Dining out has become our national pastime. So has porking up. Is there a link between them? You bet your Krispy Kremes. We're a fast-food nation of overeating eater-outers, and if you want to trim down and stay healthy, you've got to wise up when it comes to ordering a restaurant meal. Fish before steak; veggies over carbs. Eating out isn't the enemy. Spacing out is.
Menu aerobics is all about activating your awareness and exercising good judgment. Take the following strategies to heart and not only will your whole body benefit but also you'll save money:
--Forget fried. This is basic. Stop ordering fried foods. Just say no to fried chicken, fried fish, fried potatoes and all their high-fat friends. And when you have a lapse -- you will -- at least pull the breading off before you chow down.
This is extremely challenging in the case of crispy french fries, so if that's your weakness, eat five of them, slowly, and move the rest out of reach. If you're not sure whether the item is fried -- I am speaking to the boys now -- ask. A chimichanga is fried. Anything parmigiana is fried. If giving up fried foods sounds impossible and even un-American, just postpone your next fried meal until the next time you eat out ... and then the next time ... and soon you'll discover how delicious baked and broiled foods taste.
--Focus on starters. Next to sharing an entree, this is my favorite tactic when eating out, especially in an upscale restaurant. Open the menu, and ignore the entrees. Go immediately to the appetizers, sides and salads. And rejoice. Great taste, smaller portions. You'll save hundreds of calories each time you make a meal of a soup (not creamy or cheesy) or salad and an appetizer. If you're worried that you won't feel full, tell yourself you may order something else, later. I've done this dozens of times, maybe thousands, and I can pretty much guarantee that "later" never will come. Don't worry about what your dining partners will say. Chances are they'll start ordering the same smart way.
--Wet stuff on the side. Memorize and use the following phrase and you can save zillions of unwanted fat calories: "Please bring the sauce (or salad dressing) on the side." Is that so hard? Practice at home, and say it with a smile in every restaurant you visit. I'm all for tasty sauces and dressings, but most restaurants just pour it on without thinking, and without thinking, you take it all in. So get the wet stuff on the side; dip your fork in, and sprinkle on modest amounts. The difference between 1 1/2 tablespoons of a dressing and the typical quarter-cup portion can be 20 grams of fat or more.
--Split dishes or love your leftovers. When did portions in restaurants explode? It's obscene. Europeans gasp at our supersize meals. Asians faint. Research proves the obvious: The more food on your plate the more you eat. So tactic No. 1 is to share an entree with a pal. A tummy-trimming alternative is to order an entree yourself, eat half and then take the rest home. If you have a problem leaving food on the plate -- as a charter member of the Clean Plate Club, I know this syndrome well -- then do something daring and order a doggie bag when you order the meal. When it arrives, put half your entree into the bag, and try not to forget it when you leave. Yes, this is a drastic measure. But portionwise, these are crazy times.
--Bread and water. To avoid temptation, ask your waiter to remove the bread from the table. Take a roll, if you must, but don't slather on the butter. Drink a glass of water before you begin your meal to jump-start that full feeling. Limit alcohol to one drink, and toast your good judgment.
--Dessert! The healthiest desserts are fruits and ices. If you can't resist that chocolate cream pie or peach cobbler, share it -- and then limit yourself to a few mindful bites. Slow down, and focus on the yumminess of whatever you've chosen. Pass it around. Then kiss it goodbye.
Marilynn Preston -- fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues -- is the creator of "Energy Express," the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. It can be found at creators.com.