Eating at a restaurant isn't license to blow your calorie budget. Staying within your caloric means while dining out -- and enjoying your dining experience -- comes down to making a wise restaurant choice followed by wise menu choices.
Since you haven't let yourself get overly hungry, you can carefully evaluate the restaurant choices available. If possible, choose a restaurant that offers a wide variety and prepares food to order -- it will be easier to find healthy options.
Whether you end up at a fast-food joint in town, a food court in a mall, or in a neighborhood of fine restaurants, a wise restaurant choice will give you the chance to have better menu options.
The following are some general guidelines for staying on your calorie budget:
- Take your time surveying the selections. Look for "heart-healthy" or "light" selections. Or, if there's a senior section on the menu, opt for the smaller portions offered there.
- Be assertive. Ask your server questions to clarify how things are prepared. You're the customer, so don't be shy about making special requests or substitutions -- just keep them reasonable. For instance, ask for fruit or tomato slices instead of hash browns at breakfast; any restaurant should have those options on hand. Or ask for a menu item to be baked or grilled instead of breaded and fried.
- Order first so you're not influenced by others in your party.
- Consider ordering a la carte. It may cost more, but it can sometimes give you better food options.
- Drink a glass of water before your meal arrives.
- Choose an appetizer as a main dish and accompany it with a salad or broth-based soup (not a cream-based soup) that's full of beans or vegetables, such as minestrone or gazpacho. Make sure the appetizer is not deep-fried.
- If others are eating appetizers before the meal, order a small salad or a cup of broth-based soup.
- Ask the server to remove foods that are tempting, such as a basket of chips or bread and butter.
- Choose small or medium portions. A 16-ounce steak is enough meat to give four people a 4-ounce serving (which cooks down to the recommended 3-ounces). And that 1-pound steak can pack about 1,000 calories, whereas the 4-ounce piece will have only about 250.
- Share an entree.
- Ask for the vegetable of the day to replace higher-calorie items that come with your meal. Have the vegetable steamed or otherwise prepared without fat.
- Don't join the clean plate club. It's all right to leave food on your plate. No one likes to be wasteful, but it's better to leave it on your plate than put it on your waistline.
- Take half home. To avoid temptation, ask your server to put half your meal into a box before bringing it to the table so you won't eat more than you plan. (However, if you won't have access to refrigeration within two hours, leave the leftovers behind.)
- Be picky about splurges. Enjoy foods you don't normally eat at home, and save the regular "treat" items such as potato chips for another time, since you can have those anywhere.
No matter what kind of restaurant you go to or what the cuisine, there will be higher- and lower-calorie choices on the menu. And there will be menu choices that better fill your daily nutritional needs as well as choices that are primarily empty calories. The trick is knowing what to look for on the menu. The next section covers the decisions you should be making when faced with certain food choices.