Eating out has become a much more frequent pastime in recent years. Today, nearly 40 percent of the food budget is spent on dining out. Most of us eat at least one meal every day outside of our homes. And, while restaurants are becoming more and more conscious of the food choices they offer and making efforts to add healthier selections to their menus, there are still many ways that you can make it a healthier experience.

Step One: Trim the Fat

Don’t hesitate to make special requests when dining out. Ask for broiled or baked instead of fried when ordering fish or chicken and keep in mind that a baked potato provides more fiber and fewer calories than fries or mashed – leave off the sour cream and butter or use only small amounts. Cut fat, by choosing food that has been grilled, broiled, baked, blackened, stir fried, roasted, poached or steamed. Get the lowdown on how foods are prepared from your waiter.

Step Two: Search for Small Portion Sizes

With today’s trend toward supersizing, it may take some persistence on your part to find good quality food that is served in modest portions. The easiest way to control weight and make eating out healthier is to order smaller-sized entrées. Search the menu for words like petite, junior, single or half-portions. And, if you can’t find smaller portion sizes, then ask to have half your meal wrapped up before it’s served. You’ll enjoy the other half even more the next day. Otherwise, you can share a meal or keep it light by ordering an appetizer instead of a full entrée. By all means, avoid those all-you-can-eat buffets and salad bars.

Step Three: Dress Your Own Salads

Salads are naturally low in calories. That is unless they are laden with high-fat extras like: croutons, cheese and bacon bits. Ask for these high-fat items to be put on the side or else eliminated entirely from your heart-healthy salad. By ordering high-fat salad dressing, sour cream, butter, mayonnaise, or guacamole “on the side,” you take control of how much fat becomes part of your meal. Better yet, try squeezing lemon on to your salad instead of dressing or try rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar. If you must have high-fat dressing, order it on the side and don’t pour it over your salad, instead, dip your fork into the dressing and then into the salad – you’ll get a taste of dressing with each mouthful.

Step Four: Remember, a Fat by Any Other Name is Still a Fat

Read the menu carefully and rule out selections that contain ingredients like sour cream, cheese, cream sauce, butter, cheese sauce, white sauce, bacon or sausage. Avoid items described as buttery, fried, pan-fried, crispy, creamed, in gravy, au gratin, or marinated in oil. When it comes to appetizers, steer clear of rich creamy soups and choose a broth-based soup like minestrone or opt for a salad.

Step Five: Drink Plenty of Water

A great way to avoid overeating is to drink several glasses of water before your meal. You will feel full and have less of a tendency to eat more than you should.

Step Six: Start out Light

Starting your meal with lower-calorie foods like salads or clear broth soups can help fill you up before you get to the higher-calorie portion of the meal. Stay away from the bread basket entirely or else choose Melba toast or whole-grain rolls without butter or margarine.

Leave Room for Dessert

If you’ve followed all six steps, you’ll probably have room for dessert. You might want to treat yourself by splitting dessert with your partner or end your meal with some refreshing seasonal fruit or sorbet.

Bite into a Healthy Lunch

If your idea of eating lunch during the work week is a sandwich on the run, then be sure to choose lean cuts of beef, ham, turkey or chicken, ask for whole grain bread and increase the nutritional value by adding tomato, peppers and other vegetables. If mayonnaise is a ‘must have’ on your sandwiches, then ask for just a little or request mayo on the side.

The bottom-line is: watch what you eat, be conscious of portion size and stay away from hidden fats. If you do, then eating out can be both enjoyable and healthier! Bon appetit!