If you're on a special diet and planning to try a new restaurant, call ahead to see whether it offers suitable menu choices or if substitutions can readily be made. With the exception of fast-food restaurants, where everything is already prepared when you get there, most restaurants are happy to modify their dishes by changing the cooking method, leaving out an ingredient or serving part of the dish, such as the gravy or dressing, on the side so you can control the amount you eat.
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, you should be extremely careful about eating out. Common allergens and irritants include milk, eggs, shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), fish, citrus fruits, legumes (soybeans, lima beans), peanuts, spices, artificial food dyes, molds, sulfites and wheat. Ask specific questions, and be sure your waiter understands the different ways an allergen can get into a dish. For example, the stock base in a harmless-sounding corn chowder may contain clam juice, a disaster for someone allergic to clams and other members of the mollusk or shellfish family.
For the average health-conscious person, there's something for everyone on almost every restaurant menu. Keep these eating-out tips in mind to avoid the major pitfalls of restaurant food:
Translate menu language. Look for entrees on the menu that are broiled, grilled, poached, steamed, roasted or baked, and avoid foods described as fried, crisp, sauteed, creamy, creamed, au gratin, escalloped or breaded.
Share with a friend. You won't tend to overeat if you split your appetizer and dessert.
Watch portion size. If you know you'll be tempted to eat more than you should, ask to have your "doggy bag" prepared in advance, so you'll only get a half order at the table. Some restaurants will even let you order a half order or children's portion of pasta as an entree.
Eat low-calorie foods first. Order a salad as your first course and when dinner arrives, start with the lowest calorie foods on your plate.
Go for balance. If you really want a high-fat or high-calorie entree, balance it with lean choices for the rest of the meal.
Here are some healthy choices you can make at different types of restaurants:
At a pizzeria, choose plain cheese pizza or pizza with vegetable toppings instead of meat toppings. Plain cheese pizza (181 calories) and vegetable pizza (188 calories) both weigh in with about 7 grams of fat and 460 milligrams of sodium. By contrast, meat pizza (234 calories) has 12 grams of fat and 611 milligrams of sodium. [Source: USDA]
In an Italian restaurant, ask for breadsticks instead of bread, and ask for oil and vinegar on the side to dress your own salad. Order pasta with red sauce such as marinara instead of such creamy white or butter sauces as Alfredo. Choose chicken dishes instead of meat and sausage dishes. Have a cappuccino for dessert.
In a Chinese restaurant, choose steamed rice instead of fried rice, steamed dumplings instead of fried and vegetarian entrees that include a number of different vegetables.
In a Japanese restaurant, pass up tempura in any form because fried food should be avoided.
In a Mexican restaurant, choose salsa instead of sour cream or cheese dips. Choose dishes made with plain, soft tortillas that aren't fried, such as burritos, soft tacos and enchiladas. Have black bean soup as a first course.
In a cafeteria or food-buffet restaurant, fill your plate with plain vegetable side dishes before you go for the meat. Look for grilled, broiled or flame-cooked chicken, fish and lean meats and avoid anything breaded, batter-dipped or fried. If there's a salad bar, concentrate on crisp, crunchy vegetable and bean mixtures; leave the potato, macaroni and tuna salads behind.