Dining out doesn't mean you have to bust your diet.
Dining out doesn't mean you have to bust your diet.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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.

Restaurant Tips

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.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Mexican

Pass on refried beans and anything else "fried".
Pass on refried beans and anything else "fried".
©iStockphoto.com/belknap

Flavorful foods from south of the border can fit into your healthy lifestyle. Mexican restaurants typically have a variety of options that won't expand your waistline if you know what to choose.

Best bets:

  • Ask the server to bring steamed corn tortillas to nibble on before dinner.
  • Order soft tacos, burritos, or fajitas, all of which are made with steamed tortillas -- or go one step further and order corn tortillas instead.
  • Order corn tortillas or corn tostadas, which are lower in calories than those made from flour.
  • "Ranchero" or "cholesterol-free" beans. Add salsa for extra flavor.
  • Ask to have sour cream and guacamole to be served on the side.
  • Chicken enchilada with no cheese on top.
  • Fish and chicken Mexican style.
  • Dishes full of vegetables, such as a taco salad or tostada.

Waistline expanders:

  • Tortilla chips.
  • Fried tortillas or tostadas, whether they're flour or corn. Tostadas are usually made with a fried corn tortilla; chimichangas are made with a fried flour tortilla.
  • Flour tortillas.
  • Refried beans, which are made with lard (high in saturated fat and cholesterol).
  • Dishes where sour cream and guacamole are a major component and can't be served on the side.
  • Beef or cheese enchiladas with cheese melted on top.
  • Sauce-and-cheese-smothered enchiladas or deep-fried chili rellenos.
  • The fried flour tortilla "bowl" of the taco salad and the fried corn tortilla of the tostada.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Chinese & Japanese

Look for soba, udo, and ramen noodles in broth and avoid crispy noodles.
Look for soba, udo, and ramen noodles in broth and avoid crispy noodles.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Chinese

Chinese food is often loaded with vegetables and can be low in calories. But many popular dishes are full of fat and calories. Use your newfound menu-sleuthing skills to avoid fried and crispy items. If sodium is a concern, avoid soups, "lo mein," and soy sauce -- which has about 1,000 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.

Best bets:

  • Steamed vegetable dumplings.
  • Egg drop or won ton soups.
  • Chop suey.
  • "Sizzling" items.
  • Vegetarian delight.
  • Use chopsticks; you'll eat more slowly and may consume less.

Waistline expanders:

  • Fried egg rolls or won tons.
  • Foods served in a bird's nest.
  • Dishes containing nuts.
  • Crispy Chinese noodles.
  • Duck.

Japanese

Many Japanese dishes are low in fat because they are braised, steamed, or simmered. As with Chinese, avoid fried items.

Best bets:

  • Miso.
  • Shumai (steamed dumpling).
  • Chicken teriyaki.
  • Yakitori (grilled chicken skewer).
  • Sushi.
  • "Sizzling" items.
  • Soba, udo, and ramen noodles in broth.

Waistline expanders:

  • Pan fried or agemono (deep fried).
  • Tempura or katsu.
  • Fried bean curd.
  • Fried noodles.
  • Fried rice.
  • Sukiyaki.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Thai

Pad Thai is a best bet when dining out at a Thai restaurant.
Pad Thai is a best bet when dining out at a Thai restaurant.

Thai

Thai food can be low- or high-calorie, depending on what you choose. If the names of the foods are foreign to you, ask your server or hostess for low-calorie or low-fat recommendations.

Best bets:

  • Broth-based soups.
  • Spicy sauce, oyster sauce.
  • Foods stir-fried in broth.
  • Fresh spring rolls.
  • Pad thai.

Waistline expanders:

  • Coconut milk-based soups or curries.
  • Peanut sauce.
  • Items cooked in coconut oil.
  • Fried spring rolls.
  • Satay.
  • Tod (fried dishes).
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Italian

Beware of Italian food that has too much olive oil, cheese or butter.
Beware of Italian food that has too much olive oil, cheese or butter.
Jupiterimages/Comstock/Thinkstock

Whether it's pizza or pasta, there are a few more tips to add to your menu-sleuthing. You can eat fewer calories while eating Italian, but you need to know some pitfalls to avoid.

Best bets:

  • Salad, with dressing on the side.
  • Marinara or tomato sauce.
  • Pasta lightly tossed with olive oil -- ask your server to be sure only a small amount of oil is used in preparing your pasta.
  • Pizza without cheese. Get extra tomato sauce and plenty of veggies instead, and maybe some grilled chicken, too.
  • Pizza with thin crust or whole-wheat crust.
  • Plain Italian bread.
  • Dishes in which vegetables or beans play a starring role.
  • Pasta stuffed with vegetables, such as spinach or squash.
  • Dishes made with grilled chicken, meats, or seafood and fresh or steamed vegetables.
  • Italian ice or fresh fruit.

