7 Tips to Eat Healthy When Eating Out

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If your New Year’s resolutions included losing weight, restaurants are making it easier for you to meet your goal.

For example, last week Chili’s introduced its Lighter Choices menu, which features seven entrees with less than 700 calories each.

But Chili’s is just the latest restaurant to hop on the healthy bandwagon. Over the past year, Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory, and even Denny’s have introduced leaner, lighter menu options.

This healthy trend is expected to continue this year, further shaping the restaurant business, according to NPD Group, a retail research company. But even if your favorite restaurant hasn’t yet cooked up a low-calorie menu, you don’t have to give up eating out. These tips will help you eat healthier at any restaurant. Last year, they helped me lose 10 pounds without really trying…

1. Go online before you go out

You can’t watch what you eat if you don’t know what you’re eating. So before you leave home, take five minutes to look up the menu and nutritional facts of the restaurant you’re headed to. Use that information to decide what you want to eat, or at least narrow your choices down to the dishes that aren’t laden with twice as many calories or grams of fat as a normal meal. You’d be shocked at what restaurant menus don’t tell you.

This is how I discovered, for example, that Pei Wei Asian Diner‘s signature dishes are two-serving entrees. So if you eat one yourself, you could end up consuming as many as 1,300 calories!

To find a restaurant’s nutritional facts, search for the restaurant name followed by “nutritional facts” or “nutritional info” or just “nutritional” or “nutrition.” If that doesn’t work – some restaurants like to hide it – try a more advanced search tactic…

Find out the restaurant’s website address and then Google for site:address.com nutrition. Make sure you do not put a space before or after the colon, but do put a space after the address. So for Pei Wei, for example, you’d Google for site:peiwei.com nutrition.

You can also use the HealthyDiningFinder.com search engine to find healthy dishes at nearby restaurants. This website, funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identifies dietician-approved dishes that “emphasize lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fats, and meet calorie, fat, and saturated fat criteria.” Just enter your ZIP code into the “SEARCH” box to find approved dishes in your area.

2. Skip the appetizer

Restaurant appetizers often have as many calories as a normal meal. So even if the appetizer is free, your waistline will still pay a price.

Take, for example, T.G.I. Friday’s $10 appetizer-plus-entree deal. I’m all for deals, but I won’t order that one. To me, a deal doesn’t justify consuming hundreds of additional calories when I know the entree is enough to fill me up. Besides, in the long run, becoming overweight costs more than the few bucks an appetizer “deal” would save you.

3. Water down

One of the easiest ways to cut costs and calories while eating out is to order water. Unless you drink 15 refills, restaurant soda will cost you several times more than gasoline. And even if you only drink a glass or two, it can still add a couple hundred extra calories to your meal.

Plus, studies have shown that downing a couple glasses of water before a meal helps to fill you up, causing you to eat less. According to the Mayo Clinic, it also aids digestion.

4. Compromise

If you’re going to splurge, limit it to one menu item. If you order a hamburger, for example, ask for a vegetable side instead of fries.

5. Rethink dessert

Restaurant desserts can be as bad as appetizers when it comes to calories and fat – not to mention the price. If you can’t imagine skipping it, or if it’s a special occasion, you can at least cut your calories and fat intake (and your cost) in half by sharing dessert.

Also, keep in mind that just because you ate dinner at a certain restaurant, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to eat dessert there too. I often head to the nearest frozen yogurt place instead. You can also go home for dessert.

6. Limit yourself

Another way to cut costs and calories is to simply eat out less. It’s one of the best ways to save money or put more money toward paying off debt. And the more often you eat at home, the less often you’ll be tempted with options that can easily amount to 1,000 to 2,000 calories and dozens of grams of fat in one sitting. If possible, try reserving restaurant trips for special occasions or occasional treats.

7. Use a coupon

The healthier restaurant options are sometimes the more expensive options too. But I find that when I have a coupon or a Restaurant.com certificate, I don’t feel bad about ordering, say, salmon. In fact, because restaurant coupons are usually worth several times as much as the average coupon, a coupon often means you can order a healthier but costlier meal for the same price as a cheaper but unhealthier meal.

So be sure to visit our deals page before you head out, and read How to Cut Your Restaurant Bill in Half if you’re unfamiliar with Restaurant.com.

Karla Bowsher runs our Deals page, writes “Today’s Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and covers consumer and retail issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at karla@moneytalksnews.com.

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