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3 ways to make eating out a healthy experience

by Joy Bauer /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor

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If you’re looking to shed some weight in 2009, it’s important to keep your guard up when dining out. Here are three tips that will help you cut out some of the most glaring diet offenders at your next restaurant outing without ruining all the fun.

1. Keep it simple … for the most part
The simpler your order is, the less likely it is to harbor hidden fats and calories. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant kitchen, it’s difficult to fathom the amount of cheese, oil, butter and even sugar that can be hidden in special sauces and “secret family recipe” pasta dishes. A “plain jane” order of grilled, roasted, steamed, poached or broiled protein (fish, seafood, skinless poultry, lean meat or tofu) with a side salad or steamed veggies and a plain baked potato is the way to go if you’re aiming to keep your calories in check, particularly if you eat out several times a week. 

Realistically, however, everyone has their less-than-healthy favorites that they’re just not willing to give up; after all, that’s what makes dining out a treat! Here’s my best advice: Be selective about where on your plate you’re going to splurge, and try your best to cut back on the rest of the meal. If you love mashed potatoes with gravy, consider rounding out the meal with an order of grilled fish or chicken and a side of veggies to keep total calories down. In other words, indulge in moderation, and make some calorie-conscious choices to offset your treats.

2. Make special requests
If you’re watching your waistline, you’ll likely need to tweak certain menu items to make them fit within your calorie budget. Here are some pointers on “special requests” that can save you an arm and a leg caloriewise.

  • Beware of buttered bread. Unfortunately, buttering toasted bread and buns for sandwiches, melts and burgers is the default preparation style in many restaurants. You can save yourself 100 calories or more (that you probably don’t even notice, anyway) by asking your server to make sure your bread is served dry, without added butter or oil. Ditto for toast at breakfast and brunch.
  • Swap out your sides.Starchy sides with added fat like mashed potatoes, loaded rice and pasta, french fries and breaded onion rings add a lot of calories to your plate. So make yourself a compromise: Order a favorite entrée, but swap out the starchy side for vegetables. Steamed veggies without added butter or oil are best, but even veggies sautéed in oil have high-calorie starches and fried sides beat by a mile. You can typically swap any side for another listed elsewhere on the menu without an upcharge.
  • Control your own condimentsMost kitchen staffers have a heavy hand when it comes to adding sauces, salad dressings and condiments like mayo and ketchup to your plate. Have you ever ordered a salad only to be presented with a pile of lettuce completely soaked with oily vinaigrette? Instead of asking your server to go “light” on the toppings and condiments, ask for everything on the side. Then you’re in total control of how much gets added. Use 1-2 teaspoons of mayo on your sandwich instead of gobs, or 1-2 tablespoons of dressing on your greens instead of ladlefuls. That’s enough to add flavor and pizzazz to your dish without sending the calories, fat and sodium through the roof.

3. Eliminate the extras
If your heart’s set on enjoying a high-cal entrée, you can still save face, nutritionally speaking, by cutting back elsewhere. Here are three restaurant add-ons that can turn tempered indulgence into just plain overkill.

  • You can have bread and butter any day of the week, so why waste precious calories on this everyday staple when you’re enjoying a special night out on the town? By mindlessly munching on biscuits, breadsticks or tortilla chips while waiting for your entrée to hit the table, you can easily chomp through 500 calories of refined starch. To prevent nibbling, simply ask your waiter not to bring the basket to the table in the first place.   
  • Beverages: Don’t drink your calories. Regular sodas, shakes and fruity cocktails can do some real damage to your total caloric intake when you’re eating at a restaurant. It’s easy to down your first drink while waiting for your food to arrive, and you’re likely to sip through at least one or two refills while eating. Plus, restaurant meals are notoriously high in salt, meaning you’ll probably be extra thirsty. Be calorie-smart: Drink only water (seltzer’s fine too), black coffee or tea with your meal.
  • Dessert: Think twice about splurging on sweets. Restaurant meals have oodles of calories as it is, but adding on dessert can really put your meal over the top. By adding a decadent slice of cheesecake or a brownie fudge sundae to the back end of your meal, you can easily pack on another 1,000 calories. I would never tell people to give up desserts completely (I have a sweet tooth, too!); I just advise that you save them for special occasions. When you do decide to indulge, share one dessert with the entire table, and enjoy a few bites rather than the whole portion. Or, go for something a bit lighter: fresh berries with whipped cream, a skim latte or gourmet flavored tea. If you can defer to your next night out, all the better.

For more information on diet and nutrition, visit  

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