Waistline expanders:

  • Antipasto, which usually includes high-fat meats, olives, and cheeses along with marinated vegetables.
  • High-fat white sauces, such as Alfredo.
  • Pasta swimming in olive oil.
  • Pizza with extra cheese or only cheese.
  • Pizza with thick crust or cheese-stuffed crust.
  • Pre-buttered garlic bread.
  • Meat-based dishes, especially veal.
  • Pasta stuffed with cheeses.
  • Dishes made with breaded and fried meats or eggplant, as are often used in lasagna or "parmesan" dishes.
  • Tiramisu, cannolis, and gelato, which are made with high-fat ingredients.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Middle Eastern

Hummus, made from pureed chickpeas and a splash of tahini, is a mild, flavorful dip that is a good choice when dining out on a diet.
Hummus, made from pureed chickpeas and a splash of tahini, is a mild, flavorful dip that is a good choice when dining out on a diet.

Middle Eastern restaurants are a good place to find a variety of grain-, vegetable-, and bean-based dishes with a healthy dose of garlic. Pita breads, which are common and a healthy choice, are used for dipping savory delights.

Best bets:

  • Hummus (spicy garbanzo bean dip).
  • Baba Ghanoush (spicy eggplant dip).
  • Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip).
  • Lentil soup.
  • Plaki (baked fish with tomato).
  • Souvlaki (marinated, grilled meat with veggies in pita bread).
  • Gyro (lean, seared beef with veggies in pita bread) with sauces served on the side.
  • Dolmades (seasoned rice-stuffed grape leaves).
  • Tabouli (seasoned wheat-grain dish with cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs).
  • Couscous (steamed wheat grain).
  • Olive oil and feta cheese used lightly -- ask your server to have your food prepared with only a small amount of these.
  • Rice pudding.

Waistline expander:

  • Falafel (deep-fried garbanzo bean balls).
  • Tahini (ground sesame seeds).
  • Black olives.
  • Loukanika (sausage).
  • Ground beef and lamb.
  • Dishes with phyllo dough, such as spanakopita.
  • Bechamel (rich white sauce) used in dishes such as moussaka.
  • Heavy use of olive oil (lathera) and feta cheese. Don't order items in which these are a main ingredient. For instance, a feta cheese spread will be higher in fat than a spread made of feta, vegetables, and herbs.
  • Baklava (phyllo dough dessert).

In the next section, we will offer tips for eating at two of the biggest restaurant offenders: the all-you-can-eat buffet and fast-food joints.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Buffets & Take Out

Buffets can be dangerous, especially when desserts are involved.
Buffets can be dangerous, especially when desserts are involved.
Mobil Travel Guide

Buffets

When you're eating on the road, you can find yourself in many dietary dilemmas. Here are some tips for when you're forced to eat at buffets or take-out places.

A buffet is an invitation to overeat, so it can be a very dangerous place for people trying to lose weight. Don't take a buffet as a challenge to get your money's worth by overfilling your plate. Instead, survey the buffet offerings and come up with a plan. Choose the foods most interesting to you, and leave the rest alone. Focus on vegetable-based dishes without sauce or fried accompaniments. Take small or modest amounts; don't heap your plate. And if you go back for seconds, take only the lowest-calorie foods. Choose only one item for dessert.

Best bets:

  • Broth-based soups.
  • Baked, grilled, or broiled meat, fish, or chicken.
  • Peel and eat shrimp.
  • Baked potato.
  • Tossed salad.
  • Sauteed vegetables.
  • Nonfat frozen yogurt, sherbet, or fruit ice.

Waistline expanders:

  • Fried meat, fish, or chicken.
  • Buffalo chicken wings .
  • Cream soups.
  • Creamy coleslaw, macaroni salad, potato salad.
  • Croissants.
  • Cake, pie, cheesecake, ice cream.
  • French fries or potatoes and gravy.

Take-out Food

Whether you're traveling or just pressed for time, you can satisfy your hunger and still eat healthfully by getting take-out foods from a supermarket or delicatessen. To keep your fat cells empty, choose salads smartly, focus on vegetables without creamy sauces, and choose fruit for dessert. At the bakery counter, choose a bagel or roll -- particularly one that's small and made from whole grains -- rather than a Danish, cinnamon roll, donut, or croissant.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Restaurant Advice: Fast Food

If fast food burgers are calling your name, go for the junior sizes and hold the fries.
If fast food burgers are calling your name, go for the junior sizes and hold the fries.
Chris Stein/Getty Images

Fast food is often high in calories, fat, and sodium and lacking in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you're not careful, you can end up consuming an entire day's worth of calories -- or more -- in one fast-food meal. Since eating on the run is sometimes necessary in our fast-paced days, there are ways you can keep fast-food calories from landing on your hips.

