Complete Guide to Staying Lean While Eating Out

Luke Briggs
Written By: Luke Briggs
April 19th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
15.7K Reads
Complete Guide to Staying Lean While Eating Out
You should never let your fitness lifestyle get in the way of hanging out with friends and loved ones. Learn how to stay shredded while eating out!

You’ve made it your mission to get leaner.

You fill your home with lots of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and all your junk food has found its way into the trash can.

You’re committed to eating healthy, but then disaster strikes - a friend or family member asks you out to dinner at a restaurant.

Crap! Well, there goes your diet, right? Wrong.

Believe it or not, you can actually get lean without needing to turn down invitations to eat out at restaurants.

And you can eat some quality and great tasting food while you’re there.

How is that possible? Read on for the step-by-step process to getting and staying lean while eating out at your favorite restaurants.

How to get & stay lean while eating out

The dietary choices you make before going to a restaurant that day are oftentimes more important than the meal at the restaurant itself.

Related: How To Build A Fat Loss Meal Plan Step by Step Guide

Now, starving yourself isn’t the answer, but the types and portions of foods you eat throughout the day determine whether you can have your favorite steak and dessert later. Your body has certain energy requirements for the day, and fat loss ultimately comes from your body remaining in an energy deficit (burning more calories than you consume).

Eating out and enjoying steak and lobster tail

Let’s say you need to take in 2,000 calories per day to lose weight at a steady pace. You go out to dinner and choose a chicken salad without all of the extra dressings, croutons, and other additives and keep your calories to only 350 for the meal.

Perfect, right? Well, not exactly. If you already took in 2,000 calories that day through your other meals, your total caloric intake for the day would be 2,350 calories. You’re now in an energy surplus and that isn't going to help you lose weight.

As you can see, the choices you make earlier in the day matter. If you want to have some fun foods for dinner, choose mostly lean proteins and vegetables the rest of the day. These foods are both low-calorie and satiating, so they’ll keep you full without skyrocketing your energy intake.

Why do calories and macronutrients matter?

In 2010, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University named Mark Haub decided the definition of “healthy” eating was a bit unclear (Park, 2010). So, he set out to prove just eating whole, unprocessed foods doesn’t necessarily equate to a “healthy” diet.

For 10 weeks, Haub limited himself to 1,800 calories, with two-thirds of his nutrients coming from traditional junk food like Twinkies, nutty bars, and powdered donuts. This diet helped him not only lose 27 pounds in two months, but also helped him lower his “bad" cholesterol, raise his “good” cholesterol, and reduce the level of his triglycerides.

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John Cisna, a high school science teacher in Iowa, gained national attention in 2013 for losing 56 pounds, improving his health markers, and dropping 21 inches by eating food only from McDonald’s (Pawlowski, 2014). He simply consumed 2,000 calories per day using the recommended allowances for protein, carbohydrate, fat and sugar, while walking 45 minutes every day.

While both Haub and Cisna themselves admitted they wouldn’t recommend these types of diets, they showed energy balance is highly important to getting or staying lean, regardless of the quality of the nutrients.

So, if you hit some of your proteins, carbohydrates, or fats from a “greasy” hamburger and ice cream at a restaurant, you’re not necessarily ruining your fat loss efforts or health.

What should your calorie and macronutrient be for the day?

There are many ways you can calculate your caloric needs, but to make things easier, I’d recommend using Muscle & Strength's BMR Calculator Here.

Simply input your stats and hit calculate to see how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. From there, either subtract/add ~250-500 calories depending on if your goal is fat loss or lean mass gain.

But what about macros?

To figure out your protein, carbohydrate and fat requirements, you’ll need to do a little math. You want to keep protein at one gram per pound of body weight. Let’s say you’re a 200lb man and your fat loss caloric needs are set at 2400 calories per day, you’ll need 200 grams of protein per day.

Then, you multiply your bodyweight by somewhere between 0.3 and 0.6 to get your fat requirements in grams for the day. If you have a preference for fats more than carbs, use a number closer to 0.6. If you have a preference for carbs more than fats, use a number closer to 0.3.

Let’s say that 200-pound man leans more toward carbohydrate, so we’ll multiply his body weight by 0.4. That gives us 80 grams of fat. Carbs will fill in the rest of the calories for the day. To figure this out, you must know the following: one gram of protein is four calories, one gram of fat is nine calories and one gram of carbohydrate is four calories.

