'Tis the season to be...eating away from home much more! The festive season is great fun, but a month of merriment is a challenge if you're trying to stay focused on your health or weight goals. It seems every social gathering in December is centred around drinking, eating out or enjoying a festive spread at friends' houses. But worry not, we've got you covered! Here are some great tips for how to enjoy eating out without it throwing you off track.
Best 'out of home' choices
In a recent Nutracheck survey, around a third of members said they try to pick the healthiest option when ordering food out of the home. This is a great attitude – it shows you can still enjoy a treat, without going OTT.
As a nutritionist, these are my tips on the healthier options to choose:
- Tomato-based sauces not creamy ones – when reading a description of a dish, I look for mentions of 'tomato' as this tends to be much lower in fat and calories than sauces made with cream or butter. For example, opt for bolognese over carbonara, or bhuna over korma.
- Vegetable-based – vegetables are both low in calories and packed with micronutrients, so most veggie choices will be healthier than meat. Plus, they're generally cheaper too!
- Do you need the sides? – ordering food when you're feeling ravenous is always a mistake as you're far more likely to over-order and add unnecessary starters and sides. My top tip is to have a small protein-based snack before you go out for a meal to take the edge off your appetite.
- Count your carbs – carbs aren't bad for us, but the calorie content of a meal can quickly escalate if there's more than one type of carb on your plate. So have a personal rule - one carb only! E.g order bread or noodles or chips or pasta or rice or naan. Swap out other carbs for a veg-based or high protein dish (prawns or chicken are good lean protein choices).
- Skip the fries – avoid adding chips or French fries as a side. Choose new potatoes instead or ideally a fresh crisp side-salad. If you really want chips, choose potato wedges over skinny fries as these contain less fat - unless you choose a 'dirty' version covered in melted cheese! (You know what I'm going to say - avoid that!)
- Offset fancy drinks – I'm thinking festive coffees from the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Nero. With the flavoured syrups and cream, they may be delicious, but they are also very calorific. If you fancy one, order regular not large, and skip the cake. OR if you want cake, enjoy that but offset the calories by keeping your drink simple and order tea or coffee without the extras. Avoid the fancy coffee AND cake!
The watch list
When making your menu choices, being mindful of the following will help limit excessive amounts of sat fat, salt and calories in your meal.
- Creamy sauces – carbonara or korma, these dishes may be super tasty, but anything cream-based will come with a hefty calorie and sat fat tag.
- Deep-fried foods – if you see the words ‘crispy’ or ‘fried’ in the meal description, chances are it’s been deep-fried in oil, making it a calorific choice.
- Red meats – meats such as pork, lamb and beef tend to be much higher in saturated fat than chicken and turkey which are the leanest. And of course grilled or baked white fish is the lowest fat option of all.
- Deep pan pizza – opt for the thinnest based pizza possible to save excess calories and fat. Deep pan pizzas tend to have a thicker layer of cheese and sauce too – so a thin Italian base is the way to go. Or the ones with the centre cut out and filled with salad (Pizza Express Leggero style!)
- Cheese-based dishes – e.g., paneer, stilton sauces, mozzarella sticks, 4 cheese pizza – as delicious as it may be, cheese is very high in fat and saturated fat, which adds a lot of calories. Ideally avoid dishes with ‘cheese’ in the title.
Being prepared can be the difference between going off track and sticking to your targets. Here are my top tips for planning in advance when eating away from the home.
- Use the 'Easier Days' setting – in the app, tap the blue menu button in your diary, scroll down and tap 'Diary Preferences' > 'Easier Days'. Select a day of the week to have more calories on - the other days of the week will reduce in calories to compensate.
- Look ahead at menu options – find the menu for where you're going online and see what choices they have - use the Nutracheck app to check the calorie content of dishes. Decide in advance which healthier options you will be ordering to avoid having to make a choice on the spot. Having a pre-determined decision is a great strategy as it removes the pressure of a situation where it's easy to be swayed in the moment by your emotions, other people or hunger!
- Plan in some extra activity – while it's true that 'you can't outrun a bad diet', being more active in the day/days before your eating occasions can certainly help to burn some extra calories and could make you feel less inclined to overindulge. During the festive period we recommend that members ease the pressure on themselves and switch their goal to maintenance - keeping active is a great way to help offset extra treats and limit the damage!
Remember that knowledge is power. Just because you are eating foods you haven't prepared yourself, doesn't mean you can't try and stay on track with your diary. Keep logging so that you have a good idea of where you're at. Here are my top tips on logging as accurately as you can.
- Search the Eating Out section – in the app, tap the blue menu button in the diary > ‘Eating Out’. We have a wide range of eating out places listed – from popular coffee shops and restaurants, to fast food outlets and takeaways.
- Find something similar – if you can’t find the exact dish you ate in our Eating Out section, look for a similar dish from another restaurant or a takeaway option. For example, if you had a pizza but can't find the exact restaurant in the database, add one with similar toppings from another restaurant as an estimate instead. Better to add something than nothing!
- Use a ‘luxury’ supermarket ready meal – if you can’t find a comparable dish in the Eating Out section, search for a supermarket ready meal as an estimate. Choose a ‘best’ or ‘finest’ version as these are the most indulgent recipes. You may need to increase the portion size as restaurant or takeaway servings are often bigger than ready meals, so maybe add 1.5 portions to err on the side of caution.
Our Nutracheck mantra is 'it's all about balance' – and I hope that's the message you've taken from these tips. It's perfectly possible to navigate the festive season with confidence by making considered choices that won't undo your fantastic progress. Eating out is fun and an essential part of socialising (we know how much we missed it last year!), so embrace the celebrations and enjoy!
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.