How to count calories while dining in a restaurant the easy way with the right mindset, the right tools, and get the server on your team.
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You’re at an amazing restaurant outside of Chicago. They divide their menu between sushi and Japanese robata grill dishes. Their Sake list is incredible. Their dishes have won awards. They have pork belly and crispy fried squid and imaginative tempura choices. Their maki rolls look like expensive elven jewelry. You want everything on the menu. You want it twice. But you also want to lose 10 pounds.
You just started a diet. You count calories. The waiter has asked you for your order twice. The whole table is waiting for you. You’re under pressure, faced with delicious not-at-all-ever-low-cal food, and the calories aren’t printed on the menu. How can you order but stay within your pitiful dinner allowance?
Don’t Panic! Order Anything You Want
Step one is to remain calm. The rest of the table doesn’t recognize your dilemma, but you do. On the outside, you’re asking polite questions to stall the inevitable. On the inside, you’re freaking out. You imagine you’ve been staring at the menu for a half hour. You know what the waiter’s thinking: “Oh My God, by the time he orders I could’ve finished my screenplay! Come on.”
In reality, it’s only been 30 seconds. The waiter is glad to be able to stand still for half a minute. Your table hasn’t even noticed. Take a deep breath and …order anything. Yeah, anything. Without good intel, your mission to eat healthy when dining out isn’t about what you order. It’s about how much of it you eat.
Confess to the Server That You’re Here to Count Calories
Your best resource is standing there with a pen in his hand. The waiter knows everything about the menu — and more. Lean on him for information. You’re not the first dieter to eat here. He answers these questions all day.
- Is there a calories chart? As of May 2018, FDA law requires chain restaurants to list the calorie counts of their dishes. Single restaurants are not included, but many were already listing calories. The rest are likely to have them ready in case the new law expands its reach. If they have that info, your waiter knows it.
- Is there a vegetarian menu? Often there is a restricted menu offering vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan and calorie restricted options especially for customers like you. Your waiter will be more than happy to go get this menu for you.
- Is there anything you can do for me, Pam? A good server is more like a menu consultant. Tell her you’re trying to watch your waistline. You’d like a little intel on the best dishes for low-calorie eating. It might not be the dish you think. Preparation can pack plenty of calories into even the simplest vegetable sides. She might steer you away from the spinach salad because the dressing is a high-calorie emulsion. She might even suggest the filet mignon since it’s actually a small cut and they can cook it without the bacon wrap. Add the steamed brussels sprouts from their lunch menu and you’re looking at a low carb delicious dinner
Start with Green Vegetables
What if the waiter doesn’t know anything about the food? What if he counts calories in duck fat? You might have to wing it. Get steamed green vegetables; salad with the dressing on the side; and a baked or broiled protein. Ask about preparation (the Greek restaurant near me cooks its green beans in olive oil).
Can’t Count Calories? Measure Your Portions
You probably don’t travel with a food scale, so weighing portions is impossible. Guesstimating, though, is easier and more accurate than you think. Use your eyeballs and a mental image of proper portions.
The Mayo Clinic explains how to use simple visuals to weigh your food. That slab of sirloin on your plate is about the size of a deck of cards — which is about 3 oz. So is your palm. A one-cup serving of rice or pasta is about the size of a baseball. A half teaspoon of butter is about the size of your fingertip. Memorize a few handy images for this and you can do a quick estimate of the caloric impact your plate will deliver.
For instance, you order the sirloin, a side of steamed brussels sprouts, and sweet potato. Your steak looks like it would fit nicely inside a thin romance novel. The sprouts would barely fill up a coffee cup. The sweet potato is about the size of your fist.
That steak is probably a 12-ounce sirloin which is about 9 ounces after they cook it or around 650 calories. You’ve got about 4 ounces of sprouts or 50 calories. The potato is 100 calories. So your meal is somewhere around 800 calories — well within your supper allowance of 900.
But What If I Eat Too Much at Dinner?
Suffer tomorrow. You can always deduct Tuesday’s excess from the calories you count on Wednesday. Or spread it out over the next several days. Or look at your week so far and realize you missed lunch on Monday. And breakfast on Sunday. And you walked an extra mile at the gym — so you’ve got a 500-calorie margin in your weekly budget. You can relax. You’re on track.
And even if you blow it, this is your diet. Want to go 400 calories over because you can’t refuse that seared pork belly appetizer? Do it. See above.
Isn’t There an App?
Of course, there’s an app. Sort of. You should be using a fitness app — especially a mobile app on your phone. It lets you enter your fitness data on the fly, and when you’re dining at Le Maison Heart Attack, that comes in handy. But even the best app can only work with what you give it. There’s no magical program that can look at a picture of your food and tell you how many calories you’re about to shove down your throat.
Except of course there is. Calorie Mama uses artificial intelligence to count calories by extracting caloric data from a picture of food. I tested Calorie Mama by taking a picture of a banana. The app identified it as a “whole banana” at 70 calories. To test its accuracy, I took a shot of a flathead screwdriver. Calorie Mama smacked me in the back of the head and scolded me: “This does not look like food!”
It’s pretty accurate.
There are other apps you can use to take pictures of your plate. These are representative. The technology improves every day and my research skills are subpar. There are more than three if you look hard enough.
- Snap It. Apple, Android which pairs with Lose It (disclosure, I use Lose It).
- Bite Snap. Android only.
- Foodvisor. Apple, Android (subscription plan).
Relax and Enjoy
As you move toward the narrower end of your body spectrum, you’ll hit snags and challenges. Going out with friends or family shouldn’t knock you out of your groove. No matter what’s on the menu, even if you’re dining at the ALL STEAK AND BUTTER CAFÉ, you can figure out a plan to count calories on the go. Counting calories might not work anyway. It’s much healthier to enjoy the company and worry about your overage tomorrow.
Besides, you’re in this for the long run, not just one day.
What tricks do you use to manage calories when dining in a restaurant?
The information provided on Health Food Radar is intended for general informational purposes only. While we strive to offer accurate and up-to-date content, we do not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making any dietary or lifestyle changes, especially if you have underlying health conditions or concerns.