Americans have a love affair with food and we obviously enjoy eating out.  On any given day in 2010 diners eating out will spend $1.6 billion dollars. Sales for 2010 are projected to reach $580 billion dollars.  Restaurants number over 945,000 in the US, and employ more than 12.7 million people.

Although dining away from home can be hard on your pocketbook and your waist, there are a few key factors you can keep in mind to eat better while you’re away from home.

1. The first thing to consider when eating out, is to know what’s in the food you’re eating when you’re ordering out at a restaurant or fast food establishment. Although this may have been difficult in the past, a new provision in President Obama’s health care bill will require chain restaurants (those with more than 20 locations) to openly post or disclose calorie counts on their menus.  The practice of actually implementing these new labeling guidelines may actually take several years, but in the interim, you can search for restaurants that are already posting their nutritional food facts on their website, and/or look online for calorie counts of certain items before you leave the house.

healthy-lunch-yogurt Some states and areas have already begun implementing laws that require establishments to disclose nutritional information. New York City, for example, had such laws which were implemented in 2008. Other states are also looking at such laws as well.

2. Be Flexible, and Research your Options: Salads are not always the healthiest choice. Know that croutons, high fat dressings, and cheese can add mega calories to your meal.  Order a salad with veggies only and bring your own plain vinegar and a teaspoon of olive oil to make your own dressing.  If salads aren’t an option, choose a plain burger that is grilled, with no cheese and no sauces or dressings. Ask for yours without the bread and then add a plain baked potato (small) to complete your meal.

Stay away from anything that’s fried or has lots of creamy sauces on it. Ask how food is prepared if you’re not sure.

3. Request Foods to Be Served Differently: Although it can seem like a scene from a popular sitcom, when I order I’m always asking the server: “Can you please leave the dressing on the side?” Or “please no gravy”. If I’m feeling like I want just a little taste of something, I just ask them to bring the extra sauce on the side and then allow myself one bit of it if it’s something I really want. Most of the time if I take the one bite, it is too rick and doesn’t taste good anyway.  If you don’t have your dressing with you that you brought from home you can always ask for a little oil and vinegar to be brought to your table. Another tip that I sometimes use with salads is if I want a heavier dressing, I’ll get it on the side and then just dip my fork tips lightly into the dressing and then touch the salad. This way I am also able to taste the dressing but don’t allow it to overpower the veggies and/or salad.

Bonus Tip A: Don’t wait so long to eat that you’re starving: Many times people think that snacking will cause them to gain weight, when in actuality small meals several times a day are better than 3 large ones. The key is to keep your body’s metabolism burning, so that it’s efficient. By not fueling your body regularly or giving it only large meals to digest, your system actually becomes less effective with calorie burning. Because your body isn’t sure when you’ll feed it again, it may slow down your metabolism and hang onto the calories it has. Snacking keeps your engine going and helps stablilize your blood sugar so you won’t feel so hungry or get swings in your mood or performance that’s associated with low blood sugar. Have an apple before you go to dinner. Add in a 1/2 teaspoon of peanut butter with your apple, and you’ll be set to resist all of the strongest temptations.

Bonus Tip B: Use the Grocery Store when You’re Out and About: Who says the only place we can eat while away from home is a restaurant? These days you can run in to your local grocery and pick up some fresh produce, please wash it carefully first, then enjoy some fresh fruit along with perhaps a small cup of fat free greek yogurt. Extremely delicious, healthy and a good way to get some vitamins along with calcium for your bones.