How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: The Truly Special Occasions

by | Aug 5, 2009
Birthday Dinner

Birthday Dinner

Until now we have discussed how to eat in restaurants when our choices are being made for convenience or obligation. But on some rare occasions we go out to eat as a true celebration of life.

At these moments the only thing you should consider is enjoyment. That isn’t to say you should stuff yourself silly, but once in a lifetime occasions deserve your undivided attention. Diet and health should be the farthest things from your mind.

Unfortunately, defining these special moments can sometimes get a little tricky.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food), part two is Neighborhood Convenience, part three is Sit-Down Chains and part four is Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

The beautiful thing about special occasions is that you define them for yourself. A visit to the French Laundry is remarkable for anyone, but most of us don’t have the same childhood memories of the apple pie grandma makes from her tree every Thanksgiving. If you have the opportunity to experience rare food at a rare event, you should not deprive yourself of this treat.

But occasions like these happen three, maybe four times a year. And odd as it may seem, defining them is not always clear cut.

Take a look at your life. Chances are you have a rather large group of people who make up your extended family and close friends, all of which have annual birthdays, anniversaries and countless other events you will be invited to attend. You also have your own set of special food-related holidays like, well, all of them. Before you know it your “special” meals go from three or four times a year to three or four times a month.

Where do you draw the line?

Here it is important to make a distinction between special moments and special food. If you are honest with yourself about the quality of food in a given situation you will find that more often than not it is nothing to go nuts about. Your co-worker’s birthday at the Cheesecake Factory is special and important (sort of), but the food most definitely is not.

A specific food or meal can be special for any number or reasons. The exquisite quality and technical skills that you find in the world’s top restaurants can be the experience of a lifetime, like witnessing a rare piece of art. But personal memories and associations can also make foods special. These are the foods that are worthy of exceptions.

However, it is all too easy to get caught up in a moment and rationalize reasons to splurge when the food does not really justify such behavior. For example, food abundance like you find at a buffet or on a cruise ship can seem like something special, but it really isn’t. In fact, buffet-style all you can eat menus are a pretty good indication that the food being served is relatively cheap.

In these kinds of special occasions, shift your focus away from the food and onto your friends and family. If you are on vacation, enjoy your meals but focus more on actually doing all the fun activities you envisioned.

If you have trouble talking yourself out of a second pile of ribs, ask yourself when was the last time you made this kind of exception. If it was yesterday, this week or even this month, think twice before you eat and ask yourself if this meal is worth your quarterly splurge. Would you want this food on the menu if it were your last meal on earth? If not, put your fork down and talk to your friends instead.

Distinguishing between special moments and special food is critical, because only extraordinary food is worthy of making exceptions to your healthstyle. Learn to make these moments few and far between. If they occur more often, reexamine your criteria.

If you really like a restaurant but you go there all the time, is it really that special anymore?

Special occasions are what make life worth living and should not be skipped. Just be sure that when it comes to food, your choices are truly exceptional.

What are your exceptional foods?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
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14 Responses to “How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: The Truly Special Occasions”

  1. I try to eat whatever I want at restaurants, using the same mindfulness I use at home. How was this prepared? Where did the ingredients come from? Typically, the care given to meals at expensive restaurants satisfies my conditions to eat and enjoy 🙂

    • Darya Pino says:

      Totally agree, but the problem for us trendy city folk in SF is it that going out happens too frequently to take lightly. Without a strategy you can really get into trouble!

  2. I had a truly exceptional food experience at the French Laundry several years ago. A friend of mine was working there, so we had the tasting menu and got extra special treatment. It was memorable and amazing. And I stuffed myself, even though it was spread out in 13 courses over 4 hours. At the time, I didn’t know that food like that really existed and it was a real eye opener.

    I agree though that there are special occasions that involve people you surround yourself with, and special occasions where you treat yourself to really amazing food. In the latter case, it’s best to go with one – 3 other people who feel the same way about food that you do so you can enjoy the food in a similar manner.

