"Eating out presents special challenges if you are trying to consume a healthy diet," said Dr. Mara Vitolins. "But it is possible to learn strategies to eat a healthy meal even at a fast food restaurant."
Special challenges include "biggie" portions, appetizers such as blooming onions and desserts called "chocolate decadence," said Vitolins, assistant professor of public health sciences (epidemiology) and a member of the Center for Research on Human Nutrition and Chronic Disease Prevention.
There's also pressure from your friends, especially if you draw attention to your healthy-eating quest by asking lots of questions, Vitolins said.
"They may result in attempts to sabotage your efforts by saying, 'Aw, come on, can't you splurge just one night?'"
Sometimes, it's easy. For instance, some restaurants note healthy meals on their menus with a star or some other symbol.
But other times, it can be more difficult. Here are some tips from Vitolins:
1. Call ahead. "When going out to dinner at a restaurant, call the restaurant in advance to find out what types of healthier foods they have on the menu. This eliminates having to ask the wait staff about these items in front of your friends."
2. Learn the lingo. "Knowing that terms such as 'steamed,' 'poached' or 'roasted' indicate lower-fat preparation methods, whereas 'buttered,' 'scalloped,' 'au gratin,' and 'fried' indicate greater amounts of fat were used in the preparation that can really make a difference in the amount of calories you consume," Vitolins said. "Asking for a baked potato to replace the scalloped potatoes can save you many calories in particular, fat calories."
3. Don't be afraid to ask; don't be afraid to modify. "Restaurant wait staff can assist you, but you have to ask," Vitolins says. "They can tell you about the types of sauces served on main dishes, lower calorie/fat dressing choices, as well as options for side dishes. Feel free to modify your meal by asking for the sauce to be left off or served on the side, selecting a lower fat dressing and/or ask for it on the side, leaving the grated cheese off your salad, and/or ordering sherbet without the cake. Most restaurants will accommodate these types of menu modifications, and if they don't, consider selecting a different restaurant the next time you go out to dine."
4. Control your portions. "At all costs, refrain from super sizing your order, even if there is economic incentive to do so," Vitolins said. Instead, consider undersizing. "Order a kid's meal for the smaller portions, fewer calories, and less fat."
5. Know your fast food restaurants. "Some fast food restaurants have healthier food selections, such as plain baked potatoes, chili, salads, vegetarian burgers," Vitolins said. The calories, fat content, cholesterol and sodium in many of the menu items at 12 leading fast food restaurants are listed in the "Drive-Thru Diet" portion of the Nutrition Center Web site.
"When your kids insist on eating at a restaurant based on the toy selection of the week and that restaurant has a limited selection of healthier foods, the best option is to order a kid's meal or share your meal with someone," Vitolins said.
"Don't hesitate to special-order your food. Leave off the mayonnaise-based dressings and cheese, add more tomato and lettuce."
Vitolins has her own favorite solution for fast food restaurants.
"My favorite fast food meal is a grilled-cheese sandwich I order a cheeseburger but ask them to hold the meat and mayo salad with low fat dressing, and milk."
Get the latest wellness, nutrition and fitness information in our Health Club section