It’s hard enough to manage your daily intake when you know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth. But when you go to a restaurant, there are plenty of hidden landmines on the menu that can derail your diet and your calorie intake without warning.

With their hefty portion sizes and creamy sauces, few things can kill a healthy eating plan like a poor choice at a restaurant. But with a little preparation, calorie-conscious diners can relax and enjoy a restaurant meal. “The problem is when people don’t plan ahead,” says Caroline Lazur, a registered dietitian at Capital Health Metabolic & Weight Loss Center. “If you’re making a last-minute decision, immediately you go for the salad. But the salad at a restaurant, unless it’s on a specific, healthy menu, can end up being more than 1,000 calories. So you need to do your research.”

Restaurant meals are full of decisions, Lazur says, which are best made when you’re not hungry and feeling the effects of that first glass of wine. She suggests looking for a restaurant’s menu online; many will list the number of calories in each dish, allowing you to decide ahead of time what to order.

“Any way you can take charge of the menu will help, because you have little control over what you eat when you’re out,” she says. “Even I’ve been tricked before at certain chain restaurants, and I really wished I’d looked at calories beforehand.”

Indeed, everything from a restaurant’s lighting to the décor is designed to cue you to eat, and to eat a lot. These tips will help you guard against those cues and stay the course.


Plan ahead

Even if a restaurant’s menu doesn’t list calories, scrutinize the offerings for keywords and decide before you dine if you’re going to eat a piece of bread before the meal, for example, or order an app. Eat a small snack before you go. Diet-conscious diners often eat less throughout the day to “save up” their calories, Lazur says. But then they’re ravenous, and a rumbling stomach can put you on the fast track to impulsive food choices.


Be the first to order

We’re easily influenced by others; when a friend indulges herself, we’re more likely to throw restraint to the wind. When you order before anyone else, you’re more likely to stick to your plan.


Control your portions

“Ask your waiter for an extra plate so you can portion out your meal, then put the rest away in a box,” Lazur says. “Otherwise, you’re staring at it and you’ll take another bite, and another bite.”


Stick to one drink

Besides the additional calories, alcohol lowers inhibitions. Sip water throughout the meal to make your drink last.


On the side

Order salad dressing on the side and just dip your fork in the dressing before each bite. A small serving of ranch dressing can have 300 calories. Add some egg, bacon bits and shredded cheese, and “you might as well just order the hamburger and enjoy it,” Lazur says. Stick to one protein on top, and skip the croutons.


Gross yourself out

If you feel yourself losing control, pour something on your meal that will get you to stop eating it, like a condiment or some water.


Share dessert 

No need to skip it entirely; just share with someone—even the whole table. Or order fresh fruit.


The first time you dine out with these tips in mind, your execution probably won’t be perfect, Lazur says. It takes practice getting used to asking the waiter a bunch of questions. Soon, though, doing so will become second-nature.

Lazur says health-conscious diners out for a special meal should give themselves some latitude. It’s a treat, after all. Staying focused on the social aspect of the meal and savoring smaller portions will leave you feeling satisfied and balanced. “You’re doing it for your health,” Lazur says. “Why spend the money on something you’re going to regret later?”


Menu Decoder

Restaurants know patrons aren’t likely to order items described as “fat-laden,” “artery-clogging,” or “diet-killing.” So diners determined to eat healthily have to read between the lines. The following terms should raise a red flag for calorie-counting eaters:


Descriptors to Avoid

  • Creamy
  • Crispy (It usually indicates fried.)
  • Breaded
  • Smothered
  • Cheese (It adds oodles of fat and calories to any dish.)
  • Sautéed. (Restaurants often sauté in a mess of oil or butter; Lazur suggests asking the waiter to use just a little oil if you order a sautéed item.)

Instead, look for these terms:

  • Lean
  • Steamed
  • Broiled
  • Grilled
  • Baked
  • Garden-fresh
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