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Dos and Don’ts of Dining Out

dining-out-585It’s so easy to overeat when you’re out to eat. Not only is everything super delicious, but there is also just so much of it. And if you’re like me, if it’s there, you’ll eat it. Plus, sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly you’re getting when you put in your order. But with a little restaurant know-how, you can lighten up any restaurant order and have a strategy for eating a healthy portion when you’re out on the town.

Beware the Bread

When you hit the restaurant starving, it’s oh so easy to dive face first into the bread basket. But if you don’t watch out, you risk consuming hundreds of calories before your meal even arrives. You have a couple of options with the bread dilemma. If warm, crusty carbs are your ultimate weakness, you could ask the waiter to keep it in the kitchen altogether. You could also make a pact with your dining companion to keep the bread to a minimum, and keep it to one piece per person. So by all means enjoy the bread, but don’t go overboard.

Soup or Salad
A great way to avoid the main-course binge is to minimize the hunger pangs before the big meal arrives at your table. A great way to do this is by ordering a soup or a salad. A simple cup of a broth-based soup is enough to warm up and tame your tummy—just avoid thick, cream-based soups, which are high in calories and fat. A side salad to start with is also a great way to get some greens into your meal, especially if your entrée isn’t heavy on the veggies. It’s also a wise idea to order the dressing on the side so that you have control over how much you’re getting (and having worked in food service, I’ve seen just how many gallons of dressing go on salads!).

On the Side
It’s so easy to order the smothered potatoes or yummy french fries to go along with your main meal. But it’s also so easy to suck it up and get a healthier item. Restaurants are more than happy to make substitutions, and you can always throw in a side of steamed veggies, a plain baked potato or a side salad instead of the heavier items. You might also want to make sure butter and sour cream come on the side for baked potatoes and that steamed veggies aren’t smothered with oil or butter. Just ask nicely. As a former server, I can tell you that we’ll put up with a lot of special requests, but a “pretty please” goes a long way.

Main Dish
Even if you follow the above tips, oversized entrées can have you overstuffed in a hurry. If you’ve got stellar self control, just plan ahead how much you’re going to eat. A trick I like is to ask for a to-go box as soon as the server delivers your meal or the first time he comes to check on you after your meal arrives. This way you can box up half of the main dish, save yourself the calories and have lunch for the next day ready to go. Or, if you and your dining companion have similar food tastes, you can split the meal. My husband and I have found that a side salad or light appetizer and a split meal is typically enough to make both of us perfectly content, not to mention it keeps the wallet happy.

Dessert Don’ts
As you know, we are all about everything in moderation, so I’m not about to tell you to swear off dessert. Don’t order the sweets every time, but treat yourself every now and then or on special occasions. Making them an off-limits food will only mess with your mind and give them too much power. When you do order dessert, just make sure you ask for a spare fork or two for sharing. Options with fresh fruit tend to be a lighter pick than heavy cheesecake or ice cream options, but go with your craving and listen to your hunger.

Watch Words
Certain words on menus are guaranteed to mean delicious, but those same words typically spell danger for your waistline. Anything that sounds terribly decadent—smothered, stuffed or loaded, for example—probably is. Lots of words can also tip you off to meaning “fried,” such as the tell-tale battered, crispy or crunchy. Likewise, anything creamy, cheesy or buttery is probably loaded with fat. Avoid “bottomless” and “all you can eat” traps, too. Words to look for include broiled, baked, grilled and fresh—and when dealing with pasta, go for red sauces over whites when you’re watching the calories. For a great list of more good and bad food words, check out this list on SparkPeople.

Bottom line: Don’t run away from restaurants in fear. I guarantee that if you’re paying attention, you can have a delicious and nutritious meal out on the town without blowing your diet. Just knowing common restaurant traps can help you keep your head in the game. And no matter what you order, just remember to always listen to your hunger. —Erin

Photos grabbed from Frank Jepsen, Kanko* and VirtualErn at Flickr.

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  1. {cher} says:

    great advice, and ones that i try my hardest to follow. the greatest dessert idea ever created.. the “shot” dessert like Applebees has. it’s a way of having a great little treat without downing a 700-1000 calorie slice of dessert! (of course doesn’t mean a thing if you just finished off one of their new “real burgers”.. omg!! have you seen those!!)

