Advice for Eating Out with Calorie Labelling

Support for eating out

From April 2022, new laws in England will mean many businesses that serve food will have to put information about calorie content on their menus. We know that many people with eating disorders will find this makes an already challenging situation harder, so we’ve put together the guidance below to support you with dining out when the new laws come into effect.

Learning how to dine out again is an important part of the recovery process. However, it can cause feelings of anxiety and a flurry of difficult thoughts, and the readiness to do so will depend on the individual and it is important to ensure you feel in a place to safely challenge this aspect of your recovery. It may be to start with ordering in, snacks out and then build up to a restaurant. Remember to take it at your own pace, this is your recovery journey, and a gradual approach may work best for you.

Understanding the new laws 

On 22nd July 2021, the UK Parliament passed legislation making it compulsory for restaurants, cafes and take-aways with over 250 employees to print calorie labels on menus. 

From April 2022, restaurants, cafes and takeaways in England with over 250 employees will have to add calorie labels to their menus. The legislation does not apply to small restaurants, cafes and takeaways, or in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Restaurants, cafes, and takeaways are allowed to offer a menu without calories upon request. However, they do not have to have a menu without calorie labels, so please be prepared that this may not be an option.

Menus in restaurants, cafes and take-aways with over 250 employees will also have the message that “adults need around 2000 kcal a day.” This guidance is not in line with NHS guidelines, which state that “ideal daily intake of calories varies depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things”. Calories have been disputed as an accurate way of determining how ‘healthy’ our diet is. It is very difficult to estimate how many calories any one person needs as this is so many different factors can influence this, something a universal recommended daily calorie intake does not take into account. You should base your meal plan on the medical advice that you have received, not general Government guidance.

Food is food. There are no 'good or bad', our body needs all kinds of food in a balanced diet.

Building skills to manage eating out with calorie labels on menus:

The idea of eating out might make you feel panicked or out of control. Planning allows you to take control of your own experience, and build skills through exposure, gradual challenges and repetition.

Before planning, remind yourself how far you have come to reach this point in your recovery. Think about how the step of eating out can help in your recovery and think about an intention or a goal to build up to that you can reflect on afterwards.

The level of preparation will depend on where you are in recovery, and more or less planning may be appropriate. For example, further on in recovery the plan may be to choose something different to what you’d normally have, or to not look at the menu in advance and to choose at the restaurant/cafe based on what you fancy on the day.

Try to limit the time spent planning to a single session with your treatment team or conversation with your support system. Overplanning may add to feelings of anxiety, so set boundaries for yourself. Your experience of eating out will be different to someone who does not have an eating disorder, so don’t feel pressured to do what others are doing – focus on what feels right for you.

No need to do anything before or after to compensate for what you have eaten.

How do I plan for eating out?

The most important thing to do before eating out is to plan and prepare so you can lessen anxiety on the day – this might include, for example, knowing where the restaurant is, how you will get there, who you will go with and what food will be available. Talking through options with your support system, whether that’s a loved one or your health team, will enable you to discuss options and the thoughts and feelings that arise. You may want to plan to sit next to someone you know you find supportive and let them know that you may need some support during the meal.

If you are with a treatment team it may be helpful to eat out with them at somewhere with calories on menus before going out with family or friends, or to eat out with someone else you are most comfortable with before eating out with others. This can help you chat about feelings and anxieties that may come up and ways to manage. If you’re preparing for a work event or meal out with unfamiliar people, it may be helpful to practice this meal first with someone from your support system.

Plan what you could have and write this into a meal plan, if you are using one, or agree with a trusted person. Choosing beforehand can help on the day – consider having a challenge option and a backup option, so you have options if anything is not available. Menus are often available online, if not calling the restaurant is an option, or viewing the dishes on their social media. Again, try to limit this to the planning session.

Communication and open conversations are vital in the process of recovery. It may be helpful to talk through the meal beforehand with those you are eating out with. If you’re going out with people you don’t know as well, such as work colleagues, or are going to be at an event with people that aren’t friends or family, it may be helpful to still talk through the meal with a friend or family member who won’t be there. If need be, you can also message them during or after the event.

Many people are understandably anxious that the introduction of calories on menus means this will be a topic of conversation during the meal. Where possible, discuss this before with the party you are eating out with, focusing on what would be helpful and supportive to hear. This may feel difficult to raise, but perhaps start by saying it to a single person in the group you feel closest to or plan out what to say with someone you trust. If this proves tricky, then think of ways you can distract yourself if this conversation arises, affirmations you can remember, other topics of conversation to direct to or other distracting techniques you may have.

How to manage at the restaurant

It can feel daunting to be in a restaurant or other environment where food is being served, especially if this is something that you have not done in a while. Ordering can be a challenging aspect of the restaurant experience, which will be made harder by having the calorie labelling on menus. We understand the frustration and the added anxiety that this legislation is likely to cause. 

