Most restaurants are designed to derail your diet: From sumptuous specials to decadent desserts, every element makes it easy to eat up. But you can indulge and stay slim. We asked waiters and waitresses who've worked at all types of eateries to tell us the most fattening mistakes customers make, then we turned to experts for healthy (and fun) solutions. Now make a reservation and leave guilt at home!
Meal mistake: Not sleuthing out sauces
Waitstaff can provide crucial information, but you have to inquire. "A diner might ask if a dish has meat, but then order pasta with marinara that's made with a stick of butter, thinking it's healthy," says a former waitress at an Italian restaurant in Nyack, N.Y. Adds a former server at a Japanese eatery in New York City: "I once heard a table congratulating themselves on not eating carbs, but they had eaten fish in a sugary sauce."
Solution: Personalize your plate
"Ask if the chef uses cheese, butter or cream in a dish," says SELF contributing editor Joy Bauer, R.D. "If a sauce sounds creamy, for instance, choose something else." Request grilled or broiled dishes and make sure your meat isn't doused in extra fat — steaks are often basted with butter before they hit your plate. And if a dressing seems sugary or high in calories, get it on the side and use only a smidgen.
Meal mistake: Gorging on bread
Women ask for "extra bread, always, and then ask for more. Lots of butter, too," says a server at a family restaurant in Lincoln City, Ore. "We dished out honey butter, which was spiked with sugar," says a waitress who worked at a bar and grill in Hanover, N.H. And a former bartender at a seafood chain noted, "The cheesy biscuits were already swiped with melted butter, so you got a double dose [of fat]." You can consume hundreds of calories before the main course hits the table.
Solution: Bust your bread habit
Avoid arriving hungry, says Keri Gans, R.D., a spokeswoman in New York City for the American Dietetic Association. "A lot of women save their calories when they know they're going out to eat, so they're ravenous when they sit down." Snack on fruit and a handful of nuts an hour or so beforehand; choose a breadstick or a small whole-grain roll and dip it lightly in olive oil. A study in theInternational Journal of Obesity revealed that diners who used olive oil ate 23 percent less bread than those spreading on butter.
Meal mistake: Washing down veggies with piña coladas
The good news: Women sometimes order vegetables instead of fries. The bad? We often drink more calories than we realize. "Women do funny trade-offs, such as ordering a salad but having three or four margaritas," says a former server at an Italian restaurant in Aberdeen, S.D.
Solution: Raise one glass
Indulge in one 100- to 120-calorie drink while you're eating your meal, such as a small glass of wine or a vodka and soda, says Heather Bauer, R.D., author of "The Wall Street Diet." "After that, you get one more carb: a starchy side such as roasted potatoes, a slice of bread or another drink." When you're done drinking alcohol, sip water during the rest of the evening.
Meal mistake: Feasting when the boss is paying
We're more likely to order pricier dishes when we're not picking up the tab, and costly meals are often the least nutritious, Gans says. You'll eat mondo portions, too. "At a table of 10 people, seven will clean their plate along with bread, appetizers and desserts. At a dinner meeting, they'll also order drinks," says a waitress at a family restaurant in New Orleans.
Solution: Form a healthier business plan
Log on to the restaurant's Web site ahead of time and decide what you're going to order, including your drinks. "Consider a meal on the boss a chance to have a nice piece of grilled fish you wouldn't make at home," Heather Bauer says. "Save high-calorie indulgences, like desserts, for times when you're with family and friends."
Meal mistake: Thinking all veggies are virtuous
Filling your plate with plants is usually a great idea, but find out exactly how they're prepared. "Our steamed veggies were cooked with butter," says a waitress who worked at a steak house chain in Williamsburg, Va. "There is no separation between church and state on a griddle, which is routinely greased with oil. Veggie burgers are cooked on the same surface as beef burgers," says a server at a pub in Washington, D.C. So they absorb extra fat.
Solution: Keep it clean
Request that your vegetables be prepared with no oil or butter, even if they're grilled (which sounds fat-free). "Nearly everything that goes on the grill is slathered in oil beforehand so the grill marks turn out better," says a server at an upscale eatery in Boston. And request substitutions, even for side dishes. "Scan the menu to find the healthiest veggie side dish," Gans says. Who cares if it's paired with a different entrée? "Let's say you're ordering fish that comes with mashed potatoes. Ask to swap those for the grilled asparagus you see elsewhere on the menu." The chef will be more inclined to make a switch for something the restaurant already serves.
