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Ask JJ: Eating Out

You've probably encountered some variation of my recent dietary debacle at a super-popular Los Angeles bistro. I ordered an innocuous-sounding chicken dish and didn't quiz my server closely enough (I was a little distracted catching up with my friend).
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Dear JJ: I follow your low-sugar impact plan and do really well eating at home. As a frequent traveler, I find eating out becomes my undoing. What I find especially frustrating is timing. Everything happens later than I expect, I'm starving, and inevitably eat something I shouldn't. I know you travel a lot. How do you navigate restaurants?

You've probably encountered some variation of my recent dietary debacle at a super-popular Los Angeles bistro. I ordered an innocuous-sounding chicken dish and didn't quiz my server closely enough (I was a little distracted catching up with my friend).

My meal arrived in some syrupy, glaze-y sauce. I didn't want to make a scene, yet I knew the consequences of eating that dish.

Lesson learned. You can ask your server questions nicely without interrogating him or becoming a pain in the ass (PITA), just like you can eat out nearly anywhere without falling victim to food intolerances or high-sugar impact disasters.

"Unless you're eating at a fast food place, you have a surprising amount of latitude to order what you really want," says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of the book Slim By Design. "We found that even casual dining chains are willing to modify many of their meals. It's amazing how much power we have as consumers that we never use."

Look at a restaurant menu as suggestive, not an absolute. Speak up and establish boundaries before you arrive. Read the menu online, determine what you'll order (and what questions you'll ask) beforehand, and have your glass of pinot noir during your meal so feeling tipsy doesn't leave you famished and face down in a big bowl of spinach artichoke dip with hot baguette.

I'm on the road about half the time, and I've learned employing a little assertiveness along with these seven strategies can help you eat healthy nearly anywhere.

1. Start with a small salad. One study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed people who ate a small salad consumed less food during their subsequent meal. We're talking a small salad drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar, not those big restaurant salad monstrosities.
2. Search for red flags. Entrées with adjectives like breaded, fried, crunchy, crispy, glazed, or creamy often translate into high-sugar impact disaster. Order protein and non-starchy veggies grilled, baked, or broiled.
3. Never assume. Nobody likes to be "that person" who creates a scene, but ignorance doesn't cut it. If you fail to ask, and your chicken dish comes drowning in a syrupy glaze (even though like mine, your menu didn't say so), you're responsible if you eat it. Ask.
4. Don't even let it go down. Banish the breadbasket before your server sets it down. If you need pre-meal munchies, ask for a bowl of olives, but arriving to the restaurant satisfied rather than famished becomes key for damage control.
5. Double up. Two appetizers as your main course provide better portion control and variety than a gigantic entrée. You might order hummus with veggies alongside grilled chicken kabobs with salsa. Be creative and think outside the menu confines.
6. Cut it in half. Split that enormous broccoli-garlic stuffed chicken breast in half and get it to go before you even dive in. Think of it as a buy-one-get-one-free meal.
7. Keep my three-bite rule. Occasionally you'll visit a restaurant with a fabulous pastry chef, or your friend's dessert looks so darn good you can't resist. No need to become abstemious. If you've done dinner correct, savor three polite bites--we're talking what you would eat on national TV, not in your kitchen at 11 p.m.--and step away from the dessert! Most desserts contain some combo of gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, and other food intolerances, so proceed accordingly.

If you dine out frequently, what strategies would you add to this list? Having an arsenal of strategies can help us both navigate potentially tricky restaurant experiences, so share yours below. And keep those fab questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.