Now, we'll get the disclaimer out of the way first: yes, cooking at home is "better." It's more consistent, you know exactly what's going into every meal and you don't have to put in any extra work to figure out what you're eating.
That being said, losing weight while eating out can be done! Weight loss doesn't have to mean meal prepped foods and grilled chicken every day--you can have freedom while dieting to go out and enjoy yourself once in a while, or even all the time, if that's your thing.
If you do have a goal of weight loss however, a night out on the town can hinder your caloric deficit if you aren't paying attention, meaning that your weight loss may slow.
If you're going out, utilize what we deem as the PAPA Method.
Preparation, Action, Portion, Analysis
If you know you will be dining out, make some early preparations starting with breakfast.
1. Begin your day with a substantial amount of protein and keep the fats on the lower side. Why? Well, generally, protein is the most difficult macronutrient for people to get in everyday. By starting your day with protein, you're ensuring that you'll get enough in for the day, despite what you might eat out later. Second, protein is satiating--meaning that it will keep you feeling fuller, longer. Including extra protein in your breakfast will help you to maybe skip some extra snacking or any hangry feelings you may get before lunch.
(Ideas: Plain Greek Yogurt with some berries, some oats/healthy granola, protein shake, eggs + egg whites in a omelette or scramble)
If you're going out for lunch, think ahead to dinner and if you're going out for dinner, think ahead to lunch. If a lunch out is in the cards, plan your dinner ahead of time. If you know you'll be chowing down on pasta at noon, maybe don't plan more pasta for dinner. Include a decent amount of protein. If you know you'll be headed out for dinner, keep lunch high in protein and relatively light in carbs and fats.
2. Look Up the Menu Ahead of Time: Another way to prepare is to look up the restaurant you'll be headed too and see if their menu is available online. Look through the menu and decide what you might order. Don't always just look for things that sound like they're diet friendly (I.e. salads...), see what the options are, what substitutions might be available if needed and what sounds good for you. If you track macros, add a potential meal into your day so you can plan accordingly. Account for some extra fats for cooking oil and carbs/protein for serving sizes.
You've already decided on grilled salmon, polenta and green beans for dinner and BAM! Your table neighbor has some bacon mac and cheese that looks delicious...
1. Stick to the plan: If you've already selected something off the menu ahead of time and inputted it, STICK TO THE PLAN. Mac and cheese always looks delicious, and it is, but it might not be the best choice if you're working towards a weight loss goal.
If you haven't already selected, you have two options:
1. Pick something that fits well into your way (or can..) and is relatively "simple"
2. Select something that you could never make at home that you'll really truly enjoy
These two options depend on where you are in your goals and what your level of commitment and focus is every other day. Are you consistently eating in a deficit and seeing the scale + clothes reflect it to your satisfaction? Know that one meal won't make you gain 10 pounds but might not let you be in a deficit that day.
Not consistent? Overeating? Stay simple. If you're not consistently in a deficit and not seeing the progress you're looking for, stick to something simple. It won't send you too far over your daily goals and won't set you on a track of destruction.
2. Ask for substitutions (if needed): Most restaurants will accomodate needs to their abilities. Just as you would ask for your meat cooked to your liking, don't be afraid to ask for your salmon to have the sauce on the side or your veggies to be left dry. If they can do it, they usually will. Go with side salads/veggies instead of fries most of the time with things like burgers.
1. Don't eat it all: Restaurants give out giant portion sizes the vast majority of the time. Analyze your meal and eat a solid portion, however much of the dish that might be. Don't be afraid to leave some food (...and/or just take it home). Some people find success in asking for 1/2 the plate to be wrapped up from the beginning so that it's not sitting there.
2. Don't Pick: If you order a side salad but your significant other orders fries, don't be the person that doesn't order it, then eats it all. If you really want one (and they oblige, of course ;) ), have one or two. Don't pick for the duration of the meal. Same goes for your meal. If you're finished and full, don't keep picking at things on your plate because they are in front of you. Push it away, ask for it to be wrapped or cover it with a napkin so you don't find yourself over eating.
1. Don't order dessert/another drink because you can: Of course you CAN have dessert, but do you really need it? Generally the answer is no, but do a self analysis.
Am I full?
Am I satisfied?
Will that make me feel good?
Is it worth it to me?
If the answers to the top 2 is yes, you know what to do. If the answer to the bottom two are yes, maybe have a few bites or share something with someone if you really feel the need. Skip things that you can get anytime, anywhere because you probably don't need it right now (I.e. you're at a steak house and they have vanilla ice cream...). With drinks, avoid things laden with simple syrups and sugars.
2. Analyze how you feel with your choices and satisfaction level: Do you feel satisfied? Was the food good? Are you full? Do you feel better than you might have if you had chosen something else?
Asking yourself these questions and thinking of the answers will help in making your decision making process easy all the time and not making eating out a fretful experience.
Overall, go out and make sure to enjoy yourself--your food or goals don't determine your experience.