Updated: Sep 5, 2019
You're invited out for dinner, to a celebration, or a long Sunday brunch. You're keen to see your friends and excited to choose something delicious from the menu, but you're also focused on your diet at the moment and you're conscious of your food choices. Can you still eat a meal out if your priority is to eat healthy, lose body fat and perform at your best?
Absolutely. Life does not sync to a meal plan. It doesn't matter if it's the holiday season, a birthday, a celebration, a Friday dinner or a Sunday café outing. It need not be a big, special thing. It might just be joining your close friends for lunch. But it matters. There's a time and place to break free from structured eating, and our lives and relationships are richer for it.
Sure, there's limits. If your priority is to look, feel and perform better, there will be many times that you will need to resist temptation and say no to eating food just because it's there. But for the fitness fanatics out there (yes, you), it's just as essential to realise that a one off feast or a meal that 'breaks the rules' isn't evil and you shouldn't seek to avoid it out of a lingering fear that it might derail your results. Food is more than just nutrition, and you are more than just a body.
Find a balance that's right for you. To do this, think about the state that your body is in today. For example:
Is your body in a healthy place?
Are you active daily? Do you train frequently?
Are you nourished? Do you usually eat real foods, and ample nutrients for your needs?
Are you energetic at the right times?
Are you properly rested each morning?
Are there certain foods that don't like you?
Is your belly happy and adaptable? Or does it protest if you eat something different?
If you know your limits and you're keen to put some loose boundaries in place, here's some tips that may help.
1. Make better choices, or at least make choices.
If you choose to go all out, then enjoy! That's your choice. If you aren't quite mentally or physically ready to break from your diet, then that's fine too. Choose the healthier option available (ie, real foods instead of processed foods, foods that like you instead of foods that don't, etc.)
2. BYO dish (dinner parties).
An easy pot luck or Christmas feast hack is to BYO a delicious and healthy meal to contribute. Hosts are usually happy to add another dish to the table, and if it tastes incredible people don't actually realise that it's the 'healthy' choice so you don't have to field sceptical enquiries if you don't feel like it (ie, Greek salad, moussaka, lamb koftas, roast vegetables, etc.) It also puts your mind at ease because there's something you can eat first to fill you so that you're less likely to OD on the other, delicious but less ideal options available.
3. Keep perspective.
This is the big one. Even if you completely let loose, happily decide to order the most decadent thing on the menu, and eat until you're completely stuffed - it honestly doesn't matter. Look at the bigger picture. If you eat 4 x 7 = 27 fantastic meals each week, you can have some freedom on meal number 28! Trust that your body can handle the top up, and realise that the mental and social break is just as valuable. One day is not going to derail you if your food is on point most of the time.
4. Food hang over the next day?
This can happen if your body isn't used to the foods or quantities that you ate. Listen to it. It may be a useful indicator that your body isn't quite ready to handle certain foods just yet. (Or, it could also be that you didn't sleep soundly, you didn't properly hydrate your body, etc.) Assess the circumstances and see if you can decipher your body's cues.
But I'm prepping for a competition. So I only eat if it's on the plan, and in a DIY container, right?
Here's the thing. If you're a dedicated athlete, it doesn't phase you to miss out on the dinner, the brunch or the holiday treats. You are on auto-pilot to compromise because to you, it's not a compromise. To you, your choices reflect your goals and you're all in. You're probably slightly pedantic about it at times. Or if you're like me, most of the time. In fact, I'd say that you'd feel more comfortable if you did just pack your BYO meal.
That's been me many times. Sure, it's effective. Compliance leads to results. Comp prep 101 is just that - you make a plan, and you consistently execute. Day in and day out, you have systems in place to make it happen. For me, this applies to the 4 months out from a contest. In an off season, I'm still just as focused and structured, but I'm deliberately less regimented. I realise that I benefit from the mental break.
Don't freak out, but you can still eat meals out even if you're an athlete and you're in competition season. I did, often up until 2 weeks' out. I just had a system for this. For example, here's a blue print that I use to assess my meal choices if I'm eating out before a competition.
If it's more than 10 weeks out, I'm more flexible. I don't eat out often (I'd say no more than 1 x per week), so I'l just order what I like but stick to real foods and foods that my body likes so that it doesn't impact on my training that day or the day after. Chicken Ceasar salad is a favourite. I can't possibly track all the ingredients in it, but my body likes the higher fats and I adore the flavours. I tend to order this at a decent place so that I can trust that the sauce isn't just processed chemicals.
If it's 4 - 9 weeks out, I'll be on the look out for something that contains mainly foods that I'm already eating, particularly animal protein, fats, and vegetables or salad (ie, an omelette, steak and vegetables, a salad). I'll say no to sauces or dressings. If I usually eat carbs at this meal, I'll choose a source that I'm used to (ie, a side of jasmine rice, or potatoes.)
If it's less than 4 weeks out, I'll be stricter on this. Closer to competition, almost all things are monitored and your biggest asset is variable control.
For all the fuss, it's not usually that difficult to find a decent meal out. I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant or café that didn't have something on the menu I could eat. If it's a decent place, there's usually a healthy option on the menu that tastes great. And if the portions are a little bigger, so be it. You can adjust your other meals the day. Your body can handle it.