Eating right when eating out

Apr 13, 2010 at 5:46 p.m. ET

Once upon a time, salads were the smart order for dieters when they sat down at a restaurant. Nowadays, dieters beware: The seemingly diet-friendly restaurant meal can pack more calories than a burger and fries. On the upside, both sit-down restaurants and fast food establishments are offering more calorie-conscious choices, but the trick is knowing what and how to order. Here are some sensible tips and tricks to help you navigate restaurant menus and make healthy, smart diet decisions when dining out.

Woman eating salad

Adjust your restaurant attitude

How often do you consider a restaurant meal a "special occasion" even though you eat out numerous times per week? Special occasions, such as anniversaries, birthdays and other holidays, occur once a year and are truly novel events, warranting a restaurant splurge. Yet, if you eat out often with that "special occasion" mentality, frequent overindulging is sure-fire diet sabotage. This doesn't mean forgoing restaurant meals; it just means changing your approach and saving splurges for genuine special occasions while making wiser, healthier meal choices at other times.

Do your research

An increasing number of restaurants, and nearly every fast food chain, now post menus and nutritional information online. Peruse these resources, taking note of the menu items labeled "light," "heart healthy" or "diet friendly," as well as the calories and grams of fat per item, so you can plan your waist-conscious order before you even sit down or drive through. Keep the downloaded menus and nutritional info in a folder on your desktop for easy access.

Read your hunger

Before you belly up to the restaurant table or fast food counter, check in with your hunger and determine if you really need a three-course meal, or if an appetizer or single menu item can satisfy your appetite. Even when your kids are clamoring for substantial sustenance, order accordingly if you're just not that hungry. Not only will this save you guilt on the scale tomorrow, but it also will save you money and teach your kids about listening to their hunger cues.

Order soup and salad -- wisely

Research demonstrates that a bowl of soup or small salad before a main meal can significantly reduce the amount of calories diners eat at a sitting. That doesn't mean ordering the extra-creamy clam chowder (a bowl at Panera Bread will set you back 450 calories and 34 grams fat) or dressing-heavy salad (a mere two tablespoons of cream-based dressing packs 150 calories and 16 grams fat) before your entrée. Wiser choices include a low-calorie bowl of tomato- or broth-based soup (Panera's low-fat vegetable soup has only 130 calories and 0 grams fat), or a green salad with an olive oil vinaigrette on the side. Go lightly on the crackers, croutons, bacon and cheese crumbles.

Skip the table nibbles

A handful of tortilla chips here, a roll with butter there -- these seemingly benign pre-order noshes sneak calories and fat into your restaurant meal. A one-ounce serving of chips comes in at around 160 calories and 7 grams fat, while a roll with butter can top out at more than 200 calories and more than 11 grams fat. Did you really go out to eat for the chips and rolls? Instead of mindlessly eating these "convenience" foods while you scan the menu, save your calories for the real meal.

Steer clear of high-calorie foods

You may not be able to see how much butter, oil or cream a chef puts in your order, but you can avoid foods naturally higher in fat and calories. Steer clear of all fried foods, including French fries and heavily sauced dishes, particularly cream-based sauces. If your entrée of choice, such as fish, chicken or steak, comes with a sauce, ask the waiter to bring it on the side or nix it altogether. For pasta or pizza, order dishes with a marinara sauce (1/2 cup has 70 calories and 5 grams fat) instead of Alfredo (1/2 cup has nearly 300 calories and 11 grams fat). Try the grilled chicken sandwich instead of the double-patty beef burger. Opt for a vegetarian stir-fry instead of pork or other meat-based dishes. If you've done your research, you'll know which menu options are the most diet friendly.

Halve your entree

Whether you go out to eat alone on your lunch break or meet a group of friends for dinner, order your meal and then halve it. Put half in a take-out container, or share it with one of your dining guests. Most restaurant portions are two to three times the recommended serving size, meaning you won't starve or even feel unsatisfied if you eat only half your order. For example, Olive Garden's substantial plate of Garlic Herb Chicken con Broccoli Pasta has a whopping 980 calories and 41 grams fat. Eating half doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Divide dessert

Desserts at restaurants can be divine experiences, especially if you don't have the time or the pastry training to make anything other than cookies or box cakes. Go ahead and order a sweet treat, but share it with dinner mates. The true enjoyment of a dessert is really in the first bite anyway, so ask the waiter for that indulgent slice of chocolate torte as well as a few extra forks, and slowly savor a few mindful bites instead of the entire dessert. As an alternative, ask for fresh fruit over a small cup of ice cream. Naturally sweet, fruit is satisfying and much lower in calories than rich pastries and cakes.

Limit your libations

Wine, beer and cocktails can certainly complement a meal, but they aren't calorie free. In fact, alcohol can lower your inhibitions when it comes to food, leading you to eat more than if you didn't drink. Limit yourself to a single serving: One 5-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer or a modest cocktail (a jumbo margarita or blended drink doesn't count).