The average person does not live a lifestyle that allows for perfect nutrition practices…and that’s ok!
Perfection is the enemy of progress for most people. You know what I'm talking about. I’m just as guilty as the next person for going off the rails on a diet plan after an unplanned life event has prevented me from getting to my next perfectly measured and portioned meal.
It's easy to get neurotic about your nutrition especially when you have a body composition goal. However, unless you are dieting down for a contest, nutrition practices like carb cycling, nutrient timing, and alteration of macronutrient ratios do not make a significant difference and do not require your constant attention from day to day.
I will always recommend that you learn to prepare and cook your own food if you have chosen to live a healthy lifestyle. Choose fresh, nutrient dense, varied, whole food to cook and prepare at home most days.
Now that we have established how important it is for you to get most of your meals from food that you have prepared, I also understand that most of us are not professional physique athletes, or even aspiring physique athletes, who are judged by the amount of striation on our glutes.
I suspect that most of us aspire to or try to maintain a respectable amount of leanness and size without getting too carried away. If this is the case, then eating at a restaurant is something that you can fit into your lifestyle and still stay relatively lean.
Here are the top 10 national restaurant chains that offer meals that follow the basics of sound nutrition and my recommendations on what to order.
You’ve gotta give it to Chili’s for providing a specific menu for those looking to keep the amount of calories down under 600. Instead of having to sort through the menu, all of their lower calorie options are grouped together on the menu in one place.
Top Pick: Margarita Chicken
- Calories: 585
- Protein: 51g
- Carbs: 66g
- Fat: 13g
TGI Fridays has a pretty expansive menu that can be tough to navigate. There are also plenty of deceptively unhealthy choices due to the use of sugary sauces. But if you stick to the basics of sound nutrition, you won't go wrong.
Top Pick: 6oz Sirloin Steak with Broccoli and a Tomato Mozzarella Salad
- Calories: 504
- Protein: 46g
- Carbs: 17g
- Fat: 28g
3. Ra Sushi
If you haven’t tried sushi you are missing out. My first experience eating sushi was at Ra in Jacksonville, Florida. If you have never tried sushi before, do yourself a favor and make sure that you go to a restaurant before buying store bought. Fresh restaurant sushi is night and day difference compared to the grocery store.
Top Pick: Double order of Spicy Tuna
- Calories: 448
- Protein: 30g
- Carbs: 64g
- Fat: 8g
Much like Chili’s, Applebee’s has a section of its menu devoted to dishes containing under 600 calories.
Top Pick: Cedar Grilled Lemon Chicken
- Calories: 581
- Protein: 43g
- Carbs: 46g
- Fat: 25g
5. California Pizza Kitchen
Pizza is not off limits, especially when you are eating at a restaurant with pizza in the name. Just don’t eat a whole pizza in one sitting! Split it with a friend or save half for later.
Top Pick: Thin Crust Margherita Pizza (half)
- Calories: 643
- Protein: 27g
- Carbs: 64g
- Fat: 31g
6. Red Lobster
Fish is always an awesome choice. Seafood restaurants typically have more options than other restaurants that might serve less optimal choices.
Top Pick: Blackened Wild Caught Cod with Broccoli and Asparagus
- Calories: 249
- Protein: 44g
- Carbs: 7g
- Fat: 5g
7. P.F. Chang's
Stir fry is a great option if you are looking for a good restaurant meal, and P.F. Chang’s is a great place to get some good stir fry.
Top Pick: Ginger Chicken Stir Fry
- Calories: 526
- Protein: 60g
- Carbs: 40g
- Fat: 14g
If you are in the mood for a great quality sandwich, Newk’s is a great option. They also have great salads at Newk’s, so why not do both!
Top Pick: ½ Roast Beef Sandwich with a Fresh Salad
- Calories: 339
- Protein: 22g
- Carbs: 38g
- Fat: 11g
9. Joe's Crab Shack
If you are looking to have a protein party and you are limiting carbs, seafood is a great choice. You can't go wrong with delicious crabs and shrimp…unless you have a shellfish allergy!
Top Pick: Sunset Fire Grilled Steam Pot
- Calories: 638
- Protein: 79g
- Carbs: 4g
- Fat: 34g
10. Mellow Mushroom
If you are eating out with vegetarian friends and you're looking for a spot where everyone can order something, Mellow Mushroom is a great option. They have plenty of non-pizza options too.
Top Pick: Half a Turkey and Cheese Hoagie (no mayo)
- Calories: 360
- Protein: 25g
- Carbs: 47g
- Fat: 8g
All of these meal suggestions are for those who are not looking to cheat, but who want to maintain balance at work or social engangements. There's a middleground between blowing your diet and settling for the $20 salads they serve at restaurants.
I would actually recommend planning ahead (when possible) and letting your meal out be a cheat meal instead of stressing about what you are going to order. Make your nutrition practices fit into your lifestyle and don’t let them run your life. There is a time and place for tough diets, but most of the time you can still make gains with reasonable choices, so enjoy a meal at a restaurant every once in a while!