Low-Calorie Meals at Restaurants

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that on average, Americans get 32 percent of their total calories from foods away from home, such as from restaurants. Frequently eating restaurant meals can increase your risk for obesity, according to the publication "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." To stay within your calorie budget while eating at restaurants, choose low-calorie, nutrient-dense items, and limit your portion sizes.

Salads and Soups Can Be Friends or Foes

Salad greens, such as lettuce and spinach, have fewer than 10 calories per cup and can be foundations of low-calorie salads for a starter, side or main course. Choose a salad with additional chopped vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, and include a lean source of protein, such as grilled shrimp, if your salad is your entree. Order low-fat dressing on the side. Limit full-fat dressing mixed into the salad, as well as high-calorie ingredients such as croutons, tortilla chips, chow mein noodles, Italian deli meats, such as salami and pepperoni, and full-fat cheese.

A Low-Calorie Main Course

To get a low-calorie main course, look for a source of lean protein, such as skinless chicken or turkey breast, fish, seafood or lean beef. Order it grilled, broiled, roasted or stewed, rather than fried or cooked in cream sauce. Pasta in cream sauce and pot pies are examples of high-calorie meals. Choose steamed vegetables rather than buttered vegetables or mashed potatoes on the side. If your server brings you a main course that is too large to fit into your calorie budget, pack up half or more of your plate before you start eating. You can eat the packed leftovers at home for your next meal.

Be Careful of the “Extras”

Breadsticks and butter can add hundreds of calories before you even order. An order of appetizers such as chips and dip, fried onion rings or cheese, egg rolls and chicken wings can have hundreds of calories, so limit your consumption. Stick with freshly cut vegetables or broth-based soup, such as chicken noodle. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, lemonade and smoothies can contribute more calories than you need for the entire meal. Choose water, which is calorie-free, instead. For dessert, ask about fresh fruit or cottage cheese instead of ordering ice cream or a baked good with several hundred calories.

Additional Tips

Check online ahead of time to see whether the nutrition information is available so that you can better plan your low-calorie meal. You can also ask to see the nutrition information when you are at the restaurant. Columbia University recommends that you pay attention to your portion sizes and order smaller portions when possible. Ask how the food is prepared, and ask for lower-calorie preparation methods. For example, order grilled instead of fried chicken and fish with lemon juice instead of pepper.