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How to Order a Guilt-Free Dinner

Bread Basket
Remove this to lose weight.

Sometimes when you go out to eat, you can't choose the restaurant. It might be a friend's party, a business meeting or the only place that's convenient. Whatever the reason, once you're there, you can still make healthier choices no matter what the menu says. Here's how you can avoid some of the calorie minefields spread throughout a typical restaurant meal.

Start by not drinking your calories. Order a diet soda, sparkling water with a twist of lemon, lime or an unsweetened ice tea. Skip the mixed drinks and alcohol, because some have over 600 calories in a single serving and they can weaken your willpower when it comes to ordering healthy.

(When will restaurants start offering diet orange, root beer, or any one of dozens of other diet sodas? Why is it always diet Coke or Pepsi?)

If someone puts a bread basket or chips down in front of you, ask them to take it away. Most chips are fried in oil and covered in salt while the breads are loaded with simple sugars. If you absolutely want bread, ask if they have any whole or multi-grain varieties. If they do, don't add any butter or oil when they bring it. Take one piece to eat and have the rest removed.

Order your food a la carte (each item separately) and get exactly what you want. You may have to spend a little more, but you can combine the healthiest options into a single meal.

Say no to any appetizers that are battered, breaded, deep fried or covered in sauces. If there are healthier appetizers, consider ordering them instead of an entree. Appetizer portions are usually smaller and typically have fewer calories.

Salad Be cautious about salads. Watch out for what gets dumped on top. Cheese, meat, eggs, croutons and dressings can change a low-calorie dish into a high fat disaster. Ask for the fat-free or light dressings and get them on the side. Then dip your fork into the dressing and spear the food. If they have a salad bar, load up on the fresh fruits, vegetables or boiled eggs with the yolks removed. Avoid Caesar, chef, Greek or taco salads.

Soups that are broth or tomato-based like gazpacho, minestrone and vegetable generally have fewer calories than chowder, creamed or pureed. A serving size is usually one measured cup, but many restaurants will serve 2 or three cups worth. Cut back by splitting a bowl with someone else at your table. Skip soup entirely if you're trying to cut down on sodium.

Bread Basket When ordering side dishes, look for steamed vegetable plates, just make sure they're not steamed in butter or oil. Baked potatoes without the toppings are very low in calories but they're high in simple carbs. Order sweet potatoes without toppings and you get a filling, low calorie side with complex carbs. If you're not in the mood for vegetables, ask for slices of tomato, whole grain rice or a serving of fresh fruit. Avoid fries, onion rings and potato chips.

Don't assume you know what the chef is going to do. Ask how the meals are prepared. The menu description might not tell you all the things that are added. Remember this simple mantra, "Grilled is good, breaded is bad." Baking, grilling, roasting and steaming are generally the healthier ways food can be prepared. Frying, deep frying and sautéing all tend to add large amounts of fat to the meal. Also ask that the kitchen avoid brushing your food with butter or oil.

Some menus will have seniors, lunch or children's portions that are typically smaller. Half-orders and small portions are also available at some places, see if any of those are options.

Salad Take control of what's on your plate. This is not your family dinner table where you have to eat everything put in front of you. Order an entree and split it with someone at the table. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, ask for a to-go box before the food is even delivered. Then cut everything down the middle and bring half home, that way you get two meals for the price of one. Put the extra in your to-go box before you start to eat, or you may be tempted to overindulge. Out of sight is out of mind.

When the food arrives, trim off any visible fat before you start. You should also remove the skin from chicken, turkey or other fowl.

Condiments can be your friend. Say no to added salt but indulge in the pepper. Don't put anything on your meal until after you've tasted it first. Avoid pouring sugar in your drinks. If they need to be sweeter, try combining some of the different artificial sweeteners. Skip the mayonnaise but feel free to use mustard or salsa if they have it, both are generally low fat or fat-free.

Start eating your meals backwards. Begin with the vegetables. Fill up with the lower calorie, higher fiber foods first, before you get to the main part of your dinner.

Slow down and stop eating when you're full. It sounds obvious, but many of us will keep eating until we get that "stuffed" feeling. If you're tempted to keep eating, ask the server to remove the plate when you're done so you have to stop.

Dessert is an indulgence. Skip it if you can, order one and split it with everyone at the table if you must. Cups of fresh fruit or flavored coffee with skim milk are also viable options.

Next week I'll go over healthier menu items for the most common types of restaurants.

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4/1/2007