Dining out can be daunting for a dieter. Even if the breadbasket isn’t your Achilles heel, there’s still linebacker-sized entrées and hidden calorie dangers to contend with. So how does a calorie-minded individual keep their cool in an environment designed to inflame appetite? By never wavering from several very important restaurant rules.
Before You Go
Many chain restaurants post nutrition info online, so if you plan on visiting a Red Lobster or Applebee’s, review calorie info and decide what you’re going to order before you go. Or grab a copy of Eat This, Not That!, which lists the healthiest and least healthy dishes for popular restaurant chains and fast food establishments.
Not going to a chain restaurant? It’s still wise to look at the menu online, even if the restaurant doesn’t list nutrition info. If you zero in on the healthiest meal and choose what you’ll eat in advance, your resolve won’t be tempted later when you’re scanning the menu and reading a tantalizing description of babyback ribs.
Did friends drag you from work straight to the restaurant? If you’ve got an iPhone, the impromptu eating trip doesn’t have to wreck your diet. Download the Restaurant Nutrition application for calorie info on-the-go. You can search an alphabetical list of popular restaurants, then get nutrition info on meals you’re considering.
The Best Appetizers for Dieters
Most restaurant appetizers are a major no-no for the dieting set, but a healthy appetizer can take the edge off hunger and curb calorie consumption when the meal arrives. A small serving of a broth-based soup (think vegetable, Wonton, minestrone, chicken noodle, or fish cioppino) will only cost you 90-140 calories. Avoid creamy soups like chowders or bisques, which are chock full of calories. One cup of chicken and vegetable soup has about 90 calories, while a cup of seemingly innocent tomato bisque has 260.
Shrimp cocktail is another smart starter. Most have a mere 110-180 calories, and the protein in shrimp is satiating, so you’ll be less likely to wolf down everything on your plate when your meal arrives.
A small salad is another low-cal appetizer, but only if it isn’t smothered in meat, cheese, and fatty dressing. Spend a little extra moola on a spinach salad if it’s on the menu. The greens in house salad often come up short in nutrients and flavor, so chefs try to make up for it by piling them with high-calorie toppings. So if you spot a simple salad, order it with a little olive oil or balsamic, and avoid dressings like ranch and blue cheese, which can easily push a salad’s calorie count toward Big Mac status.
Decode Menu Descriptions
Before making a decision about what to order, look for these health-conscious words: broiled, grilled, steamed, baked, blackened, roasted, and poached. And if your meal description contains any of the following red flag words, take a pass: pan-fried, creamed, breaded, buttered, au gratin, or scalloped. An example of why these words are of life and death importance? At Red Lobster, the broiled seafood platter is only 280 calories, but the classic fried seafood platter is a mind-blowing 1,090 calories.
Make the Waiter Your Ally
If the description of a menu item is vague, ask the waiter how it’s prepared. And don’t be afraid to ask if you can have it prepared differently. Many restaurants will be happy to broil that chicken instead of pan-frying it. If you’ve scanned the menu and you’re still unsure about what your low calorie options are, ask the waiter for a recommendation. Waiters see everything that goes on in the kitchen—and they can help steer you away from a dish doused with oil or fatty ingredients.
Beware of Sauces
Whether you’re at a Chinese or Italian restaurant, your meal’s sauce can make or break your meal. If a menu item has a sauce described as creamy take a pass. Ditto for sauces made with cheese, milk, mayonnaise, or oil. For pasta dishes, marinara or tomato-based sauces are lower in calories than gravies or creamy sauces like alfredo. It’s always a good idea to order any sauces on the side, as most restaurants err on the generous side to keep customers happy.
The Safest Dish
When it comes to low calorie meals, fish is your best bet—as long as you keep your wits about you. Avoid any fish dish with creamy sauces or breading. And ask your waiter to forgo the butter, since most restaurants will coat fish generously with butter before and after cooking. Atlantic cod, Mahi Mahi, striped bass, shrimp and monkfish are your leanest picks. Opt for a side dish like steamed veggies or a baked potato and you’ve got a healthy meal that won’t break the calorie bank. If you do order red meat like prime rib or roast, ask for a center or inner cut and you’ll get significantly less fat.
Healthy Side Dishes
And don’t forget about side dishes. Coleslaw is often mistaken for a healthy meal companion, but because most are mayonnaise-based, a single scoop can contain hundreds of calories. Take a pass on any veggie that’s creamed and opt for steamed or boiled veggies like squash or broccoli instead. Always ask to omit the butter on any veggie sides—many restaurants slather grilled vegetables with butter so that the grill marks turn out better. A baked potato is another smart pick. Top it with salsa for an extra hit of flavor, but avoid sour cream, cheese, and bacon or the spud becomes a calorie catastrophe.
How to Handle Huge Portions
Restaurant portions are notoriously massive, so if you’re a member of the clean plate club and tend to eat whatever serving size you’re presented with, consider splitting an entrée with a friend. Or ask the waiter to doggie bag half the meal before it’s brought to the table. You can also order an appetizer as a meal; a bowl of soup or a soup and salad combo is a filling pick. If you simply must have a more decadent dish like pasta, order the child’s plate and pair it with a side salad.
Remember that restaurants want your business. Catering to a customer’s special preferences (and keeping that customer happy) is important to their success, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or modify a menu item. No diet will have much longevity if it forces the dieter to give up their social life, so dine out and enjoy yourself. Just don’t use restaurants as an excuse to innocently “forget” about your healthy eating rules.