Restaurant Rescue

“Smart strategies to help you stick to your diet when you're dining out.

By Bob Greene

Happy hour, birthday dinners, business lunches—it always seems like there's some occasion that needs celebrating. But for most dieters, these events can be anything but happy: Instead of enjoying yourself or catching up with friends, you're stressing over what to order, counting calories and wondering how you'll refuse dessert. You're afraid that all your hard work thus far will be undone by one irresistible Death by Chocolate.

Relax! You can eat out without blowing your diet. The secret is to know how and what to order. And with more and more places offering low-fat options or smaller portions, it's easier than ever. Use the tricks below, and your next happy hour with friends will be just that—happy.

Choose the place. Pick a restaurant that you're familiar with, one that serves a lot of nutritious, tasty food. If someone has already made reservations, go online ahead of time to check out the menu (most restaurants post menus on their websites) so you can avoid the pressure of trying to find a diet-friendly dish on the fly.

Eat ahead of time. Have a small snack, like a piece of fruit and part-skim string cheese, before you leave. It's hard to order healthfully when your stomach is growling.

Master the menu. Certain words can tip you off to the nutritional value of a meal. For instance, baked or broiled is healthy; fried, creamy or crispy isn't. And don't be afraid to ask for something that's not on the menu or to make a special request, like having your meal prepared with little or no oil.

Bypass the bread basket. Try to steer clear of the bread basket if possible—that's no easy task, I know. To make it a little easier, ask the waiter to bring it out with the main course so you're not tempted to nibble while you wait. Or, order water and sip it until your meal comes. If you must have a piece, go for one small roll or a single slice of bread.

Start with a salad. You'll eat less of your main course if you have a salad first. Opt for a bowl of plain greens (Caesar or Cobb salads do not count!), and remember to use a low-fat dressing.

Take two. An easy way to keep your calories in check is to limit yourself to only two courses. For example, if you want an appetizer and an entrée, skip dessert. Or, order an entrée and dessert, and pass on appetizers. (Green salads are exempt from this rule as long as they're not loaded with fatty extras; see tip above.) And feel free to split dishes with your dining companions. Portions are usually large enough to serve several people. You're just a few smart moves away from a happy and healthy restaurant meal.