In the new legislation, cafés and restaurants can still have menus without calories. Where they do, it will be possible to ask for this menu. If it feels difficult to do so on the day, this may be something you can mention when reserving a table or ask for support from a loved one to do. Where the option for a menu without calorie labelling is not available, the advice below may help.  

We have put together some tips for being in the restaurant on the day: 

  • Importantly, this may be something to work towards – do not feel hard on yourself if you do need more time. Eating out again with calorie labelling on menus will take time to adapt to.  
  • Plan the meal in advance and order based on those agreed options, with backups available. If the menu is not available beforehand then you could call and ask, or think generally if you fancy pizza or pasta if it’s Italian, or in general fish or chicken etc. 
  • When viewing the menu with the calories on, allow the feelings that come up and discuss them with someone you feel safe and able to do so with. This externalisation can help you to voice your thoughts and to gain support in making your choice. 
  • Set a limit on the time spent looking at the menu. This may be helpful to prevent a snowball effect (when thoughts build on one another) – agreeing on a set time beforehand can be included in the planning process.  
  • It can be helpful to order the same as a friend/family member – you could plan this with them in advance – ask them what they may go for and order the same as them as if it was a shared dinner at home. 
Our bodies are amazing - they tell us what we need. We need to listen to our bodies - trust our taste and our hunger signals.
  • Think through the motivations for choosing an item of food on the menu when you know its calories. Ask yourself what the ‘recovery’ choice is and what the ‘eating disorder’ choice might be. Remember you can be stronger than the eating disorder voice.  So often the recovery choice feels like the scarier option. The eating disorder choice is often the ‘safe choice’, and it might have an impact on the rest of your day’s meal plan.  
  • Asking yourself what you really like to eat and whether the choice is determined by the calories rather than flavour/preferences. 
  • Focus on the conversation and enjoying seeing your friends/family – you could think up some topics to ask your friends in advance of the meal e.g., how was their recent holiday/how is work going/how is the pet dog? This can help with not letting your mind wander on the day to anxious thoughts around the food. 
  • Remember calories are not the only measure of nutrition. 
  • Where possible, remind yourself of what eating out again allows you to do: in being a part of celebrations with family, of being able to catch up with friends and loved ones. Think of food as part of the event rather than the whole event. 
It is okay to eat more than the other people you are eating with. Everyone has different needs and a different appetite on that day.

When the food arrives, remember that it is normal for restaurant dishes to be presented differently from how they would be at home. It is normal to eat more calories at some meals, especially if you are eating out. Most people do not eat out all the time. Remember that this is one meal on the road to recovery.  

Knowing the unique challenge that eating out poses, it is important to remember the tools you have already in your toolkit. Distraction techniques before, during, and after the meal may include: 

  • Engaging in conversation. 
  • Grounding techniques such as breathing exercises. 
  • Bringing a game to play before the meal arrives (e.g., a pack of cards). 
  • Bringing something to fiddle with.
  • Affirmations.

After the meal 

It may be that you experience certain thoughts and feelings following the meal – it’s important to externalise these and express how you are feeling. If you can, try and talk about your feelings with someone you trust. It may also be helpful to write down your thoughts. You can always call our Helpline, which is open seven days a week.  

It is important on the day to eat as typically as possible either side of the meal out. It might be helpful when planning to think about any possible compensatory behaviors that might arise following the meal and plan how to manage these – how might you distract yourself, or express how you’re feeling? Could you plan something enjoyable following the meal? 

It may be helpful to reflect on the experience, on what went well (celebrate the victories!), what was challenging and what you can adapt in the future or what you may like to try next time. Remember that it was a stepping stone closer to recovery. If it did not go as well as you hoped then don’t be hard on yourself, and be proud of yourself for going – the decision to go is often an accomplishment in itself!  

If you feel able to, plan to repeat the meal out at a future date. You may find it supportive to go to the same restaurant and try different things on the menu, to give yourself more evidence that eating out again is manageable.  


Tips for supporting a loved one when eating out: 

In formulating this advice, we consulted those with lived experience who have offered some useful tips for what they find helpful from their support system in eating out again: 

Before the meal: 

  • Ask the person you’re supporting beforehand if there is anything that you can do to help. 
  • Support in the planning stage, giving time and space to speak through options. 
  • It may be helpful to offer to have the same meal, as you would do at home. 
  • Ask how you would know if they were struggling and make a plan of how you would manage this when out, e.g. for you to step away from the table with them, to help steer the conversation. 

During the meal: 

  • Offer to sit next to them. 
  • Help avoid unhelpful conversations e.g. around calories. 
  • Support the person in choosing the meal, understanding that it may take to make a decision. 
  • Offer to take a step away from the table with them if you recognise they are struggling. 

After the meal: 

  • Offer a space to reflect on the meal, focusing on progress over perfection and the importance of celebrating small steps. 
  • Help to distract following the meal if needed. 
  • If you’ll be with the person before and after the meal, try to keep the rest of the meals during the day as typical as possible.
Your worst days in recovery will always be better than your last days in relapse