Last updated on April 22nd, 2017
Just about every low-carb cookbook, carb-count guide, diet plan and blog has advice on eating out while limiting your carbohydrate intake. For instance, over at About.com, Laura Dolson maintains an extensive and helpful guide on Low-Carb Fast Food.
And blogger and low-carb cookbook author Dana Carpender reviewed the Burger King Angry Burger, which she encountered while trying to buy a bottle of dark rum in southern Illinois on a Sunday. She disliked the burger, and didn’t get the rum, either. (She really need the rum, too.)
Here at Life after Carbs we have nothing against re-inventing the wheel, and then using that wheel to travel down familiar roads. In fact, it seems like a great plan. Popular topics are popular for a reason; in this case, the reason’s likely that people in 21st Century America eat out a lot. Therefore, if someone’s going to be successful in sticking with a low-carb eating plan, he or she needs to be able to handle the restaurant experience. Here are my tips on how to do just that.
Tip #1: Eat out less often
OK, I know I just said that people eat out a lot, and often eating out is unavoidable, but the fact is, you could consider cutting down. I’ve cut down on restaurant dining since I went low-carb. Like much of what I do, cutting down on dining out wasn’t planned, it just happened. But then dining out often wasn’t planned, either. My wife would come home after a long day, looking tired, and sensitive guy that I am, I’d say, “Hey, babe, why don’t we go out to eat?” So we’d all pile into the van and drive to our favorite Italian restaurant for a few pounds of spaghetti with meat-sauce, small salads, and a loaf of bread. Or, I’d be having a bad day, and decide taking myself out to lunch would be the perfect pick-me-up. So off to Subway I’d go for a foot-long Cold Cut Combo. Usually, I’d get it on the honey oat bread, figuring anything with oats in it has to be healthy.
However, since changing to a low-carb diet, I just don’t feel the need to eat out as much. I guess I’m not needing to use food, or at least restaurant food, as an emotional crutch. We still do eat out; the rest of the family has their needs, after all, but I estimate overall that I have cut my restaurant excursions by 40%. This not only saves carbs and calories, it saves money. You can use the money to buy low-carb cookbooks and steak.
Tip #2: Explore the menu
We were at an upscale Italian restaurant celebrating my older daughter’s college graduation. Normally, at an Italian restaurant, I order pasta (as noted in Tip #1), but that doesn’t work well on a low-carb diet. Being college-educated myself, I examined the menu more thoroughly and discovered that it had more to offer than pasta. What a revelation! I chose a grilled salmon steak in butter sauce. Yes, it was more expensive than a pasta dish, but since we don’t eat out as often, we can afford to eat better when we do. (Besides, it was a special occasion. Loosen up, would ya!)
Tip #3: Ask for substitutions
At the aforementioned graduation celebration, the grilled salmon came with seasonal vegetables and red-skinned potatoes. I asked the server if I could have more veggies in place of the potatoes, and she was happy to oblige. At other restaurants, when ordering eggs, I have asked if there were anything I could substitute for the hash-browns that are standard in many breakfast specials. Often, tomato slices are available. Not always, though. One waitress looked at me blankly, and then finally said, “I guess you could have french fries.”
“Just hold the potatoes,” I said. This brings me to the next tip . . .
Tip #4: Tell them to hold the bread
The title of Dana Carpender’s blog is “Hold the Toast!” so you know this is one of her tips, too. Laura Dolson says that at McDonald’s, if you ask for the bun to be held, you’ll get your burger in a plastic box with a couple pieces of lettuce. In theory, you can use the lettuce to pick up the burger, but Laura says, “Don’t count on it.” My approach has been to ask for a knife and fork. Usually, I get a side salad, too, so the knife and fork comes automatically. Of course, sometimes the restaurant either forgets and gives you the bread anyway, or else you don’t realize you’re getting bread in the first place.
For instance, last week I was having lunch out with colleagues, at a place I’d only been to once before, and I ordered a Caesar Salad with grilled chicken breast. I didn’t consider the possibility of croutons. They were not only possible, they were prolific. I swear half the bowl was full of small, dried bread cubes. I ate around them, then I let the server take the bowl away with the croutons in the bottom. A better person would have brought them home for the birds or the compost heap.
Tip #5: Do your research
Doing research could be a last minute thing. You could ask the counter-clerk at a fast-food chain, “Are the fried cheese balls breaded?” The clerk says, “No, sir. Not breaded.” So you buy and enjoy a full order.
Then you get home, feeling bloated, and spend a few minutes on the chain’s website looking up the nutrition facts for fried cheese balls. It turns out that an order contains enough grams of carbohydrates to last you three days on a strict low-carb plan. The next morning, you find you have gained two pounds.
The way around this is to research in advance. Buy a current carb-counting book that covers popular restaurant chains. You can also anticipate where you might be eating out, and examine the company’s website for nutrition info.
Tip #6: Be careful out there
This is the most important tip of all. Be paranoid. Assume the world and its restaurants are out to sneak carbs down your throat, one way or another. For example, I mentioned above that I sometimes get a side salad at McDonald’s. It’s a nice little salad on their Dollar Menu. But for most of us, salad means salad-dressing, too.
The first time I ate at a McDonald’s after adopting my low-carb lifestyle, I ordered a side salad with ranch dressing. Having slathered on the dressing and devoured most of the salad, I finally thought to check on the nutrition facts on the small (2 oz.) container of Newman’s Own Ranch Dressing. The dressing contained 170 calories and 15 grams of fat. No problem there. But it also contained 9 grams of carbohydrates! Was there some dietary fiber to deduct from the total carbs? No, not a bit. So the lunch I had been calculating to have around 5 grams of carbs now turned out to have 10 grams. Of course, the solution would’ve been to either skip the dressing or put on one ounce of dressing instead of the whole two. But I just wasn’t careful.
(Two ounces is not the same as two tablespoons? When did that happen?!)
The last time I tried eating out with my family was at a Red Lobster. Spent a lot of time with the menu, looking for something I could actually eat, and settled on a salmon plate. Unfortunately, after telling the waitress that I didn’t want the Cheddar Bay biscuits or any of the potato sides, my plate arrived with a sad looking, over-cooked piece of fish, accompanied with a sliver of tomato and a limp piece of lettuce. Pathetic. I decided then and there to quit trying the restaurant idea and just cook at home. I much prefer my own cooking now, and I’m saving money as well!
Cooking for yourself is the safest, cheapest and most satisfying way to go!
I have found that locally owned restaurants are very open to substitutions and when the cook/chef thinks you care they take more time to send out something creative.
p.s. great blog!
It never hurts to ask!