Eating Elsewhere

Have you become a complete control freak about your food? I never thought I would, but I think I’m getting close. At the very base of it, restaurant dining is about letting go and letting someone else handle the details. But when you worry about yucky ingredients that aren’t listed on the menu (vegetable oils, gluten, etc.), how do you handle it?

In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work food service. It was not the highlight of my life, but it taught me a lot about people and how they relate to food. And let me tell you—if you’re one of those pesky, substitution-prone whiners, I hate to break it to you, but you’re annoying. Just because a menu contains certain component parts doesn’t mean you get to construct your own meal out of them. That’s called cooking and you get to do that at home.

So on the one hand, I try to let the chef do their job. After all, that’s what we’re paying for. But on the other…having worked in kitchens, I know that the restaurant industry is full of nasty crap that we as Paleo/Primal adherents try to avoid. For example, I’ve seen Mark Sisson and others mention that they ask for their steaks to be cooked in butter. If that were me at the restaurant I worked at (widely considered to be very good and high quality), I of course would’ve relayed the message to the kitchen. And they would have complied. So what’s the problem? The “butter” in the kitchen is a tub of real butter mixed with vegetable oils and trans fats (and they dish it out with an ice cream scoop, true story). So do you then quiz the server about whether or not it’s real butter? Like, are you going to request to look at the label? How far are you willing to go to make sure you stay on-plan?

The reality is eating out is a huge cheat, even if you think it’s not. But it’s getting to where I can’t even enjoy the cheat, knowing all those sugars, vegetable oils, soy, and gluten are lurking in there somewhere. This is especially true at any chain restaurant, where their food comes to them from a regional warehouse in huge plastic bags. You know, for consistency’s sake. Don’t expect the workers there to know exactly what’s in it.

On top of that, you’ll be far more tempted to order something off-plan. I discovered recently that it’s impossible for me to go to a Mexican restaurant without scarfing down the tortilla chips and beans and rice. At home, if you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it. But in the wilderness of a restaurant, you’re at the mercy of their offerings and your willpower.

Yup, that's gonna cost you.

I have two imperfect solutions:

  1. Eat at places that prize real food. This will not be cheap. You will probably spend at least $20/entrée, usually more. And even then, it may not be a purely Paleo/Primal experience. A new restaurant opened up here in town calling itself “meat-centric” and claiming a “nose-to-tail” aesthetic (a ballsy move for such a vegetarian-friendly town). We’ve been there once so far, and it was very good. But they openly admit to using peanut oil for their cooking. And the grand total for my NY Strip and creamed spinach? $30. Obviously, a sometime treat.
  2. Go for breakfast. Much easier to avoid gluten gut-bombs like pancakes when there are lots of egg and bacon dishes to choose from.

I will admit that part of the issue is my personality. I’m just not wired to be pushy about this stuff, whereas some people are perfectly comfortable asserting themselves. For example, it takes an awful lot for me to send a dish back to a kitchen (it’s cold or an insect is involved), but some people are less inhibited.

So how do you deal with eating out? Do you just chalk up the experience to a massive cheat or do you try hard to stay on-plan?



9 Responses to “Eating Elsewhere”

  1. Not that IHOP is a place you go expecting high quality food but your advice about ‘go for breakfast’ struck me. We also had that mentality and would occasionally visit IHOP as my young daughter and mother will both find things they like there (it’s a compromise) and so we go with the intentions of being safe with breakfast foods. We recently learned that IHOP (at least the one near us) makes their omelettes fluffy by adding pancake batter to the eggs!!! Is nothing sacred?
    Thanks for your post!

  2. damaged justice Reply 09/01/2011 at 6:50 am

    In my kinda-small town, there are two restaurants I can eat at without having to worry about this. One of them charges too much and has dinky portions. The other one has pastured local pork, cooks your omelettes in ghee if you request, and has only given me substandard service once out of the four times I’ve been there. So a few times a year, it’s doable.

  3. This is tough. I travel often for work and so sometimes the only option is to find the best alternative and go with it. I am usually able to find something that works. I usually try to go with grilled salmon and veggies if that is an option. It is tough to screw that up too much. When out of town I usually skip breakfast, eat a larabar early afternoon and then have a massive dinner. It seems to work ok for me. I definitely have to catch up on calories later in the week when I get home.

  4. I rarely eat out now. I like to prepare my own meals, and generally keep it simple and fresh :)

  5. I have a tough time with this, too. I generally don’t want to be annoying so I compromise more than I’d like when I’m out. My general rule of thumb is to stay low carb but let the other food quality stuff go a bit since it’s only an occasional thing. My bigger problem is being a guest in other people’s homes. If it’s just a matter of skipping the bread or carby side dishes, that’s easy enough. But I recently found myself with a big plate of pasta as the main dish served lovingly to me because it was one of my faves as a kid. What can I say? I ate it. And felt like crap for 3 days :(


  1. Eating Elsewhere | Paleo Digest - 09/01/2011

    […] blogs and sites on the web!Eating Elsewhere The Paleo Periodical / Posted on: September 01, 2011The Paleo Periodical – Have you become a complete control freak about your food? I never thought I would, but I […]

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