Keep a few smart ordering ideas in mind when you’re eating out and you’ll stay in control of your calories, your appetite and your waistline!

All this month, we’ve been talking about making small changes in the way we buy, cook and serve food. This week, we tackle restaurant dining.

When I was a child, our family hardly ever went to restaurants. Going out was a big deal, and something that happened only on special occasions. How times have changed. These days Americans eat, on average, four meals a week away from home, and we consume about a third of our total calories in the process.

What you eat on a special occasion is one thing. But if you eat out as often most people do, a few small adjustments when you’re ordering can add up to big calorie savings over the long haul.

Here are some ‘little things’ you can do every time you eat out, and rack up plenty of calorie savings in the process.

6 Smart Ordering Tips

Spoil your dinner

One frequent problem with restaurant dining is that it takes time to get seated, look over the menu and place your order. By the time your meal arrives you’re starving. That’s why many restaurants pop down a basket of bread and butter or some tortilla chips and salsa to tide you over.

So, spoil your dinner a little bit: have a piece of fruit, a few bites of cottage cheese or yogurt or a small handful of nuts before you go. And turn down the bread and the chips, which can add hundreds of calories to your meal before you’ve dug into your first course.

Calories you could save: 150 (1 slice bread + butter) to 500 (basket of chips)

The water’s fine

Cocktails, wine, soda, and sweet beverages like lemonade don’t fill you up, but they can sure fill you out. In the case of soda, free refills are often the norm in America, and that could mean hundreds of extra calories. Instead, ask for unsweetened iced tea, plain water or mineral water with a slice of lemon.

Calories you could save: 100 (glass of wine) to 400 (large soda + 1 refill)

Skinny dip

Starting your meal with a salad is a great habit to get into—as long as the salad isn’t loaded down with fatty ingredients and heavy dressing. Opt for plenty of greens with an oil and vinegar dressing, served on the side. And ‘do the dip.’ Dip your fork in the dressing, then pick up some greens with your fork. You’ll get a little taste of dressing with each bite, and you’ll use far less.

Calories you could save: 200+ (75 calories per tablespoon – most restaurants add about 4 tablespoons of dressing to the typical dinner salad)

Go fish

Many people I talk to know they should eat more fish, but they don’t cook it at home. That’s either because they don’t know how to cook it properly, or they say it makes the house stink. Two good reasons why it’s a good choice when you go out. There’s another good reason, too. As long as it’s grilled and broiled, rather than deep fried, fish has a lot fewer calories than an equivalent serving of red meat.

Calories you could save: 200 (4 ounces grilled fish vs. 4 ounces broiled steak)

Take the first crack

If you’re dining with a group, try to order before everyone else does. If you’ve planned ahead and have a pretty good idea of what you want to eat, it’s a lot easier to stick with your agenda if you place your order first— before you get swayed by everyone else’s choices. When dessert time rolls around, you can ask for fresh fruit or coffee before you even peek at the menu, and before everyone else orders pastry.

Calories you could save: 300 (piece of layer cake) to 1000 (piece of cheesecake)

Do the splits

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entrée with a dining companion and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you’ve eaten your portion. Those in the restaurant business know that customers want value.

In other words, they want big portions at a reasonable price. Since it costs the restaurant much less to buy the food than it does to cook and serve it to you, most places are more than happy to super-size portions. They may be able to afford to pile it on—but can you?

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