Watching calories while eating out? The good news is in today’s restaurants you have plenty of options. Here are a few tips from the National Restaurant Association on how to make the most of your dining-out experience.

Do your homework: Learn how many calories your body needs per day when taking into account your lifestyle and activity level, and plan your meals for the the day – if you have a big breakfast, have a lighter lunch, for example.

Identify general dishes and food items that fit into your diet (such as fish, salads and whole grain bread) so you recognize them on restaurant menus and know what to look for.

Before going out to eat, identify healthier menu choices using the restaurant’s Web site or a site like Many restaurants provide nutrition information online and in stores these days.

Talk to the staff, manager or chef of restaurants you visit frequently to get their help in identifying items on their menu that are the best options for your dietary needs and preferences.

Navigate the menu: If you’re in the mood for pasta, look for tomato-based sauces rather than cream-based sauces. Tomato-based sauces are much lower in fat and calories. In addition, the tomato sauce (or marinara sauce) can count as a vegetable.

When choosing a soup, keep in mind that cream-based soups are higher in fat and calories than broth-based soups. Soup can serve as a great appetizer to a meal, or as an entree. Most soups are low in calories and will fill you up.

Look for items on the menu that are baked, grilled, dry-sauteed, broiled, poached, or steamed. These cooking techniques use less fat in the food preparation and are generally lower in calories.

Select entrees with fruits and vegetables as key ingredients, as they are a good source of dietary fiber, as well as of many vitamins and minerals. However, vegetarian dishes can be higher in calories if prepared with cheese, butter and other more calorie-rich ingredients.

A salad is typically a good choice, but be aware that dressings and toppings like cheese and croutons can add fat and calories.

Fish and seafood dishes are great choices for the diet-conscious diner, but keep in mind to order them baked, broiled, sauteed, poached, steamed or grilled rather than fried.

For meat dishes, look for leaner cuts, such as skinless chicken breasts, turkey burgers, pork loin and beef sirloin.

Choose items made with whole grains. Examples include whole-wheat bread, tortillas and pasta, as well as dishes made with brown rice.

Select foods that are flavored with spices and fresh herbs, as those items are more likely to have lower fat and sodium content. Many ethnic cuisines embrace this philosophy, so why not order something Latin American or Asian and be adventurous and healthy at the same time?

If you are craving dessert, opt for something lower in calories and fat, like sorbet, fresh berries or fruit. Or better yet, share your dessert with your dining partner.

If you have questions, ask your server or other restaurant staff about how items are prepared and what the ingredients are.

Customize your order: Don’t be afraid to ask for special low-calorie or low-fat preparation of a menu item. The restaurant industry is one of hospitality and customer choice. We aim to please.

Order salad dressings and other sauces on the side. This way, you have control over how much or how little you add. And when choosing a dressing, opt for a vinaigrette rather than a cream-based dressing.

Choose water, diet soda, or unsweetened tea or coffee instead of regular soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. This will save a lot of calories.

If you have a choice of side dishes, opt for baked potato or steamed vegetables. Even if choices are not listed, ask to substitute vegetables or a baked potato for french fries.

When ordering grilled fish or vegetables, ask that the food either be grilled without butter or oil, or prepared “light,” with little oil or butter.

Order steamed or grilled vegetables as a side dish instead of starch.

Ask for salsa with a baked potato instead of sour cream, butter, cheese, or bacon. Salsa is very low in calories (and a fruit and/or vegetable serving) and a healthy alternative with a lot of spice.

Ask for reduced-sodium soy sauce.

Order sandwiches with mustard rather than mayonnaise or “special sauce.” Mustard adds flavor with virtually no calories. Other sandwich tips are to choose whole grain bread, skip the cheese, and add vegetables as toppings. Also keep in mind that chicken salad, tuna salad and egg salad are made with mayonnaise.

Enjoy your restaurant experience: Share an appetizer or a dessert with a friend. Half the dish equals half the calories.

Stop eating when you are full – listen to the cues your body gives you.

Take half of your meal home. The second half can serve as a second meal.

If you want to eat less, order two appetizers, or an appetizer and a salad, as your meal.

Virtually all restaurants offer healthy menu items. If you know what to look for and opt to customize your meal, you can have a nutritious meal whenever, wherever.

Remember, don’t deprive yourself of the foods you love. All foods can fit into a well-balanced diet.

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