Over two weeks ago I decided to leave Austin for the foreseeable future. Austin hasn’t dealt with the effects of COVID-19 at the same level that some of our other major cities and communities have up to this point, but things were shutting down and it seemed like more would shut down before we got back to some kind of regularity.
So I took the 4 hour drive north to my parents house, where I’d ride out the rest of this COVID-19 quarantine. It was maybe the first time in recorded history that driving up I-35 actually went smoothly. People that live in Texas and drive on I-35 know just how big of a deal that is. I made that trip up an eerily empty I-35 on a Wednesday evening and got home right around dinner time. And what was the first thing we did as a family?
We went and picked up food from a local restaurant.
But we didn’t just get any food. I’m from a small town, and like plenty of people, there’s a major effort in my community to support the local restaurants more than ever. Which for my family meant getting dinner from a place that specializes in one of my favorite meals of all time: chicken fried steak.
For those wondering at home, the macros of chicken fried steak can be roughly estimated as infinity. It’s a battered and breaded steak, and if you’re doing it right, it’s also smothered in gravy. It usually comes with something like fried okra and mashed potatoes and more gravy as a side and every bite of it is like a little taste of pure bliss. A full chicken fried steak meal with all the sides could easily contain the same amount of fat that I’d normally eat over the course of two or more days. Yeah, not exactly macro-friendly.
My family is hardly alone in eating food from local restaurants right now. As we all learn how to navigate the new and unknown times that Coronavirus has brought with it, one of the themes we’re seeing across the country is the effort to support local businesses.
I love seeing the posts about this. I love seeing the ways that people are taking care of others in their communities. And maybe I’m a crazy idealist, but I think the ways that people are banding together to take care of themselves and the businesses in their community is one of the more inspiring and heartwarming stories during these harrowing and uncertain times.
But can you support local restaurants and stay on track?
That’s a question that we all know the implicit answer to. Of course you can support local restaurants and stay on track. But in practice, it’s not that simple. It’s hard work to find a grocery store that hasn’t been picked over, which means that the foods we might normally count on aren’t as readily available as before. At the same time, plenty of people are more stressed than ever before. Then there’s more time spent at home. The combination of stress, staying home, and not having a clear idea on when all of this will end can lead to a mix of feelings that makes it hard to stay on track with our eating goals, right? But staying on track is doable. It just requires a little work and a willingness to revisit the basics.
Calorie class is in session.
Before we dig into how you can support local restaurants while staying home we need to start elsewhere. Namely, we need to start with the basics of our weight and nutrition. So let’s take a page from the kids and go back to school.
First class? Calories are still king.
Keeping your calories in check is the first step to controlling your weight right now. Your weight is directly tied to your caloric intake. If you’re overdoing that on a daily basis, your weight will surely climb. No matter if you’re eating 3,000 calories a day from protein alone. Which also sounds miserable.
Digestive stress from eating 12 chicken breasts aside, we can’t forget the importance of calories. We know that calories are the major factor in what happens with our weight, but what we also have to remember is that eating a meal from a restaurant is a seriously efficient way to pack in calories.
Why? Restaurants tend to make their meals with more things like oil than we would typically use at home. Then you factor in things like appetizers, calorie-laden sides, and menu items that are breaded or fried. Before you know it, a restaurant meal can easily carry a calorie count of 1,000+ calories.
That’s especially true nowadays when more of us are eating take out and various states are loosening regulations to allow for alcohol sales. It’s hard to fight that urge to view this new world as some kind of strange Twilight Zone-style vacation where we order a ton of food and alcohol and splurge to the point that we’re stuffed.
So if we’re going to be serious about doing our part to look out for the businesses in our community by supporting local AND we want to stay on track, we have to remember that the meals we’re taking out are legitimate calorie-bombs. Just because we’re supporting local businesses and navigating the unknown doesn’t mean calories stopped counting. We have to keep them in mind and work around those guidelines. And how do we do that?
You’ve got to plan ahead.
