Counting Macros

Tracking Macros When Eating Out

By Ted KallmyerUpdated November 10, 2022
eating out and flexible dieting

One of the best things about flexible dieting and IIFYM is that it gives you the freedom to eat what you want and where you want!

No longer do you have to avoid certain restaurants because all their food is full of carbs, or avoid social situations that involve eating out with friends.

You can eat anything and anywhere as long as it fits your macros.

But, where the challenge with eating out often lies is with tracking the macros and calories of what you are eating.

Tracking Your Macros When Eating at Restaurants

Tips for Chain Restaurants

If you frequent larger chain restaurants then this is pretty easy since most publish their nutritional information on their various websites and most of these items are in many of the food tracking apps like MyFitnessPal.

You simply search for the meal that you are eating and enter its details into your log and trust that the person making your food followed the company’s recipe portion guidelines. (This isn’t always the case, so be aware.)1,2

Even at chain restaurants, it can be difficult to find something on the menu that fits your remaining macros, so when you know you are eating out, it’s better to plan ahead.

I usually try to save a hefty portion of each macro when I know I’ll be eating out. Especially fat since restaurant food tends to be high in this macro.

The Subway Nutrition Calculator

Using the Subway Nutrition Calculator

See a list of the best macro tracking apps.

Tip for Independent Restaurants

Here’s where tracking your macros when eating out gets pretty tricky. Independent restaurants or those with just a couple of locations aren’t required by law to post their nutritional information.

You can just avoid these establishments, but then you’d be missing out on some of the really great food they offer.

Here’s what I do when eating at such places.

  • As I’m scanning the menu I keep in mind the macros I have left for the day and find a few choices that probably fit pretty well.
  • When the meal comes I note the ingredients used and I search for them in MyFitnessPal. If you’re unsure of something ask your server to ask the chef.
  • I estimate the quantities served on the generous side as it’s better to overestimate than underestimate from a calorie perspective.
  • I sometimes search on MyFitnessPal for a similar item. i.e. If I order a California burrito from a taco shop, I can find a similar item in MFP. I just have to make sure it’s a comparable size. Again to be safe, If I have 3 choices with the lowest being 600 calories and the highest being 800 calories, I usually go with the highest.

This gets easier with time and the more time you spend measuring portions at home, the better eye you’ll have for estimating the portions found in restaurant meals.

Again, I think planning ahead is important with eating at independent restaurants as well. I almost always eat out on Friday nights, so I plan throughout the day to have a lot of calories and macros left for that. By doing this I can pretty much choose whatever I want, well within reason, since some restaurant meals can be over 2000 calories! 3

high calorie restaurant meals

Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy is 1500 calories. Plus salad and breadsticks 2000+

Take It Easy on The Drinks

Drinking is often a big part of the social aspect of eating out, but a few beers or wines later and you could be at 500 calories in liquid alone, which is all carbs.

Alcohol calories get classified as carbs, so be aware of this when eating out and perhaps limit yourself to one alcoholic drink.

Avoid sugary sodas and go with water or no-calorie beverages instead.

Will Eating Out Too Often Ruin My Flexible Diet?

If you’re diligent about tracking what you eat, there’s no reason eating out will hinder your overall progress, but it does make flexible dieting a bit more complicated than it needs to be.

However, I do see a couple of issues with eating out too much that could interfere with your progress or your overall good health.

  1. With eating out there is so much that is out of your control. i.e. quality of ingredients, exact quantities, types of fat, salt, etc.. This can make it challenging to correctly track your macros.
  2. Most restaurant food isn’t as healthy as food you can prepare yourself. Most restaurants have healthier options but I find it difficult to not get drawn into choosing something not as healthy featured on the menu.
  3. I think people tend to underestimate the calories they think something contains as a way to not feel as guilty about eating it. If you eat out a lot and underestimate much of what your eating, this can put you consistently over your TDEE and thus hinder your results.

I think eating out in moderation is probably the best. The majority of what you eat should be within your control, but also give yourself the freedom and fun of eating out and trying new restaurants with family and friends.

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Scientific References:

  1. Scourboutakos, M. J., & L’Abbé, M. R. (2012). Restaurant menus: calories, caloric density, and serving size. American journal of preventive medicine, 43(3), 249-255. study link
  2. Brissette, I., Lowenfels, A., Noble, C., & Spicer, D. (2013). Predictors of total calories purchased at fast-food restaurants: restaurant characteristics, calorie awareness, and use of calorie information. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 45(5), 404-411. study link
  3. Scourboutakos, M. J., Semnani-Azad, Z., & L’Abbe, M. R. (2013). Restaurant meals: almost a full day’s worth of calories, fats, and sodium. JAMA internal medicine, 173(14), 1373-1374. study link
  4. Lead image: Flikr

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