How to Navigate a Menu


Let’s face it, menus are daunting.
Even when you’re not on a mission to get healthy and eat better, most chain restaurants these days include so many options it is tough to figure out exactly what you want, especially when you’re starving.

When you’ve decided to eat healthier, the restaurant menu (or the buffet at Suzy’s wedding or the company holiday party) becomes a nightmare.

Some people decide not to go out at all because they don’t know what to eat.  Some just give in because they are so starving they can’t see straight let alone think clearly about healthy choices.  And  some people take the time to choose wisely but get sabotaged by the restaurant’s annoying need to butter and excessively oil everything!

Stress no more, I am here to help!

An action plan, and what I do personally.
Before I even get to the restaurant or event, there are some things I do to set myself up for success.

1. If I have a choice in where I’ll be eating, I’ve learned not to be afraid to suggest a place I already know has good options for me.

My mom is so sweet she has taken to asking me when the family has decided on a place for dinner, “Is there anything you will eat there?”   So nice of her!

Only a few times the answer has been no, and then I suggest another option that I know they will all like and I can find something to eat.  The key here is to not be shy.  Why should I feel bad about eating well and caring about my health and what goes in my body?!

2. If I don’t have a choice in the restaurant, I look at the menu online before I even get in the car.  

I know that the hungrier I get, the less brain power I am going to have to stay focused and may end up ordering something that only sounds good in my low blood sugar moment.

So I scroll the menu and decide on what I will have ahead of time.  The only reason I’ll look at the menu when I get there is to confirm the menu online is up to date.  Sometimes it isn’t and what I chose is not there anymore so I have to pick something else.

3. If I am attending a party where there will be a buffet or passed hors d’oeuvres, I don’t actually count on finding anything remotely healthy.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised a time or two, but for the most part it is a tough situation.  What I do here is one of two things.  I either have already eaten so I am not tempted at the party, or I have already planned that this will be a Treat Meal and so I don’t worry about it. I enjoy what I eat and move on.

There are many times that I have not had the time or memory to plan ahead and so parts 1-3 in my Plan of Action don’t get utilized.

What’s a girl to do now?

parking lotI approach the menu like a parking lot.
I don’t know about you, but when I get to the parking lot after shopping at the mall, I don’t stop and ask myself, which car do I feel like taking today?

No, I walk directly to my car.

Even if I lost it for a few minutes and have to walk up and down a few aisles, I eventually find it. Even if I find what looks to be my car, the door even opens and I get one foot inside before I realize it is not my car (this happened to me once!), I eventually find my car.

That’s how menus are these days.  They are full of items I don’t care to eat, or I’m not eating at a particular time of nutritional focus.  So I skip right past them.  I am looking for a clean and lean source of protein and vegetables. Halibut and steamed seasonal veggies, for example.

I don’t need to look at the appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, pastas or desserts since I know that what I am looking for will not be listed in those columns.

I sometimes find a healthy enough salad but those can be giant fat and calorie traps, so I have to get creative there, as explained in my previous post: A Lesson On Salads.

Before I resort to the list of salads though, I stay focused and keep looking for my first choice.  And I don’t need to know what anyone else is going to order, I don’t care what car everyone else is driving, I’m looking for my car.

Assistance and Modifications

Thankfully, most restaurants are now required to list the nutrition facts on their menus.  This has saved me so many times from making a good choice and getting sabotaged.  For example, a few years ago I was at Outback Steakhouse and found my halibut and vegetables.  Then I saw the calories: 1100!  For fish and vegetables?!

At most, the meal should have been 600 calories if it was a giant portion of halibut, which is was.  So where were the extra 500 calories coming from?  Butter and oil.  Fat with a side of fat.

That is when I realized that no matter how good I think I’m doing by ordering a “healthy” choice, I was going to have to take control and always make modifications.

I ordered the fish and veggies simply grilled, no oil or butter and only ate about 4 oz of the fish.  BAM.  No more than 300 calories, lean and clean. Crisis averted.

burpee equivalentsAbout that calorie-counting.
I’m not a big preacher of counting calories.  It is sometimes valuable as an awareness of what we are actually consuming, especially when focused on weight loss. But it can become crazy-making, so it’s not something to do forever.

It is incredibly valuable to me at a restaurant though because not every meal I eat out is a Treat Meal for me.  I choose those wisely, they are decadent and spectacular and I enjoy them occasionally.  On purpose.

If I am out to dinner with my family and they want to go to a chain restaurant, I can guarantee you I am not going to find anything worthy of the amazingness it needs to be for me to call it a Treat Meal.  Not happening.

So I stay focused, I keep my eye out for my car in the parking lot.  I don’t get sidetracked by marketing and fancy spinny wheels and beautiful paint jobs.  I want my car, I want my healthy meal.  Because I have to drive this thing everyday.  I want it in top shape and filled with quality fuel to keep me going strong.

You can do this too.
All of this sounds really great, right?  For me, a personal trainer and nutrition coach it must be so easy, right?

Well you should know that I grew up with the same fast food you did. I grew up with yummy Dorritos, Twinkies, McDonald’s, french toast dripping in butter and powdered sugar, homemade malt ice cream and a love of In-n-Out, to name just a few staples in my childhood.

The way I eat now has been a process and the choices I make are still choices.  Some are more automatic because they are a part of my way of life now, but I still have to concentrate when I go out to a restaurant or even in to a mini-mart at the gas station!

If I am not on my game, I will make (and have made) some purchases that weren’t in line with how I want my car to drive.  I have on occasion filled my Formula 1 gas tank with fuel only deserving of a Pinto.  It happens!

So, yes, you can do this too.
Just have a plan of action, be prepared, and think of the menu like a parking lot.  Find YOUR car.  Find your lean protein and vegetables.

I must warn you, however, there will be times you won’t find anything on the menu you can eat on your clean eating plan.  Be prepared for that too.  You will have to get creative.  The best thing to do, which you can do almost anywhere, is order a side salad (no cheese) and a grilled chicken breast. No oil or butter of course, and dressing on the side.

Yes, that sounds boring, but it is so worth it!  I have had to do this a few times (even at Denny’s on a road trip) and I can tell you I have never left thinking, I wish I had the triple cheese burger and chili cheese fries with a side of bacon grease. Never.  Instead I left wildly proud of myself that I managed to stay focused and eat the way I eat!

I can also promise you that Denny’s is not where I will ever have a Treat Meal. Ever.









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