One of the hardest challenges dieters face is dining out and being social—without sabotaging their weight loss. Believe it or not, you can eat out 365 days a year and still maintain a healthy body weight. It all comes down to the choices you make—like watching portion sizes and ordering a piece of fish grilled, not fried. Try these 15 simple suggestions to make dining out a healthier, yet still fun, experience:
1. Choose the restaurant yourself. Instead of blaming someone else when you end up at a restaurant with unhealthy choices, take charge and be the planner. It's not always an option, especially if it's a business dinner, but at least make it happen the majority of the time.
2. Check the menu online. So many restaurants today have menus available online. Before you even step in the door, figure out what the healthy options are and if you should even bother going. Decide ahead of time what you're going to order, and stick with it.
3. Don't skip meals, but do grab a snack. Too many people feel that if they're going out to dinner, they need to starve themselves earlier in the day. Don't skip meals—in fact, have a well-balanced snack before you go. The last thing you want is to wind up in a restaurant feeling starved. If that happens, you'll almost definitely make poor choices.
4. Order first. If you can be the first person at the table to order, do it. As we all know, sometimes we're easily swayed by our peers; by ordering first, we're less likely to change our selection.
5. Read the menu carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions. There's nothing wrong with requesting changes to a menu. Remember, you're the one who is paying the bill. For example, if you see sautéed spinach on the menu but your dish comes with mashed potatoes, ask if you could substitute. But most importantly: Be nice about it.
6. Say no to bread. Bread at the table almost always means more calories for the meal. Simply say "no thank you" when the server wants to place some directly on your plate. If a basket is on the table, move it beyond arm's reach.
7. Start with a salad. The healthiest beginning to any meal is often a salad. It helps fill you up, so you're less likely to finish your entire entrée.
8. Order dressing and sauces on the side. No need to eat your food plain—but it's best to be the one in the driver's seat. When dressings and sauces are on the side, you can flavor your food while controlling how many extra calories you consume.
9. An appetizer can make a great entrée. Many places serve huge portions, and it's tough not to finish these, especially if they taste good. Some appetizers make really delicious entrées, and they're half the size. If you are in the mood for pasta, see if they have a half order available; to make up for the smaller dish, get an extra veggie on the side.
10. Go fishing. Fish is typically a reliable choice compared to many other entrées. But fattier fish, such as tuna and salmon, can still be high in calories, especially if the portions are huge. Opt for a leaner white fish if you dine out often, like flounder, shrimp, halibut, or scallops.
11. Remember that alcohol counts. It affects calories and your ordering skills. Having a snack beforehand is very important, because it helps keep alcohol from going straight to your head and making you more vulnerable to poor menu choices. Aim for a one cocktail mindset and stay away from any fruity drinks. (These are often highest in calories.)
12. The more forks, the merrier. If you must order dessert, share it. Dessert shouldn't be eaten on a regular basis unless you're dining out with a party of six and sharing just one treat. Even sorbet, served usually in three scoops, ought to be shared.
13. Try fruit for dessert. Sometimes fresh fruit isn't listed on the menu, but if you ask, you might be surprised that it's available. Just pass on the whipped cream.
14. Don't finish everything on your plate. Being a member of the clean plate club is passé. If you're a fast eater and finish before anyone else at the table, don't hesitate to ask a server to remove your plate before you eat more than you should. Maybe it isn't proper etiquette to have your plate removed before anyone else's, but that's OK.
15. Bring home leftovers. Leftovers are nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, they're something to be proud of. They make a statement that says "I was able to stop when I was full"—a really hard thing for most of us to do. However, if you made a poor meal choice that night, no need for a doggy bag. Just leave it behind.
On some occasions, it's OK to overlook these tips—for instance, on a birthday or anniversary. But if you go out weekly, it's time to buckle down and make some changes. Don't let dining out sabotage your health; but rather, embrace it.
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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self, and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.