First, do not be tempted by specials or the pictures in the menu. Most of these are entrees with large portions and more likely to have a high fat and/or caloric content. Always remember that the picture usually looks better than the actual food. If you are really interested in the special, see if you can have the server bring a to-go box so you can portion your meal prior to eating eat.
Second, always try to order just water. While fancy drink specials can be enticing, they usually have loads of calories and sugar, similar to sodas. Your other option is to opt for the single glass of red or white wine or unsweetened iced tea. Just remember to control the amount you take in- you want most of your calories from a meal to be from food instead of liquids.
As for choosing which meal is appropriate, definitely take your own cravings into account. A small portion of something you desire (even if it is unhealthy) can go a long way to avoid overeating at another time. Just remember that portion control is important and try to choose sides that include fresh grilled vegetables or whole grains.
Lean protein, such as chicken and fish, are probably the best choices for main dishes. Avoid fried foods, and choose entrees that include grilled, baked, or broiled in the description or name. Also, salads as a meal are a good choice, however, be careful about the dressing and the extras that are in the salad. For example, a chicken salad may have grilled chicken, but may also have full fat dressing, bacon, cheese, eggs, and croutons that add unnecessary extra protein and fat to the meal. Always ask for dressing on the side, even if it is a type of vinaigrette. A lot of vinaigrettes contain oils that can add up your daily calories as well.
If you go to a restaurant and find a sandwich as your main course, make sure to include sandwiches that have wheat or whole grain bread and lean meat (chicken, turkey, grilled fish). In addition, try to avoid the mayonnaise and use mustard instead. Check to see if you can have a salad or fresh fruit as a side instead of chips or French fries. Also, avoid sandwiches that indicate butter or oil was used to grill the bread; instead, see if they can lightly toast your sandwich, especially if you like it warm. Try to choose sandwiches that have more vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado, peppers, etc) instead of those that are stuffed with only meat and cheese.
Perhaps the hardest menus to choose from are restaurants that offer free bread and butter or chips/salsa as an appetizer before you have even ordered. Try to choose foods that are lower in carbohydrates since you will be (most likely) meeting your carbohydrate by eating the free bread and chips. For example, choose pasta that has a tomato based sauce (rather than a creamy or milk based sauce), loaded with vegetables and protein (beans or lean meat). Another option is to choose a lean meat as a main course, and have pasta (with a tomato based sauce) and vegetables as a side dish. Also, foods with sauces and cheese add extra calories and fat; try to choose foods without sauces, or ask to have the sauce on the side.
A good rule of thumb is to follow the government recommended MyPlate where half your plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables (without any extra fat). Find entrees that have a balanced mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fruit/vegetables. Look for whole grains or whole wheat such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta.
In sum, remember that portion control is the most important. While we all enjoy a good deal, restaurant portions are usually too much for one person to eat. Share a meal with a family member or friend, or put half away in a to-go box to avoid overeating at mealtime. Choose entrees that primarily include vegetables and avoid foods with extra sauces or cheese. Also remember to enjoy yourself! You are eating out and it is supposed to be a fun treat; everything in moderation.
Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating. To contact Rhea, please visit dazzlingdietitian.blogspot.com or her Twitter account, Rhea_Li.