How to track calories at a restaurant
You’re probably here because you’re currently working on your fitness grind and are counting calories to hit your goals...good for you! You’re probably also here because you’ve got plans to eat out at a restaurant(fun!) and you might even be panicking a little because in the past eating out was always viewed as a “cheat meal” and you’re a little worried about ruining all of your progress(don’t panic)! I’m going to walk you through a few options on how to track your calories at a restaurant that will allow you to go out to eat, ENJOY yourself, and still make progress towards your fitness goals.
Note: This is not meant to be a step by step guide. Some of these strategies may apply to you and some may not. Take what you need and leave what you don’t :) that could mean a few of these strategies paired together or just 1.
My 7 strategies on How To Track Your Calories at a Restaurant:
Look at the menu in advance
Let’s be honest, you’re probably not making the most level headed meal choice when you're level 10 hangry and start smelling all the fried apps. Peeking at the menu ahead of time and deciding what to order can make you more likely to make a food choice more aligned with your goals. MOST chain restaurants also give calorie amounts online and many are even already within your calorie counting app. You can browse the menu online in advance and pick an option that best fits your fitness goals. If you’re in a calorie deficit this is probably going to be something higher in protein and lower in calories. Looking at a live example you can find Olive Garden’s nutritional info online(don’t @ me you know you love their breadsticks). If you didn’t look at the nutritional info in advance your default in the moment might be to order the Shrimp Alfredo for a whopping 1450 calories BUT if you look ahead of time you might choose the Shrimp Scampi for 510 calories. Just by taking a few minutes to look at the nutritional info ahead of time you’ll save yourself 940 calories. Now let’s talk about how to actually track those calories at the restaurant.
Choose something that is most similar
Let’s say you’re not going to a chain restaurant and your tracking app doesn’t have exactly what you’re eating or you can’t find it online anywhere...that’s ok! Don’t think it’s not worth tracking or your day is doomed just because it’s not in the app. You can still track your calories at a restaurant even when the exact calories aren’t known! Focus on finding what’s most similar. Search your calorie counting app and select the option that sounds most like what you’re ordering. This is where you really have to be honest with yourself. Say you’re going to eat a club sandwich and there are options in MyFitnessPal for a club sandwich ranging anywhere from 300-900 calories with most options being around 500 calories. It would be really easy for you to just pick the 300 calorie option and give yourself lots of wiggle room on calories for the rest of the day.
I’m here to be that annoying reminder though that the only person you’re hurting with that strategy is yourself. BE honest. If you think the club sandwich was probably closer to 500 calories, log the 500 calorie one! I recommend selecting an option that’s most similar and showing up most frequently. Again don’t pick the lowest calorie one that’s the odd ball out.
Pick 1 ingredient foods
Salmon, steamed veggies & roasted potatoes is a heck of a lot easier to track than “Mama’s homemade Chicken Pot Pie”. You can probably much easier guess ingredients AND portion sizes in the first than you can the second. Stick to simple and easy and it will lead to more accuracy. Of course I still want you ordering things you actually think you’ll enjoy and will like but the simpler the better when it comes to calorie counting. Think about building your plate around:
-A palm size serving of protein
-Half a plate of veggies
-A fist sized serving of carbs
-A thumb sized serving of fats(most of this will be from the oils they use to prepare the food)
This will help you build a balanced plate and also keep simple, easy to log ingredients top of mind which is going to make tracking calories at a restaurant MUCH easier.
Guesstimate portion sizes
If you’re really on point with your calorie counting you’re probably weighing most of your food out when you’re at home. I absolutely do not want you bringing a food scale to a restaurant but if you’re not...how can you be sure you’re accurately tracking your calories at the restaurant?
Here’s the kicker: you can’t and I need you to be ok with that.
Your calories tracked while at a restaurant will likely be a lot less accurate than your calories tracked at home. Rather than panicking, I want you to focus on guessing portion sizes as best you can. If you’ve been tracking for a while you probably have a good sense of what 30g of rice looks like on a plate. Use that knowledge to guide that you’re logging at the restaurant based on what you see on your plate. This is good practice for when you eventually move away from calorie counting down the line!
It’s always better to overestimate than under. Restaurants have a heavy hand when it comes to the oils & butters they cook in. This is going to lead to calories naturally being higher than the things you’re cooking at home. Make sure you’re accounting for that in your calculations. It can even be helpful to log 1-2 tbsp of olive oil or butter right out of the gates. That’s going to help ensure you’re not missing those sneaky calories hiding in the oils they’re cooking with.
Pre-log your meals
Before you even get to the restaurant a good strategy is to log your meal into your calorie
counting app in advance. This is going to allow you to build the rest of your day around the meal. If for instance you know that this meal is going to be 700 calories and your daily calorie total is 1800...you know you have 1100 calories left for the rest of the day. Pre-logging your meal also gives you the opportunity to adjust portion sizes in advance. If a full burger & fries eats up 50% of your calories for the day and you know you’d probably be just as satisfied with ½ burger, a side salad and a few fries for a fraction of the calories, you now have the opportunity to make that choice in advance. If you’ve already taken the time to log this all out AND build the rest of your day around this meal, you’re more likely to stick to what’s already logged in the moment instead of going rogue.
Ditch the perfectionism
Here’s the reality of the situation: as I mentioned before you won’t be able to as accurately track calories at a restaurant as you can at home. It’s just a fact. Does this mean you should never go out to eat for fear of ruining all of your progress? Absolutely not! Remember that this journey is all about consistency over perfection. It’s probably not very realistic that you’d never go out to eat ever again in your life so you absolutely shouldn’t avoid it while you’re in a calorie deficit. It’s important to learn HOW to navigate eating out while in a calorie deficit and being ok with not being perfect. This is how you truly build lifelong habits and approach fat loss in a sustainable way.
Remember that if you don’t go out to eat often you should be focused on ENJOYING yourself.
Here’s my last tip for you..I only want you tracking calories at a restaurant if you go out to eat often, it’s part of your regular routine, and it’s not deemed a “special event”. If you only go out to eat 1-2 times a month and this is kind of rare for you, I’d rather you not even think about counting calories and instead just focus on enjoying yourself at the meal. Seriously. Please just go and enjoy yourself. Again remember that this journey is about consistency and what you do MOST of the time...not being perfect.
I hope that after reading this you’re feeling less anxious about going out to eat and more confident that you can track your calories at a restaurant, enjoy yourself AND still make progress towards your goals. Apply these strategies the next time you go out to eat and let me know how it goes!
If you’re interested in 1:1 help with all of this, unique calorie calculations, and in the moment tips, apply for coaching here.