  3. Darya, you bring up a lot of good points in this post. I haven’t really thought of it like this before, but you are right – special moments don’t mean special food. Eating sensible at a restaurant is a skill far too few of us have. I am just beginning to learn to control this myself.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks Steve, I’m glad I could help put things in perspective. It really is a fine line between being an annoying “health nut”, making smart choices and enjoying yourself. In my opinion it is something of an art that takes practice and patience.

  4. Joan Nova says:

    I love your work on Summer Tomato! I keep bookmarking each article, thinking one day I’m going to do a post for my readers with a gazillion links to your articles. You make so much sense!

  5. Excellent post!! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    It’s so true that these special occasions are just that — and not a weekly habit as often can be the case. And that’s exactly part of my Eat Without Guilt message and I love that it’s also part of yours. You really understand what is “balance” and that is the key to any healthstyle.

    And lovely photo too!!

  6. Brit in Berkeley says:

    Great article. The same thought has only recently started to occur to me. My partner has a tendency to (inadvertently) make me feel guilty for not ‘relaxing the rules’ on special occasions, but since we live very far apart, every time we see one-another is a special occasion. Recognizing that what’s special is seeing one-another, rather than the meal we eat, has recently helped me to notice all sorts of delicious options on the menus of nice restaurants that I’d never have looked at before! I would think “this is a special night out, so I’m going for creamy pasta/something really meaty” but would never even look at the salads or vegetarian options. Now I’ve realized I was often missing out on some of the best dishes! Add to that the fact that memories of feeling bloated and gluttonous after a huge meal can taint your memories of an otherwise wonderful occasion forever– I’m sure I’m not the only person this applies to!

  7. I agree with all of your points here and try to follow this same strategy, the one “occasion” I still have issues with is travel. As a person that loves food, I find that a big portion of my to do list while exploring a new place is to check out their regional cuisine: exploring markets, food districts, special restaurants famous for their something-or-other. I’m not going to Thailand and turning that fabulous local something-or-other down, and I’m sure as hell not going to Paris and avoiding a crepe slathered in Nutella! 😀
    So I guess I simply chalk that up to a “once in a lifetime” kind of meal…it’s just that sometimes it lasts 10 days! I just try to not eat like a crazy person at *every* meal, and when I do eat something I wouldn’t at home, I just try to do it in small portions and know I’ll bet back to normal when I get back home to the real world. Still, for me, vacation is definitely the hardest time to continue to eat healthy food.

    • Darya Pino says:

      You are right, I think travel is a unique occasion in and of itself, and I do not follow these same rules.

      Generally on vacation Twinkies and junk food are not a concern and the local food is “real.” Therefore I do not focus on what I’m eating as much except I try to get a vegetable with every meal. Instead I follow local customs and eat small portions at structured meal times.

      Also on vacation I tend to get a lot more exercise by walking around and exploring rather than sitting at my computer all day. When I was in Thailand I ate meat and noodles or rice for every meal and lost 5 lbs. Go figure.

      This is a subject that deserves its own post.

  8. just_me says:

    Found your site a few weeks ago, and have been enjoying reading through old posts. This one really resonated with me – because I married into a family that cannot distinguish the Truly Special Occasion from among its many somewhat special occasions. My family also considers preparation and consumption of food to be an expression of love. My mother-in-law once broke out in tears when I refused to eat a second meal’s worth of a wonderful meal she had prepared. Another time, a series of birthdays and anniversaries had stacked up between visits home, so the family decided to celebrate a whole series of 6 different events in a weekend – 6 distinct celebrations, complete with cake, fancy foods, and guilt. My husband and I described this as the “Celebration Death March”, and we will never do such a thing again. It’s a pretty insane dynamic, and not one I ever hope to see fixed.

    It’s taken us years to learn how to set boundaries. I now keep my mouth shut – which not only prevents over-eating, but helps me avoid saying something I shouldn’t! The key thing that got me to the point where I can resist the pressure (pleasantly) is the realization that, when every occasion is treated like it’s “special”, no occasion is really special. I’ve learned to take small portions and praise them extravagently; when pressed to take more food, I say no. I do make an effort to clearly thank mom/sis for all their work; I also thank them for the love they’re showing to us, and how much I value whatever it is we’re celebrating.

    And, for an extra measure of security, I clear my own plate away as soon as I’m finished!

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