You may have heard advice to dine out less often if you want to weigh less. That’s like telling people to leave their cars in the garage if they want to avoid getting into an automobile accident. To improve highway safety, we need driver’s education. Diners’ education can help avoid menu mishaps.
Menus are maps: Read the menu and listen carefully when servers list the specials. Check out the menu online to help you plan a safe route. If you want to splurge on the fried calamari, choose a grilled entree. If you love sweets, ask to see the dessert menu first so you know where you’re headed.
Signal your moves: Be specific about what you want or don’t want. For example, “‘May I have more lemon slices?,” “Can you lightly brush the fish with butter?” or “Ask the chef not to salt my food.”
Keep your eyes open: Look around and see what other diners are eating so you get a visual on portion sizes. Way too large? Split the entree or plan to box up half for carryout. Watching other plates will let you see that entrees “served with spring greens” either come with a sizable salad or a just a wisp of lettuce garnish.
Note road hazards: The fresh baked bread can be hard to resist. Ditto the bowl of olive oil. Did you know that olive oil and butter have the same number of calories? And dipping bread in olive oil can soak up more fat than a thin spread of butter.
Mixed green salads are a great starter, but watch out for goat cheese, blue cheese, cheddar cheese and sugar-glazed nuts that can add hundreds of calories.
Look for alternative routes: Be honest when the server asks you how you like your meal. They want to work fast to make you happy. Is the snapper still swimming in butter? Don’t suffer in silence. Send it back. Is the chicken tasteless because you ordered it simply grilled? The balsamic vinaigrette for the salad might be the best quick request to add flavor.
Control that sports car: Cheering on the Atlanta Braves at the stadium? Avoid driving up calorie scores. The Dixie Dog, a half-pound of frankfurter that’s flash-fried and topped with pulled pork barbecue, low-country mustard, barbecue sauce, pickles and creamy Southern slaw, has about 1,277 calories, 98 grams of fat and 2,280 milligrams of sodium. Dietitian Rachel Berman, Caloriecount.com’s director of nutrition, says, “A regular hot dog with ketchup will cost you less than 300 calories. Skip the footlong, which will double that count.” Mustard, relish and onions are low-calorie toppings, too. (At least we don’t have to compete with Dodger Stadium’s Victory Knot. This mega pretzel is 2 pounds of dough served in a pizza box with chipotle honey mustard, sweet cinnamon creme and beer cheese. Berman estimates it has 3,080 calories.)
Enjoy the ride: Make dining out a special occasion and enjoy the conversation and the entertainment as much as the food.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.