How do I count calories at a restaurant if they don’t provide nutrition info?
This is a question I get quite often, so I think it’s important we dive into this topic.
If you count calories, no matter what your goals are, eating out can be a real source of stress. When you’re at home, you know exactly what you are consuming, down to the specific ingredients and quantities.
When you go to a restaurant, that all goes out the window. What oil do they use to cook with? How much do they use? How lean is the beef they’re using? How many fries are in a serving?
It can be exhausting. But don’t worry- it doesn’t have to be. I’m here to help!
Do you need to count calories in your meals?
Whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight, you don’t HAVE TO count calories to accomplish your goal.
I get pushback a lot for talking about calorie counting. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic way to reach your goals. If you want to lose weight, we know that you need to be in a calorie deficit, and counting calories can really help you get there. But, counting calories (or tracking macros) is not for everyone!
That being said, even if you’re not counting your calories, they still count.
In other words: calories matter.
However, every single meal does not need to be counted.
You can take some meals off from counting.
If you’re religiously counting your calories, it might feel like you’re going to fall off track when you don’t count a certain meal.
For sake of argument, let’s say that your calorie goals are around 2,000 calories. If you’re at 1,500 calories for the day going into dinner, you may find yourself feeling paranoid that you’re going to go over your goals and ruin your progress.
Why count calories at all?
It seems that, like most things in the world today, counting calories has become incredibly polarizing: either you love it, or you hate it
I talk about caloric deficits for weight loss all the time. Whenever I do, I get hit with some pretty unnecessarily intense backlash about how unhealthy counting calories is, and how it’s not sustainable forever.
Can counting calories be an unhealthy or obsessive thing to do? Of course.
There are some people that obsess over their calories and let it rule their lives. But that’s true for so many things in life. Some people obsess over exercise and do way too much cardio, but it doesn’t make exercise an unhealthy thing to do.
Counting calories is a tool. An effective tool. In my own experience, counting calories has been the easiest way for me to achieve my goals, and I am really grateful for the overall knowledge of nutrition it has helped me to build. You can achieve your goals, even weight loss, without counting your calories, but it may be more difficult for you.
Many people seem to think that counting calories is too restrictive… but just because you’re counting calories, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to eat as little as humanly possible. You can have a very healthy relationship with food, eat tons of voluminous foods, and still count your calories in an effort to be in a caloric deficit.
It’s not unhealthy- it’s a responsible thing to do.
Let’s be clear: like any tool, it might not be the best solution to every single situation.
But it may very well be the right tool for YOU.
How to estimate calories at restaurants
If you’re trying to count calories while eating out, it can be a real challenge.
Lots of restaurants will provide their nutritional information online, which is insanely helpful. Large chains are actually required to provide that information online.
Even if you do not actively count calories, I always find it very beneficial to have that information available. Sure, sometimes it can be disconcerting seeing the high calorie counts next to the food you want to order at Cheesecake Factory, but more often than not, it’s great information to have!
I’m always compiling different restaurant & fast food guides, and you can check those out here.
If the nutritional information is NOT available (most local spots won’t make that info publicly available) what can you do to estimate the calories you’re eating?
Using different restaurants to help you estimate
This strategy is far from perfect, but it’s my favorite way to estimate calories when eating out at restaurants. It’s what I’ve used to successfully estimate Donut Calories.
What I like to do is find two (or three) comparable dishes from chains or large restaurants that have their nutritional information available online.
I’ll take the two calorie counts of the comparable dish from those restaurants, then find the average to use that as my estimate.
Let’s look at the Cheeseburger as an example.
I don’t use fast food restaurants McDonald’s or Burger King to estimate the calories, because a restaurant-style burger is very different from fast food burgers. When you get fast food, the burger patties are typically MUCH smaller than those at restaurants. Instead, I found two burger joints in New York with popular cheeseburgers: BurgerFi and Bareburger.
The cheeseburger from BurgerFi has 650 calories, while the cheeseburger from Bareburger has 760 calories.
If I were ordering a cheeseburger at a local burger spot, I’d estimate roughly 760 calories- right down the middle of those two examples I found.
What to do if the examples you find are drastically different
If the range was gigantic in the comparable foods I found, I would seek out a third option.
Let’s say I found one cheeseburger that was 400 calories, and another that was 1,000 calories. That’s a huge range, so just splitting the difference feels like it’s going to be way off.
Instead, I seek out a third option. If we find that the third option is 800 calories, then I would use 800 calories and 1,000 calories as my two options instead.
How accurate will this method be?
It’s impossible to say how close these estimates will be to the actual calories in these restaurant foods.
There are just too many factors to definitively say.
Sticking with the cheeseburger example, there are countless variables that affect the calories: type of beef, type of cheese, if the bun is buttered, which sauces are used, how large the patty is, etc.
The burger that you estimated to have 760 calories may have 1,000 calories, meaning you’re missing over 200 calories from your count!
But the name of the game is estimating.
We do not need perfection! All we want to do is be in the ballpark. I mean, the alternative would be taking a completely blind guess. If you had no idea, and you guessed that a cheeseburger was 300 calories, you’d be in a worse position.
Estimating will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.
It’s only one meal, after all! It’s totally okay if your calories aren’t exactly what you wanted them to be.
How you can save calories at restaurants without counting
Some of us simply don’t want to count calories when eating out at a restaurant.
Personally, I’d much rather just enjoy my meal without worry!
That being said, I know that some restaurants (I’m looking at you, Cheesecake Factory) really pack the calories in, so I try to be conscious of saving calories when I can.
So, here are some of the top tips that I personally use to make sure I keep my calories in check.
1. Ask for a takeout container with your meal. It might sound odd, but if a restaurant gives particularly large portions, it might benefit you to pack half of it up to prevent you from force-feeding yourself the entire meal.
2. Lots of menus have great appetizers. If two of them sound good to you, order those as your meal! The smaller plates will help you control your portions while still being filling, and often you can find some great options.
3. Maybe an obvious one, but swap any sautéed side veggies for steamed (or a salad) to save the excess calories from the oil used.
4. On that note, dressing on the side is key so you can control how much you actually use. But people often forget that you can do that with things like pasta or burgers too- ask for the sauce on the side and you’ll typically use much less.
5. Make sure you read the entire menu– sometimes different meals will have awesome side dishes that aren’t listed elsewhere, and you can ask for that swap.
6. Food listed as fried, breaded, or smothered are going to come with extra calories. Opt for grilled, baked, broiled, etc, if you want to save some calories.
7. And most importantly, ask questions! People too often feel embarrassed to ask for substitutions or ask how a dish is prepared. Don’t worry, I promise it will not be the strangest thing your waiter has heard.
It’s not always about calories.
I want to leave you with one final note: it’s not always about calories.
You can go out to eat at a restaurant without counting calories. I encourage it!
Maybe you’ll over-shoot your calorie goal by 2,000 calories. Ah well, it’s just one meal! One meal is never, ever, ever going to de-rail your progress.
If you’re going out to one of your favorite restaurants, I urge you to try to enjoy it to the best of your ability. I have nothing against being conscious of extra calories and saving some unnecesarry calories when possible (I always do it) but don’t let it take away from your enjoyment!
Get the side of fries instead of the salad. Order that decadent cheesecake for dessert.
It doesn’t have to be about calories.