Meal mistake: Eating differently with men
"On dates, women usually are a little shy about eating," says a waitress at a steak house in Wilmington, Del. (That could leave you famished and lead to a late-night ice-cream raid.) But if a married couple or a pair who have been dating for a long time dine together, "women typically eat as much as their husbands or boyfriends do," the server says — a problem, because most men can take in more calories without gaining weight.
Solution: Eat healthfully together
On a date? Order something you feel good about eating, such as shrimp or chicken and veggies, and have as much of it as you want, Gans says. When you're with your significant other, suggest that you each order a healthy meal and split an amazing dessert. You'll both be happy.
Meal mistake: Overdoing the dressing
Our spies say women often don't ask for salad dressing on the side, which is a huge calorie saver, says a former server at a French café in Irvine, Calif. "When the chef tossed a salad with dressing, he'd use two boats. If you ordered it on the side, you'd get one." The bad news? "Most of the people who order dressing on the side use it all and request more," a former server in Atlanta says. About one ounce can hold as much as 150 calories and 16 grams of fat.
Solution: Dress it down
Use less than half of the dressing you're given and mix it around to coat your greens. Also, don't be fooled by dressings that look healthy. "Our miso dressing seemed light but had lots of oil and sugar," says a server with experience at a health food restaurant in New York City. Ask for vinaigrette, which is often lower in calories. If you want a different favorite, get it on the side and dip the tip of your fork into it before taking each bite. (Don't glop it all over the fork, Joy Bauer advises.)
Meal mistake: Eating everything you're served
Despite supersized servings, diners often devour everything in front of them. Only about 10 percent ask for a to-go container right away to pack up half of the meal, says a server at a national chain in Austin, Texas. And most servers are happy to do so.
Solution: Gauge your hunger
Requesting a take-home box is a good strategy if you're served a large portion, Joy Bauer says. "You can also cut your entrée in half when it arrives," she adds. "After you're done with one portion, estimate on a scale of one to five how hungry you still are, with one being famished and five being stuffed. If you're at a two or three, cut the leftover in half and eat that. If you're closer to a four or five, pack up the rest and order an herbal tea."
Meal mistake: Falling for a sales pitch
Good servers know better than to merely ask you if you'd like dessert. "I clear the dishes and bring the dessert tray so you don't have a chance to refuse," says a waiter at a café in Boston. They'll also attempt to inflate your bar bill with a bottle of wine or a round of cocktails. "I tell them our bartender makes fabulous margaritas, and then encourage them to order a round while they're looking over the menu," a waiter at a Montreal steak house reveals. But drinking alcohol before you eat can cloud your judgment when it's time to pick a meal.
Solution: Be a savvy patron
There's a little actor or actress in every server. "They're excited to sell their specials — it's not about sabotaging your diet," Joy Bauer says. But you can politely keep your resolve. "Say, 'Wow, that sounds delicious, but I'm trying to lighten my meal up, so I'm going to have fresh fruit.' "
Meal mistake: Catching the dessert bug
If servers can get one woman at a table to go for sweets, the rest will follow suit. "They'll listen to my spiel and look at each other. Then one brave soul will say, 'I'll take it,' and everyone else will, too," says a waitress at an eatery in New York City. "I've seen some women resist when their dining companion wants to share a dessert and then give in when it comes to the table," says a former server at a banquet hall in Lawrence, Kan.
Solution: Set the tone
"Why not take the lead and order mixed berries?" Gans says. Others may follow your cue, and if not, you'll have something tasty to eat while your pals are digging into crème brûlée.
Meal mistake: Feeling guilty
Some diners thoroughly peruse the menu, hem and haw and order something fatty, anyway. And then "diners go on about how they shouldn't be eating it," says the server from the New York City eatery. Your meal is ruined, and so is your companion's.
Solution: Give yourself a break
"Once every week or two, get an over-the-top meal you really want — it makes it easier for some people to stick with healthy choices the rest of the time," Joy Bauer says. "Relax and enjoy your occasional splurge. There's no sense eating out if you're going to feel guilty with every bite."