Obvious, right? But right now isn’t a time to gloss over the obvious. Doing your part to support local restaurants doesn’t double as an excuse to throw responsible eating strategies out the window.
So if you’re going to support local restaurants more right now, great. But when you are, think ahead.
- Look at the menu ahead of time
- Estimate to the best of your ability
- Choose an option that fits your needs at that moment*
- Build your day around that meal
*A brief note about what fits your needs: one of the things that often gets lost in translation when we’re talking about supporting local restaurants and staying on track with our food is that there really is no good or bad meal. We’re big fans of simple and sustainable strategies like prioritizing protein and vegetables, no matter where the meal comes from. At the same time, food plays a number of different roles in our lives. Sometimes it’s fuel, other times it’s a source of comfort.
It’s up to you to decide what role food is going to play for you on a meal by meal basis. Whatever role it plays for you is fine. What matters here is that you recognize that. If a meal is going to be a source of comfort, that’s great. But don’t let a comfort meal be the thing that leads to you throwing the rest of your plan out the window. One meal is still just that: one meal. Enjoy it and then get right back to the plan.
Protein is still the priority.
This could fall into the planning ahead point, but protein is such an all-star macronutrient that it deserves its own bullet point here. Why? Because no matter if you’re going to be eating all your meals at home or eating take out from a local restaurant, once you get a plan for the day in place, protein is next up on the priority list.
No matter what your day is going to look like, know where your protein will come from. Have a plan for that and have options at the ready to be sure you hit your protein numbers. We’re doing this so we can stay full on high-quality food, retain our muscle mass, and look out for our metabolic health. But at the same time, any experienced SU’er knows that take out from a restaurant isn’t usually where you’re going to get a bulk of your protein needs met. If you’ve got a plan to meet your protein needs, that opens the door to easily enjoy the rest of your food choices.
You don’t need to eat everything.
This might come as news to some of us (myself included) but just because there’s a meal in front of us doesn’t mean that we need to eat all of that food. Now is a great time to put your portion control skills to the test.
Don’t be afraid to cut a meal in half and save the rest as leftovers. Or, if your local restaurants have shifted to family-style meals or platters, pay extra attention to how much you’re serving yourself. Do you really need to fill up your entire plate? Is there room to choose a couple of things you really want and then add some veggies in? Or if not veggies, protein?
There are a number of different ways you can amend a meal to fit your own plan and needs here. No matter how you make that work for yourself though, controlling the portion sizes is a surefire way to keep calories in check.
You don’t need to eat take out for every meal.
Look, I get it. We’re feeling the stress to not only take care of ourselves and our families but also our community. That means supporting the small businesses that are integral to our local economies, like restaurants. With there being so much that’s changing, and more is sure to change, it’s not uncommon to feel a responsibility to do as much as possible to do your part by ordering out as much as possible.
But there’s a difference between doing your part and eating all of your food from local restaurants.
If you’re eating multiple meals a day from local restaurants, chances are it’s going to be hard to stay on top of your food plan. You can still plan ahead, prioritize protein, and control your portions. But at a certain point, those meals will catch up with most of us. That’s a reality we have to accept; since meals from most restaurants are going to contain more calories versus a home-cooked option.
So instead of fighting against that reality, accept it for what it is. Make most of your meals at home, where you can control all the ingredients. Then pick and choose your spots where you’ll get take out, and follow the steps above to help ensure you can enjoy that meal, guilt-free.
Remember: supporting local doesn’t have to also mean that you blow through your numbers for a day or stall out your progress for a week. Will it take a bit more planning and work to figure out how you can fit that meal into your plan? Of course it will. But will you still be able to enjoy that meal with your family while staying on track? You bet. And with enough time, the feeling of success that follows the ability to stay on plan begins to compound. You develop positive momentum through showing yourself what you’re capable of. The more you show what you’re capable of, the easier it is to keep that going. The easier it is to keep that same thing going, the more you change yourself as a person. Until one day you wake up, agree to a meal from your favorite local spot with your family, and know exactly how you can make that work without even thinking about it.
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