Two hundred grams of protein equates to 800 calories, while 80 grams of fat equates to 720 calories. Let’s do some math:

  • 2,400 – 800 – 720 = 880
  • 880 / 4 = 220

So a 200-pound, 25-year-old man who’s trying lose one pound of bodyweight per week will need 200 grams of protein, 80 grams of fat and 220 grams of carbohydrate per day.

Sample day of eating

So you’re going out with friends tonight at Red Robin. Let’s say you’re the 200-pound guy from the example above who needs to stick to 2,400 calories per day to get lean. Your macronutrient intake for the day should be about 200 grams of protein, 80 grams of fat and 220 grams of carbohydrate.

For dinner, you want to get a hamburger, fries, dessert and a beer. How’s it possible to stay within your restrictions while still having what you want? First, take a look at the menu ahead of time.

You know dessert is going to be fairly high in calories, so you tackle that first. You glance at the Mountain High Mudd Pie, which is chocolate and vanilla ice cream layered with Oreo cookies, fudge and caramel. While it sounds delicious, it’s 1,374 calories, so it won’t leave much room for anything else.

You really just want something to satisfy your sweet tooth, so you choose the freckled lemonade cake instead. It’s just 535 calories, with eight grams of protein, 21 grams of fat and 89 grams of carbohydrate.

You find the Wedgie Burger, which has 450 calories and contains 33 grams of protein, 18 grams of carbohydrate and 28 grams of fat.

Fitting Cheeseburgers into your daily nutrition requirements

All burgers served at Red Robin come with Bottomless Steak Fries. You opt for just one serving, which contains 370 calories, five grams of protein, 49 grams of carbohydrate and 18 grams of fat.

You choose a low-calorie alcoholic beverage - a skinny margarita on the rocks, which has 122 calories. Since alcohol isn’t among the three primary macronutrients, we’ll count it as carbohydrate. So we’ll say the drink has about 30 grams of carbs.

In total, your meal is 1,477 calories, 46 grams of protein, 186 grams of carbohydrate and 67 grams of fat. That means you’ve got 923 calories, 154 grams of protein, 34 grams of carbohydrate and 13 grams of fat to take in the rest of the day.

For breakfast, you fry up an egg white omelet with spinach and tomatoes. Egg whites are five grams of protein each, so you have four. You add five grams of protein, 20 grams of carbohydrate and a couple of grams of fat with a slice of Ezekiel bread topped with calorie-free fruit spread. Then, you top it off by mixing two servings of whey isolate powder with water - another 50 grams of protein.

So now, you’ve got 69 grams of protein, about 10 grams of carbohydrate and about 10 grams of fat remaining.

For lunch, you have fish salad with two fillets of tilapia over lettuce and spinach. You top the salad with lemon juice so you don’t add unnecessary calories from dressing. For this meal, you’ve gotten 45 grams of protein and five grams of fat.

Related: 10 Easy Tips to Stick to Your Diet While Traveling

At this point, you’ve got about 24 grams of protein, eight grams of carbohydrate and five grams of fat. Have a late-afternoon protein shake to tide you over, and you’re good to go.

While you certainly don’t want to do this every day, you can stay within your limits and still have some fun at dinner.

What if you can’t look at a menu ahead of time?

That’s a great question. You’ll definitely have times you won’t be able to look at the menu ahead of time or the nutrition facts for the meal won’t be listed anywhere. In fact, it might happen quite often.

So, here are 10 tips to help you relax and enjoy a meal out with friends and family when you haven’t prepared.


Water comprises about 60 percent of our total body weight (Berardi and Andrews, 2015). Even if you’re drinking an alcoholic beverage, you should make sure to consume water.

In fact, studies have shown people who drink two cups of water prior to eating a meal ate between 75 and 90 fewer calories during the meal (Bernstein and Woods, 2010). In a 12-week study, participants who drank water before each of their three meals during the day lost five more pounds than those didn’t increase their water intake (Bernstein and Woods, 2010).

So drink up.


What good is dining out without having an adult beverage or two, right? If you’re going to have alcohol during the meal, you should avoid high-calorie options like cocktails and liqueurs.

Instead, choose lower-calorie options like light beers, white and red wines and champagne. And make sure to limit yourself to one or two drinks, not six or seven.


When in doubt, choose a lean protein. From a calorie standpoint, the leaner the protein, the better. Some white fish like cod or tilapia are low in fat, as well as turkey and chicken.

Salmon and steak are generally high in fat, so they’ll be higher in calories. If you order a steak, you can always cut off the fat. If you’re going to have fattier proteins, that’s absolutely fine. Just make sure to eat lean proteins earlier in the day, and take it easy on fats like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, butter and avocados.

