with you than you’ll be with yourself. Aim to fill your glass just halfway, or pour while you count to two. Iowa State University research shows that both tactics help people pour nearly 20% less wine, regardless of the size of the glass. (Check out the benefits of drinking that glass of red wine to enjoy it guilt-free.)
6. Don’t double up.
Adopt a personal policy of treating yourself on one thing, not everything. “I advise my clients, and I do this myself, to choose one splurge item and make room for it by avoiding double-ups,” says registered dietician Cynthia Sass, author of Slim Down Now. For instance, if you know your restaurant is renowned for its desserts—which are made of carbs and fat—stick with something that’s low in carbs and fat for your entrée, like grilled fish and steamed vegetables.
7. Be smart about steak.
Loads of butter, cream, and red meat mean that most steakhouse meals are the motherload of unhealthy, over-the-top meals. But they don’t have to be. “Split a filet mignon or sirloin steak with someone. They’re usually served in smaller cuts, so you’ll end up with about 7 ounces each,” says registered dietician Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet. Add a baked potato and steamed or sautéed spinach on the side, and you’re set—no substitutions necessary.
8. Divvy up your plate at the buffet.
The whole all-you-can-eat concept doesn’t exactly mesh with eating light. But if everyone is going and you don’t have a choice, stick with the smallest plate there is, recommends Largeman-Roth. Load half with half veggies or fruit (pick steamed, sautéed, or roasted over fried), and fill the other side with half protein and half carbs, like brown rice or a starchy vegetable. And of course, skip the second helping.