It’s all too easy to blow your diet with just one meal at a restaurant, especially a fast-food chain. Here are tips for reducing your calorie intake when dining out.

Americans are eating out more, and the more you eat out — especially if you eat calorie-laden fast food — the more likely you are to gain weight, according to recent research. It’s easy to see why: You can easily consume 1,000 calories or more in just one sitting. How can you make smart calorie choices so as not to sabotage your diet when eating out at a restaurant?

The more control you have over the food in front of you, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to stick to a lower-calorie eating-out plan, says Kathryn M. Kolasa, PhD, RD, professor and section head of nutrition services and patient education in the departments of family medicine and pediatrics at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

Calories and Eating Out: Control Your Setting

Dr. Kolasa presents her patients with several strategies for calorie control when eating out in restaurants, among them:

  • Eat at restaurants that either display or have available nutrition information, especially calorie information. Use it to make informed choices.
  • If the restaurant serves large portions, eyeball what you will eat. Once you’ve eaten that amount, have the wait staff take the rest away. Never leave a partially consumed meal in front of you — it’s too tempting to pick at it.
  • Lobby for your workplace to have healthy eating options in the cafeteria and vending machines.
  • If you’ll be eating fast food, try to check out the chain’s Web site in advance and make your selections ahead of time. (Most chains now post menu choices along with calorie counts and other nutrition information.) Stick to your decision and don’t be influenced by those with you.

“You don’t need to give up eating out if you become an informed customer and eat at places that promote healthy options,” says Kolasa. Many chain restaurants offer lower-calorie menus. For example, Red Lobster’s Lighthouse menu features calorie counts for its food offerings and information on fat, sodium, and carb content. Chili’s offers the Guiltless Grill menu, with several entrees under 750 calories.

Calories and Eating Out: Adopt Your Own Diet Strategies

You don’t have to be a nutrition expert to be smart about controlling calories when eating out. Sherrie Wooldridge, who manages outreach and community programs at a government agency in Leonardtown, Md., is committed to exercise and equally committed to controlling her calorie intake. Among her tips for calorie management when eating out:

  • Drink lots of water with the meal.
  • Order a salad.
  • Avoid the complimentary bread they put on the table.
  • If fries come with your order, ask for a vegetable instead.

Wooldridge’s favorite strategy is to order only from the appetizer menu. Restaurants usually don’t object, and ordering a couple of appetizers instead of an entree not only permits her to sample a variety of food and save calories, it can save money, too. “I don’t feel I’m missing out. I just enjoy the taste of the food instead of quantity,” she says.

While eating out can be fun, you can also try to mix things up — and save money — with alternate activities to do with friends. Instead of going out to lunch at work, Kolasa suggests bringing healthy low-calorie meals from home. “Find other ways to socialize rather than eating out. During mild days, meet your friends at a park or at the company picnic table. Get away from your desk,” she advises, adding that there’s a basic key to controlling calories, whether you’re eating out or in: “Adopt a healthy eating pattern rather than diet.”