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Veggies fill you up, but make sure to order them without heaps of dense dressings like Ranch or Thousand Island. Instead, opt for a low-calorie dressing like a vinaigrette and ask for it on the side so you control how much goes on your salad.

Also, get salads without additives like croutons, nuts and raisins that pile on unnecessary calories. Plain carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and spinach with a touch of dressing are perfect.


Uh-oh, the tastiest part of dinner - carbs. How can you resist those gooey mashed potatoes and greasy fries?

Make smart carb choices. You can have some good-tasting carbs, but keep them in moderation. A cupped handful or two will do. Remember, if you get a huge helping of carbs, you don’t HAVE to finish them.

By over-eating, you’re doing damage to your own body. You’re not being fair to yourself.


If you’ve had a lot of carbs that day, you may want to opt for a second serving of veggies.

Simply ask the waiter or waitress to replace your carb with more vegetables. He or she will almost always comply. A lot of restaurants have fresh, seasonal vegetables that taste delicious.


Ah, the best part of the meal. You can’t wait to get your hands on that ice cream sundae or cake.

If you’re getting a dessert, you may not want to have many carbs in your main dish. Instead, opt for a double serving of vegetables. You’ve got to be honest with yourself in this situation. If you’ve had lots of carbs and fats that day, you may want to skip the dessert.

Also, know that all desserts are not created equal. For example, Cheesecake Factory has 12 cheesecakes, as well as 10 other cakes and ice cream dishes on its menu with more than 1,000 calories (Nutritional Information for Cheesecake Factory).

But a dish of plain ice cream has only 280 calories. It doesn’t have a ton of additives, and it will still allow you to satisfy your sweet tooth.


We’ve talked about what you should eat, but we haven’t yet discussed how to eat.

Instead of inhaling your food, set down your fork or spoon in between bites and chew your food. It’s tough to enjoy your food when you eat fast. You’ll be able to savor and digest it much better. Plus, you’ll consume fewer calories overall.

Chicken Skewers a lean option at restaurants


If you eat until you’re stuffed, you’ll probably take in too many calories.

Stop when you’re about 80 percent full. When you get done eating, you should feel like you could still go for a light jog. If all you can do after eating is crash on the couch, you’ve eaten too much.


Actually, you can (sort of) count calories without a nutrition guide. Precision Nutrition has helped folks approximate macronutrients by using their own hands (Berardi and Andrews, 2015).

One palm-sized serving of protein is equivalent to 20 to 30 grams of protein. One thumb-length of fat equates to seven to 12 grams of fat. One cupped handful of carbohydrate is about 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrate.

Related: Which Diet is the Best for Fat Loss? There May Be More Than One

Sure, you won’t know be able to calculate the numbers exactly, but then again, you should know nutrition facts aren’t always accurate. Do the best you can approximating portion sizes. If you’re off by a little, you won’t put on heaps of fat. It’s what you consume during the rest of your meals that counts.

But what if someone calls you and you haven’t saved any calories?

Accept the invitation and have some of your favorite foods. Remember, you’re never going to gain five pounds of fat from one meal.

According to one study, consuming a large meal in a short period of time causes your body to release some calories as heat instead of storing them (Tai et al., 1991).

You’ll gain some water weight from the excess carbohydrate and sodium you consumed, but you’ll lose it in a couple of days as long as you don’t continue to overeat. Just go back to normal fat-loss portions your next meal, and you’ll be fine.

If you’re going to overeat on anything, it’s probably best to do so with protein because it has the highest thermic effect of food of all macronutrients. You’ll get fuller taking in fewer calories.

Have your meal, enjoy it and move on. Life is too short to not have some fun every once in a while.

  1. Berardi, John, and Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Second ed. N.p.: Precision Nutrition, 2015. Print.
  2. Bernstein, Michael, and Michael Woods. “Clinical trial confirms effectiveness of simple appetite control method.” American Chemical Society. N.p., 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2017.
  3. “Nutritional Information for Cheesecake Factory.” Nutrition Chart. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan 2017.
  4. Park, Madison, “Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds.” N.p., 8 Nov. 2010. Web.
  5. Pawlowski, A. “Man loses 56 pounds after eating only McDonald’s for six months.” N.p. 7 Mar. 2014. Web.
  6. Tai, MM, P Castillo, and FX Pi-Sunyer. “Meal size and frequency: effect on the thermic effect of food.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Nov. 1991. Web. 10 January 2017.
  7. “Chapter 6 Fats.” Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. USDA, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2017.