By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
I know that when people are trying to watch what they eat, they sometimes just stop eating in restaurants altogether. Between the tempting menu descriptions, the huge portions and no way of knowing how many calories they're eating, they often feel like they're simply better off just staying home.
But that doesn 't have to be the case; it's just a matter of learning your way around a menu. Figuring out how to enjoy dining out - without pigging out- is a skill worth mastering.
If you only eat out a few times a year, I 'd probably just tell you to go out and enjoy yourself. But we eat, on average, about 1/3 of our meals away from home, so it's worth paying attention to some of these common restaurant diet traps.
Don't get derailed from your usual meal plan. You should have a general plan in your head as far as what you usually eat for your meals, and you should stick to it. If you normally eat some combination of protein, veggies and salad for lunch, then look for something similar on the menu- and don't let your eyes wander towards a sandwich or a pasta dish.
Watch out for foods that sound healthier than they are. Sandwiches can be healthy if they're made with lean meats, veggies and whole grain breads - but the calories can add up fast if you add cheese or mayonnaise or if the sandwich is a foot long. Watch those healthy-sounding salads, too. A Chinese chicken salad can rack up more than 1000 calories thanks to the crunchy fried noodles and heavy dressing.
Beware of the daily specials. Your server might come by with a mouth-watering description of the daily special, but a lot of times, specials can't be made-to-order, so you might not be able to skip the sauce or gravy, or have the fish grilled rather than pan-fried. If the special fills the bill, great - but decide on something from the regular menu ahead of time -that way, you'll have a backup.
Size matters . Supersizing your meal might sound like a great value but you really need to stand firm when you're offered more food than you want - or need. When your server says, "for just a dollar more, you can have a side of fries with that," think to yourself, "for just a dollar more, I'll be getting 600 more calories and 40 extra grams of fat."
Read calorie counts on menus carefully. A recent study showed that the calories you eat might be nearly 20% higher than what the menu says. Also - the calorie counts usually list the items separately - not the calorie count for the whole meal as it's served. So while you're noting the calories for the entrÃ©e, don't forget to add in the calories for the sides.
Finally, it's been said before. Butit's worth repeating - restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entrÃ©e with your dining partner and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you've eaten your portion. When it comes to supersizing, restaurants may be able to afford to pile it on - but you can't.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.