Making small changes in the way we buy, cook, and serve food can really make a difference, health-wise. But what about restaurant dining?

These days, we Americans eat, on average, four meals a week away from home – and consume about a third of our total calories in the process.  The average American can spend up to $4,249 per year on dining out.

What you eat on a special occasion is one thing – but you can eliminate excess calories and enjoy a healthier meal with just a few adjustments.

Healthy Habits to Adopt When Dining Out

Here are some simple things you can do every time you eat out to forge healthier dining habits:

Spoil your dinner a bit.

One frequent problem with restaurant dining is that it takes time to get seated, look over the menu, and place your order. By the time your meal arrives, you’re starving. That’s why many restaurants plop down a basket of bread and butter or some chips and salsa to tide you over.

Instead, spoil your dinner a little bit: have a piece of fruit, a few bites of cottage cheese or yogurt, or a small handful of nuts before you go. Turn down the bread and the chips, which can add hundreds of calories to your meal before you’ve started on the first course.

Calories you could reduce: 150 (1 slice bread + butter) to 500 (basket of chips). 

Just go with water.

Cocktails, wine, soda, and sweet beverages like lemonade don’t fill you up, but they can sure fill you out. And, in the case of soda, free refills are often the norm – which could mean hundreds of extra calories.  Instead, ask for unsweetened iced tea, plain water or mineral water with a slice of lemon.

Calories you could reduce: 100 (glass of wine) to 400 (large soda + 1 refill).

Skinny dip.

Starting your meal with a salad is a great habit to get into, as long as the salad isn’t loaded down with fatty ingredients and heavy dressing. Opt for plenty of greens with an oil and vinegar dressing, served on the side, and “do the dip.” Dip your fork in the dressing, then pick up some greens with your fork. You’ll get a little taste of dressing with each bite, but you’ll use far less.

Calories you could reduce: 200+ 

Go fish.

Many people I talk to know they should eat more fish, but they don’t cook it at home – either because they don’t know how to cook it properly, or they say it makes the house stink – two good reasons why it makes sense to dine out.

There’s another good reason, too. As long as it’s grilled or broiled, rather than deep fried, fish has a lot fewer calories than an equivalent serving of red meat.

Calories you could reduce: 200 (4 ounces grilled fish vs. 4 ounces broiled steak).

Take the first crack.

If you’re dining with a group, try to order before everyone else does. If you’ve planned ahead and have a pretty good idea of what you want to eat, it’s a lot easier to stick with your agenda if you place your order first, before you get swayed by everyone else’s choices.

When dessert time rolls around, you can ask for fresh fruit or coffee before you even peek at the menu – and before everyone else orders pastry. 

Calories you could reduce: 300 (piece of layer cake) to 1000 (piece of cheesecake).

Do the splits and watch those calories.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entrée with a dining companion and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you’ve eaten your portion.

Calories you could reduce: Hundreds. Restaurant entrees can easily run 800-1000 calories.

Susan Bowerman

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman is the senior director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Dietetic Advisory Board (DAB). As a registered dietitian, she educates distributors about our global nutrition philosophy and is responsible for developing nutrition education and training materials. Bowerman earned a B.S. in Biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds two board certifications as a specialist in Sports Dietetics and in Obesity and Weight Management. When she is not busy teaching and writing, Susan enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and gardening. Her favorite Herbalife products include Simply Probiotic and Herbalife Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix Banana Caramel.