There’s a three-panel comic circulating on social media right now. In the first panel is a stick figure with a Santa hat, the caption, “festive.” In the second panel a pudgier stick figure is wandering, confused, with a wedge of cheese in his hand. In the third, the stick figure stands, demoralized and rotund. Ah, the holiday season in a nutshell for many of us.
This is the week new gym memberships skyrocket and many of us make extravagant claims about our revised eating behaviors for 2018. I’ve been a restaurant critic for about a quarter of a century and have witnessed this cultural pivot for longer than that. We’re not immune: Phyllis Richman, the fabled restaurant critic at the Washington Post, went to a weight-loss spa for two weeks each year. It was in her contract. You make your living thinking about food, writing about food and, darn it, eating food, and you’re bound to be heavy, right?
Not necessarily. Elizabeth Large, the longtime critic at the Baltimore Sun, was, despite her name, thin. Same with Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Right up front: You get what you get genetically and you do the best you can. Some get a zippy metabolism, some not so much. But I believe there is also skill and scheming involved, too. Here are my strategies for dining out so the Tampa Bay Times won’t have to pony up for a weight-loss clinic for me any time soon.
Knowledge is power
The more you learn about how food is made, the better choices you’re equipped to make. I once worked for a magazine publisher who was always looking for the magic bullet, a better-living-through-science fake food that was going to keep his weight down. He saw nothing oxymoronic about fat-free cheese because he didn’t know that cheese is, fundamentally, a food made of protein and fat from milk. Learn about what foods are made of and you’ll navigate selections with more authority.
No clean-plate club
Fewer Americans than ever are dieting. According to a food diary study done by the market research firm NPD Group, 26 percent of the female diarists and 16 percent of the men reported that they are dieting now, versus 39 percent of women and 29 percent of men at the diet frenzy peak in 1990. Okay, abstemiousness is not in vogue, but restaurant portions are ridiculously huge. There are no extra points for finishing. Before you take your first bite, assess how much of what is set before you is a reasonable portion, then only eat that much. Heck, if it’s too big a temptation, have a server put half of your dish in a to-go box right at the outset. And at home, this means portioning out snacks, not eating directly from the bag of chips.
Eat slowly and talk a lot
Fine, it may annoy your dining companions, but it works. You enjoy the experience of dining out — the flavors, smells, ambience, music, etc. — while giving your stomach enough time to communicate satiety to your brain. There’s an interesting correlate for the home cook: According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, people who spend more time planning, shopping for and preparing food are less likely to be over- or underweight. Perhaps the act of preparing food — again, enjoying the colors, textures and smells of ingredients — provides its own satisfactions that mitigate hunger.
Drink a whole glass of water before any food arrives. Use a restaurant’s smallest spoon or fork to eat dessert. Position your worst temptations (bread and butter, that chocolate cake) farthest away from you on the table.