  2. Moonlight Dancer says:

    We often get dessert to go and eat it the next day when our calorie count will be much lower than a “night out”.

  3. tfh says:

    Great tips! I notice you didn’t mention alcohol, but I would add that skipping it makes tips like this SO much easier to follow. A little bit of wine does away with all my willpower!

  4. Tracy says:

    Until recently I owned a casual fine dining restaurant and I can assure you that most restaurants no longer consider ‘sharing a plate’ as being ‘cheap’. And servers are happy to box up half the meal before they even bring it to your table!

  5. Jody - Fit at 51 says:

    I have been known to be the “Sally” in When Harry Met Sally for those old enough to remember that movie!

  6. Tish says:

    good job ladies! these are totally practical tips. i have one more for the goody bag…invite your trainer out for din din. i guarantee your caloric intake will drop drop drop 🙂


  7. Cheris says:

    Thanks for those tips! I came across your site off of fitsugar.com!

  8. Leslie says:

    I recommend ditching dessert at the restaurant all together. Instead, tell yourself that you’ll get something at the local ice cream/dessert shoppe on your way home. By the time you get to the place, your stomach might already feel full and you can skip it.

  9. Kelli says:

    What a great article! Definitely a lot of tips I already utilize, but a good reminder after a weekend of indulgences (too many birthday celebrations can be killer).

  10. Killer tips. The to-go box strategy is genius for those of us who – despite diligent efforts to stay fit – cannot help but gobble up everything on a restaurant table without thinking twice.

    Thanks again.


  11. Lisa says:

    My boyfriend and I split entrees when we eat out. Less calories AND cheaper! I also substitute the fries, etc with a side salad.

  12. Dining Out Dos:
    Do remember that the customer is always right. Put simply: Ask for modifications with your meal! Most chefs are happy to oblige. Become familiar with the following phrases: “Dressing on the side, please,” “Can you broil that without adding additional oil or butter?” and “I would like to substitute a vegetable medley for the fries, please.’”
    Do remember that, when in doubt, simple is best. As food becomes more ‘adorned’ it’s likely to have more calories and fat added. These sneaky additives include garnishes like fried onions and tortilla strips, condiments like guacamole and sour cream, and any kind of sauce or gravy. Ask ahead of time if the meal is topped with anything and if it is, ask them to remove it. Another option is to look for entrees that are on top of something else, rather than the other way around: Try broiled salmon over bok choy, grilled chicken breast over polenta, or a simple seared tuna over a red pepper puree.

    Dining Out Don’ts:
    Don’t be a menu ‘lefty.’ That’s what happens when well-meaning dieters automatically steer toward the left-hand side of the menu, thinking the salad and appetizer options are better choices. Unfortunately, smaller and greener doesn’t necessarily equal healthier, especially when dining out. Many entrée salads can contain more than 900 calories (especially the ones with the cheese, bacon, and two scoops of dressing). Similarly, that plate of fried calamari with garlic sauce can easily pack on 500 calories, even if you share it! Remember that the same rules apply when choosing salads or appetizers—keep them simple, and beware of anything fried or soaking in sauce. Better to skip the salad or appetizer completely and focus on an entrée with a lean protein and a vegetable in it.
    Don’t forget to leave your Clean Plate Club card at home. Recent studies have showed that restaurant portion sizes for many standard meals have more than doubled since the 1950s. Other research has shown that most people tend to eat whatever’s in front of them—all of it—when dining out. Add in the social aspect of eating out (dining with more people also means you tend to consume more calories) and you’re officially in the danger zone. That’s ok—you just need to pay a bit more attention to how much you’re eating. A simple solution is to ask for a doggie bag with your meal, and put half of it in the bag before you take a single bite. Another trick is to pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table—and then try to eat even slower than that.

    Of course, the simplest strategy of all is to prepare your meals at home, where you know exactly what goes into them and can control the portion sizes. (Sign up for The Center for Medical Weight Loss newsletter for delicious, calorie-controlled dinner recipes that are easy to make.) But since we all know it’s fun (and realistic) to dine out once in a while, keeping these Dos and Don’ts in mind will help ensure that you make the healthiest choices and still enjoy your restaurant meal!


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