It was the week after my first figure competition. March of last year. I was still tinged orange, full on yam status, from the spray tan, and trying my best to cover it up at my new job- a long term substitute teaching gig in an independent studies classroom. Having completed the training from the previous teacher, all the legalities and paperwork, all the graduation requirements, the coursework for over 30 classes learned, I was ready to take over. One last thing- to attend the previous teacher’s retirement party. She was a mentor teacher with whom I had worked with for years prior, even before I had gotten my credential, when I was a teachers aide, through my student teaching and my first few years teaching. Yes, I would go to her goodbye luncheon.
Panera. Perfect! Salads and sandwiches! And the nutrition information is on the website!
I scoured the online menu, comparing each item to my macros for the day. Post-show nutrition is just as important as pre-show. In order to avoid the stereotypical “rebound blowup,” I had carefully laid out my reverse dieting plan for the following weeks. Failure to plan is a plan to fail! My lunch chosen, I left to meet with the rest of the teachers.
Once in the parking lot, a text appeared on my phone. “BJ’s!!!” it stated simply. I raised my eyes across the parking lot with dread, towards the BJ’s Brewhouse door, and began walking, slowly… slowly.
Sitting back in my car, I fought tears trying to pull up the menu on my phone. And once it opened, I burst into tears, sobbing hysterically. Famous for their PIZZA SIZED COOKIE- a “pizookie,” and not a single item on that menu under 400 calories. For fuck’s sake their “EnLIGHTened Menu” boasted “each under 795 calories!” like that was some sort of fucking gold medal accomplishment. Didn’t they know I only got to eat 1350* IN AN ENTIRE DAY?! How are you possibly making a salad almost 600 calories?! Why does everything have 20+ grams of fat, and I only have 34 to work with for today…
I text my work bestie, already inside, in a panic. She coaxed me in eventually. I worried and stressed over that menu, trying hard to keep my tears in check as the people around me laughed and chatted, and all I could do was try not to lose my damn mind over that food.
Sound familiar? Or, have you ever skipped out on a social event because you didn’t want to blow your diet?
*Aside: yes, my calories were VERY low, coming out of my contest, but I was working to build them up. No worries, I’m eating boatloads more than that now, and I should have increased my calories a bit more quickly coming out of the show, too- my first attempt at a reverse diet didn’t go quite as well as I had planned…but I got better at it!
Restaurants and social situations can be difficult to navigate if you’ve got nutritional limits in place- you’re trying to lose weight, or shit, just not GAIN weight. Restaurants are notorious for high calorie, large portion options that you would never dream of consuming at home. But they’re not the end of the world, either. Losing weight doesn’t have to mean cutting off all social contact. Hell, even on contest prep, until just a few weeks before hitting the stage, I was eating at restaurants!
I have just a couple of basic guidelines that help me to do this. No, you probably won’t be eating the most exciting thing on the menu, but you will have the option to say yes to a retirement party, an after-work happy hour, or a girls night out. You just have to play it smart!
First, have a goal in mind- and have a plan. Are you eating high carb today, or low carb? High fat, or low fat? This should give you a starting point. You can always order a sandwich or burger without a bun (lettuce wrap!), or you can decide right now if you’re getting that side of mashed potatoes. Keep that goal in mind. To take a little stress off, as well, on a day I know I’m going out, I might eat a bit lower calorie, prioritizing protein and veggies, to save myself some fats and carbs for the meal out. If I’ve never been to a restaurant before, I always try to pull up the menu online, and at least get an idea of what I should plan for, or even plan your whole meal if you have time! Tedious, yes, but worth it in time spent otherwise toiling over a menu and my calorie tracking app while my friends chat it up at happy hour, right?
Now let’s get to the menu. The simpler the dish, the easier it is to estimate the calories. Now, this is written assuming you are fairly decent at estimating portion sizes- that is, you can tell about what 3 or 5 oz. of chicken looks like, have a basic idea of how many carbs are in a piece of sandwich bread, and can estimate about a tablespoon of dressing.