The next time you visit your favorite fast-food haunts, ask for a nutritional analysis brochure -- all the fast-food places have them. Check the brochure to determine which choices are lowest in calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar. Jot down a list of items you like that are modest in calories. Order from this list each time you frequent the restaurant.

Alternatively, you can plan ahead and visit the fast-food restaurant's Web site. Look for their menu planner or nutritional analysis section. Here you'll find all the same information as in their brochure.

Plan ahead and know what to order before you get there. You can always balance high-fat items with low-fat choices. Perhaps you're having a burger, which is typically high in fat. Instead of fries or chips, choose a salad. Just beware the dressing. Make sure it's a low-calorie dressing choice, or just use half the packet or none at all.

Choose a sandwich or sub shop if it's an option. It's easy to order lean meats such as turkey on your sandwich, plenty of veggies, and no cheese or mayo. You can even buy half a sandwich and team it up with baked chips and iced tea for a filling, low-calorie lunch. The next time you find your car steering itself to the drive-thru, keep these pointers in mind.

Best bets:

  • Small or junior sizes of burgers, fries, and sugary beverages.
  • Foods that are "grilled," "broiled," or "flame-broiled."
  • Chicken fajita pita.
  • Baked potato with vegetable or yogurt topping.
  • Pretzels, baked chips.
  • Nonfat frozen yogurt, fruit cups, or fruit and yogurt parfaits.
  • Water, 1% or fat-free milk, or juice.

Waistline expanders:

  • "Deluxe" and "supersize" menu items. Even if those options cost less now or are a good dollar value, consider the health-care costs down the road.
  • Foods that are fried.
  • Fried chicken pieces or nuggets.
  • French fries.
  • Potato chips.
  • Apple pie, cookies.
  • Milk shake, soft drinks.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

More Ways to Cut Calories

Put the Brakes on Discretionary Calories

It's often the little things you do that can amount to big calorie savings or wreak havoc with your calorie budget. Fat and sugar easily creep in when you're dining out unless you keep up your weight-control defenses.

  • Request sauces, gravies, and dressings on the side so you control how much of them you eat.
  • Ask for salad dressing to be served on the side. Then just dip your fork in it and pick up a forkful of salad -- you get the flavor with a minimal amount of dressing. Or drizzle a little dressing from your fork onto the salad.
  • Be selective at a salad bar. Go easy on or avoid the creamy salads, such as potato or pasta salad, as well as marinated salads, cheese, bacon bits, and croutons. Choose a low-fat dressing if you can, and put it on the side. Or just enjoy the salad without any dressing at all.
  • On sandwiches, hold the condiments such as mayonnaise and special sauces. Instead, ask for lettuce, onion, tomato, or other veggies, along with mustard or a splash of vinegar.
  • Ask the server to remove the butter from the table.
  • Get a salad instead of mashed or fried potatoes, white rice, or bread.
  • Be adventurous when it comes to toppings. For instance, instead of the traditional high-calorie butter and sour cream for your baked potato, try salsa, taco sauce, or chives and pepper. Ask for lemon wedges, and squeeze onto vegetable side dishes or salads.
  • Cut fat and calories in half by sharing an order of fries or other high-calorie side dish.
  • Eat lower-calorie options first, such as vegetables and grilled meat. Then move on to the higher-calorie items, such as mashed potatoes, which have added fat. That way, you'll eat less of the higher-calorie food.
  • For dessert, order fresh fruit, a fruit-based dessert, or fruit ice.
  • Share dessert or take half home.
  • Skip the alcoholic beverages and sodas. Instead, choose nutrient-rich beverages such as small sizes of juice or nonfat milk; plain water, coffee, or tea are low- or no-calorie options.

True Menu Claims

In 1997 the FDA finalized regulations for nutrition labeling of restaurant menu items that bear a health or nutrient claim.

If you see these terms on a menu, you know they have to be accurate:

  • Low Fat: 3 grams or less of total fat
  • Low Cholesterol: 20 mgs or less cholesterol AND 2 grams or less saturated fat
  • Low Sodium: 140 mgs sodium or less per serving
  • Light: either 1/3 fewer calories or 1/2 the fat of regular items. It can also mean that a serving of a low-calorie, low-fat food provides half the sodium normally present. Check the label for sodium content. Be wary of terms such as "Lighter Fare," which can merely mean dishes with smaller portions, as long as that clarification is made on the menu.
  • Healthy: Low in fat and saturated fat, has limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium, and provides significant amounts of one or more of the key nutrients vitamins A, C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
  • Heart Healthy: Either the item is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and fat plus it provides (without being added) significant amounts of one or more of the key nutrients listed in the "Healthy" claim OR it has all the previous benefits and also is a significant source of soluble fiber. Again, check the label for fiber content.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.