3 Secrets to Perfect, Guilt-Free Business Dinners

This is it. It’s the big one. You’re off to the annual convention for your industry. There are connections to make, meetings to attend, and presentations that can’t be missed.

Of course, the annual event is in Vegas. And you have business dinners booked every night, at restaurants where the booze will be flowing, the food will be rich, and the peer pressure will be as strong as ever. Each night is shaping up as a potential dietary disaster and if you aren’t careful, an expensive and late night out on the town.

But you’re not here for your entertainment. Whether on your dime or the boss’ dollar, you’re taking the event seriously.

You want to be early to rise each morning so you don’t miss a session. You don’t want to sleep late, or feel groggy, relying on endless cups of Starbucks to get you through your meetings.

You want to eat well, but healthy, and you don’t want to be pressured into ordering the chocolate lava cake after you’ve already had two glasses of wine, a steak, and (unknowingly to you) over one thousand calories from appetizers.

You have no interest in waking up bloated or lethargic. You want to feel fresh, energized, and ready to go. You want to dominate your days and own your life, even in Las Vegas.

The only problem is that business dinners are a big obstacle in your way. These can throw the best of us off our plans.

We’ve all been there.

Maybe you just had a stressful day of meetings, perhaps even some high-stakes negotiating. Or perhaps you closed a big deal and now the team wants to go out to celebrate.

One drink leads to ordering a high-calorie appetizer. A second drink further lowers your inhibitions and the next thing you know you’re digging into the lobster Mac’n’Cheese.

“What, no dessert?” your host asks. “Everyone else is having some. C’mon. C’mon.”

“Sure, why not,” you think with your guard down.

Suddenly it’s 11 p.m., you’ve been at dinner for three hours, and you’ve eaten more calories in one sitting than you have in the past three days.

Worse, there are two or three more days of this!

I know how you feel. Last year I went out for 84 business dinners. This year my goal is 100. Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment. But no, I’m not a glutton at dinner.

Even though it’s a lot of restaurants, and there will be a lot of temptations, it doesn’t take much more than a little bit of simple planning to stay on track. It’s much easier than you think to be a great guest (or host) of a business dinner without overdoing the calories, alcohol, or late nights.

If you only go out for dinner once a month, or you’re celebrating a special occasion, then hey, have fun. Maybe even pick all three poisons.

But if you’re a veteran of the business dinner scene, and you go to Morton’s as often as the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley, then you need to take your business dinner dining seriously.

Here are the 3 secrets to enjoying your business dinners while still dominating your days. You’ll maximize the social aspect of eating with friends, family, and colleagues while minimizing the dietary damage and morning-after regrets.

Step #1 – Be a Boy Scout & Plan Ahead

Last summer I went to the Olympics in Brazil. For ten days and nights we ate out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But even the smallest family run restaurants we visited had an online menu. The ubiquity of online menus makes it easy to plan ahead. Take three minutes and decide in advance what you’ll have for dinner. Knowing is half the battle, and now that you’ve identified what you’ll have and what’s off-limits, it’ll be much easier to keep to your plan.

Step #2 – Stick to Your Schedule

People tease me all the time for eating on “early bird dinner” hours. I don’t care. Most of the time I can convince others to eat early with me. In some cases I can’t, but I push my agenda whenever possible so I get home from business dinners at a reasonable hour.

Most people end up enjoying the early dinner anyways. Restaurants are less crowded, you make fewer bad decisions, and everyone gets home at a respectable hour.

Plus, early dinners help you avoid heartburn. When you eat a late dinner and immediately go to bed, a full stomach leads to gastric reflux while you lie down, interrupting your sleep and causing permanent damage to your esophagus (known as ‘silent heartburn’). So not only are earlier dinners better for getting to bed on time, but they are also healthier.

Of course, there’s always going to be a few dinners in my 100 that start at 8 p.m. and take 3 hours. Such is life. These are the dinners when planning ahead is even more important, and you must also be careful to follow Step #3 unless you want to wake up the next day feeling like a beached whale (as I did on a few occasions years ago before I put these steps into action).

Step #3 – Pick Your Poison

I still remember my first business dinner at a big convention. I was twenty-five years old and in awe of the steak cart at Morton’s. While I didn’t drink any alcohol, I’m pretty sure I consumed over 3,000 calories at my host’s urging, and suffered for it the next day.

Over the years I’ve refined a simple system that allows you to enjoy yourself without feeling socially ostracized at the table.

Restaurants have what I call, “The 3 Poisons.” These are bread, booze, and dessert.

You get to pick a moderate portion of one poison to enjoy. This means choosing from:
– 1 piece of bread
– 1 serving of alcohol (a glass of wine, a beer, or a simple mixed drink — no Pina Coladas!)
– Dessert (again, a modest sized portion, not the Cheesecake Factory Brownie Sundae that clocks in at 1,368 calories, 61 grams of fat, and 580 milligrams of sodium, or the Outback Steakhouse Chocolate Thunder from Down Under that hits you with a whopping 1,550 calories and 106 grams of fat).

Notice there is no room for an appetizer on this list. Most appetizers deliver one thousand calories or more. ETR Publisher Matt Smith loves the Point Judith Fried Calamari at Ocean Prime, one of our favorite restaurants in Denver. Just don’t tell him it’s over 50% of his daily caloric needs.

Wrapping It All Up (Literally)

Business dinners don’t have to be dietary disasters. As with anything else, a little planning and preparation can help you overcome the obstacles while getting you the results you want. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what’s right for you. It’s easier than ever in this day and age of food allergies, gluten-free foods, and farm-to-table dining.

Besides, dinners aren’t just about stuffing your stomach with rich foods. You’re there for people and the conversation. Eat slowly. Set your fork down between bites. Be engaged in the conversation. Enjoy the experience. Pay attention to when you feel full, and don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant to wrap it up so you can take it home to your dog, back to the hotel to put in the mini-fridge for the next day, or to give to someone less fortunate.