A chef prepares a sizable plate of food.
Many restaurants dole out a sizable plate of food for one order, so try to keep an eye on your portions. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Whether it’s a Friday night dinner with family or friends, a business lunch, or takeout from your favorite restaurant, eating out can spell disaster for those trying to follow a healthy diet.

But it doesn’t need to.

With a little thought and planning, healthy dining out is possible, Spectrum Health dietitian Kristi Veltkamp said.

“A lot of restaurants recognize that people want to eat healthier,” Veltkamp said. “Pretty much anywhere you go, there’s always a healthy option.”

Here are her tips for keeping calories down and nutrition value up when dining out.

1. Get in the right frame of mind

Many times, we fall into the trap of feeling like eating out is a special occasion—and therefore we should eat whatever, and how much, we want, Veltkamp said. That can work if you’re eating out infrequently, but if it’s a regular habit, it can lead you off track.

Veltkamp likes a strategy she learned in the book, The Diet Trap Solution: Train Your Brain to Lose Weight. Think about the traps that get you off track and anticipate how you will handle those in advance.

“If you have laid it out ahead of time, you eliminate the debating you need to do when you get there,” she said. “If you have already made up your mind, you don’t need to think about it.”

Many restaurants have their menus available online—some with nutrition information, allowing you to plan your order from home.

“Sometimes just having that in mind before you go will help you to not get distracted by why other people are ordering or what you see on the menu when you get there,” she said.

Another mindset strategy: Fast forward and think about yourself leaving the restaurant.

“Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to feel like emotionally or physically when I walk out of the restaurant?” Veltkamp said. “Is it worth feeling this way afterward?”

2. Know what you’re looking for

Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s healthy and what’s not on a restaurant menu, Veltkamp said.

For your main course, look for a lean source of protein that’s not breaded or deep-fried, such as grilled or baked fish or chicken. If you want beef, choose a leaner cut such as sirloin, she suggested.

Then think about your sides, opting for a baked potato, salad, steamed vegetables or fruit. Broth-based (not creamy) soups are good options as well.

And watch your add-ons, such as bread, appetizers and dessert. You can request that your server not bring bread or tortilla chips to the table before the meal—or that they bring only one serving per person.

Or ask that they bring your salad first, so you have something to eat while you wait for your entrée. Even sipping on a coffee or tea can help avoid the pre-meal munchies, she said.

For special occasions, it might be fun to order an appetizer or dessert, Veltkamp said. Consider splitting it with your dining partners, or asking if you can just have a bite of someone else’s.

3. Control your portion size

One thing about dining out is nearly universal—at most restaurants, you’re getting much more than the recommended portion size, Veltkamp warned.

In fact, many times it’s enough for two meals, she said.

Veltkamp recommends using your hand as a portion guide. The palm of your hand should be the size of your protein portion. Then half of your plate should be filled with vegetables, followed by 1 to 2 cupped handfuls of starch.

Other tips: Order a child portion or senior-sized portion, if that’s an option. Order one meal and split it with someone. Or ask for a to-go box when they bring your meal and immediately put half of the meal in the box.

“If we see it there, we’re going to keep picking at it,” Veltkamp said. “Splitting it early and getting it out of sight helps because we get distracted by talking and we don’t pay as much attention to when we’re full.

“This gives you a nice starting point,” she said. “And then if you feel like you could use a little more food, you can always take more out of the to-go box.”

Also remember it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to know that your stomach is full. So slow down, eat mindfully and stop when you are satisfied.

4. Ask questions

“It’s OK to ask questions and to try to customize meals,” Veltkamp said.

How is this cooked? Is it buttered? What sauces are added to it? I’m on a heart-healthy diet or low sodium diet—what would you recommend?

“Sometimes they have options that are not on the menu,” Veltkamp said. “I have found a lot of times that just by asking questions, they can accommodate a lot of things.”

5. Watch your beverages

It’s possible to eat a very healthy meal and then sabotage it by ordering high-sugar, high-calorie drinks, Veltkamp said.

Soft drinks, sweetened iced tea, lemonade, wine, beer and sweet alcoholic drinks like piña coladas and daiquiris can add calories in the form of carbohydrates—fast.

So Veltkamp urged diners to know how many calories are in their drink—and at what serving size.

A serving size of wine is 5 ounces and beer is 12 ounces, she said.

“Keep that in mind when you are ordering because you could be having two servings instead of one,” Veltkamp said.

With these tools, even those sticking to a healthy diet can enjoy a night out, or a takeout night at home, without blowing their diet, Veltkamp said.

“It just takes being mindful,” she said.