Think about a sandwich. You can see just how much tomato, how much mayo, how much turkey, and so on. Even tacos are pretty simple, in this respect! Now consider a pasta dish with a cream sauce. You have no idea what’s in that sauce, or how much- there could be 1/4 cup of butter in there plus half a cup of parmesan, and that doesn’t even account for the olive oil they sautéed the veggies and chicken in… so here’s the rule:
Keep it simple.
Yes, it’s boring. I’m sorry. The more ingredients you can clearly see, the easier your estimating is going to be.
Breaking it down just a little bit further, keep these in mind:
- Avoid caloric beverages. Yes, I know a Moscow mule is delicious, and that spot makes their own ginger beer and it’s amazing… but drink calories are the easiest to cut. I like to stick with water, because, well, I just like water. Heading out for happy hour and really want to imbibe? Choose a glass of wine, or a low-cal mixed drink like a vodka soda with lime, or my favorite, gin and diet tonic. Alcohol, and particularly drinks mixed with juices, sodas, and other high calorie liquids, add up very quickly. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, and the body fully stops processing all other nutrients until the alcohol is processed out, so, just consider that. If you absolutely must have that pomegranate martini, just be sure to estimate the calories- err on the side of overestimation- and know that that’s your choice to make, and you may need to cut some calories elsewhere in the meal, or in a later meal, in order to fit it into your goals.
- Prioritize protein. This should be the base of your meal. Find a dish that stars a protein, as opposed to something like a pasta dish.
- Veggies are ALWAYS the best option. Can you get a side of veggies or a side salad instead of fries/rice/chips? ASK. Do that. I treat veggies as free foods in social situations. Fill up on them- I’ve been known to ask for two sides of veggies, even, and if my friends are having wings, guess who ordered an extra plate of carrots and celery?
- Order “no butter, no oil.” Restaurants don’t give a damn about your goals, they care how their food looks and tastes, so they’re back there with a squeeze bottle full of oil just greasing the grill up. The result is that your food is beautiful and crazy delicious, but also contains something like 200 extra calories from fat that you would not have had cooking at home. The way to get around this is to simply say “no butter, no oil,” and they’ll take a bit more care to keep your food lubed to a lesser extent, including steaming veggies instead of sautéing them, and grilling your chicken or burger without soaking the grill in grease first. HUGE calorie-saver.
- Count on adding 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of oil to your calculations, anyhow. Even ordering no butter no oil, restaurant food does pick up a bit of residual grease, sometimes there’s a marinade or a sauce you don’t think about, so to err on the side of caution, I always add 1/2 to 1 T of oil to my calculations of the meal, depending on how it looks when it arrives to me. Grease on the plate, or an attractive sheen? Oil. I error on the side of overestimating, remember.
- Don’t be afraid to order “on the side.” As a rule, I order ALL sauces, spreads, or dressings on the side. This way, you can control exactly how much of it you eat. You’d be shocked just how little of a sauce you need to just get the flavor- yet a restaurant will drown your sandwich or salad in a calorie-bomb if you let them. I also order any avocado, nuts or cheese- fats- on the side, as well as dried fruits (common in salads, and sneakily high in calories and carbs!) so I can control how much of it I eat as well. If you see it, and intentionally place it on your food, you are fully aware of how much you are consuming, and it’s much easier to estimate portions by placing ingredients ON, than by taking them off.
- ASK QUESTIONS. If the waiter doesn’t know, he’ll go ask the chef. Will he be annoyed? Maybe. But you’re the customer, and you have a right to know what you’re consuming. I feel like I get to include this because I was a server and a bartender for 6 years. It’s part of the job, don’t feel bad. Besides, it’s going to benefit your server to know anything she or he has to ask anyhow- someone will ask it again, and they’ll look awesome when they know the answer. Knowledgable servers make better tips, so, really you’re just helping them.
So go. Have fun. Just plan ahead, don’t sit next to the chips and salsa (fucking chips and salsa, though, right?!), and be mindful. Don’t sacrifice your social life for a diet- your friends are more important than your abs, I promise- but know that the two CAN go together. You can have your goals and your friends, too. It’s all about balance.