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In our busy lives, sometimes grabbing a quick dinner out is inevitable. But eating at restaurants doesn’t have to negatively impact your health and fitness goals. You can make wholesome choices at restaurants that are good for you and still taste great, allowing you to enjoy a stress-free restaurant experience, which, after all, is the point of eating out in the first place.

Be Menu Smart

Preparation and attention are essential to eating a healthy dinner at a restaurant. Most restaurants post their menus online, meaning you can look at your options ahead of time and consider the best choice. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed or distracted when you’re at the restaurant and making a poor choice. When you’re reading the menu, keep an eye out for specific words that denote fatty cooking techniques like “fried,” “crispy,” or “breaded.” Instead, look for “steamed,” “grilled,” and “baked.”

Pay Attention to Your Sides

Traditional side dishes are rarely healthy. Usually consisting of some variety of potato (think fries), side dishes are a sure-fire way to rack up unnecessary calories and fat, regardless of how healthy your main dish is. Check the menu for other side-dish options like vegetables or salad, and choose those instead. You can even ask for extra vegetables and request they be cooked without butter or oil.

Understand Portion Sizes

Restaurants benefit from happy customers full of delicious food, so they typically serve portions that are much larger than what the average person needs for a meal. The food is also typically cooked with lots of fat and salt to make sure it tastes good. Avoid the temptation to overeat by asking for a take-home box when your food arrives and boxing up half or one-third of your meal for later. Alternatively, you can split a meal with your dinner companion. This technique also saves money by stretching out expensive restaurant prices.

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Beware Salad Spoilers

When trying to order healthily at a restaurant, your gut instinct is to go straight for the salad section of the menu. It makes sense, salads are a great way to get plenty of vegetables and protein. Still, restaurants have a habit of piling that healthy bed of greens with fatty ingredients that make the salad delicious but take your meal quickly into unhealthy territory. Be on the lookout for salad toppings like cheese, bacon, croutons, and heavy, creamy dressings. Opt for a vinaigrette served on the side so you can control how much dressing you eat, and ask to leave off extraneous toppings that only add fat and calories with little nutritional value. 

Resist The Urge To Snack Before Dinner

Many restaurants offer free pre-dinner snacks to whet your appetite. These can be baskets of breadsticks at Italian restaurants or piles of chips and salsa at a Mexican eatery. Although these treats usually appear on the table without asking and are automatically refilled, do your best to avoid digging in. In most cases, the entree is the main event and probably why you chose the restaurant you did. So, skip filling up on free bread and save room for the good stuff.

Think Critically About Your Choices

Many restaurants brag about their healthy options, whether that means gluten-free, paleo, sugar-free, or any number of other modifiers that sound like they should make your food healthier. But just because something doesn’t contain sugar or gluten doesn’t automatically make it good for you. Read the menu carefully and use your best judgment to make the right choice for your health.

Restaurant dining doesn’t have to spell disaster for your diet. You can enjoy a meal out and still make healthy choices with a bit of analysis and making reasonable requests to ensure your meal turns out exactly how you want it.