**This is the final installment of the What Should I Eat Series. In parts 1-3 I have reviewed the basics, my eating habits and smart shopping.

Dining out. The dagger to the heart of many diets. Just when you’ve gotten on track a restaurant shows up out of nowhere and halts your momentum or worse, derails your new and improved healthy lifestyle.

Are restaurants evil by nature? Some- absolutely. Most, however, are not inherently unhealthy and just require a little planning and a few ground rules to successfully navigate. That’s precisely what we hope to accomplish here. Establish some skills that can be used for smart and successful dining out experiences.

General guidelines
Keep it simple
Keep it simple. Dining out doesn’t have to be complicated. How? Let’s take a look at some ways to keep dining out very manageable…

Know your nutritional goals
If you know what you want to eat it makes choosing the right foods much easier. Plan on eating whole foods and keeping things simple. These are the guidelines we established in part 1.

Know what you don’t want to eat
Similarly, knowing what you don’t want to eat can offer a great focus to your meal planning. If you don’t eat wheat, then go straight to the gluten free part of the menu. If you are avoiding vegetable oils, skip things that could include them in the preparation. Watch out for salad dressings- they are notorious for vegetable oils. Skipping sugar? Then look for things seasoned and grilled with herbs and spices. If it “probably” contains something unhealthy- assume it does. This is likely a situation it is okay to assume.

Know menus
More and more menus include calories and nutritional breakdown. Practice reading menus and examine what they list and don’t list. Typically “sit down” restaurants will list everything that comes with a meal and if they don’t, follow the next guideline…

If you’re not sure, ask
The strategy I can always count on. Not sure what something comes with? Ask. Want a different side dish? Ask. Curious what is added to some dish? Ask. Example: you want and omelette but aren’t sure how it’s prepared- ask the server. Last time I was in that situation I asked what they cooked the eggs in. I was told “cottonseed oil” so I picked something else.

Have some go to items
Know a few things you like and can count on most places having. Have those as a default so that you can have a backup in case the menu gives you no other options. My go to item: meat and veggies. Nearly every restaurant has a grilled piece of beef, chicken or seafood and some grilled or steamed vegetables. Even a burger wrapped in lettuce with pickles, onions and tomatoes works in a pinch.

Browse the menu ahead of time
Nearly every restaurant has an online menu. Within a few minutes you can find a few options that you can choose from ahead of time. Or use the time to create options and then decide in the moment what you feel like. If you really want to know, call or email the restaurant/company to inquire. I emailed Chili’s customer service regarding a few things and they were great about getting back to me with exactly what I asked for. If you are curious, here’s that email exchange where I asked for some of the ingredients in sauces and seasonings (a lot of additives and extras I would rather not eat). I have found most places are very willing to work with people about specific food needs. If necessary, say you have some food allergies and want to know what’s in the food down to the preparation level.

Pick good places when you can
When possible choose healthier minded restaurants. Eating at a place that is conscious of it’s customers dining needs puts you at an advantage. Typically some online browsing can let you know what options are around you.

Go to places you can count on
Once you find restaurants that you like and have success with add them to the “go-to” list. My family has a few, with a great Greek place at the top of the list. They have a few great options and I know I can always get the lamb, grilled veggies and salad as a tasty, filling meal.

Some tips
Skip the bread or chips
Many places offer complimentary bread or chips. Unless you know what you are getting yourself into, say no thanks to the bread or chips. Trying not to eat it once it’s at the table will prove to be a more difficult task than needed.

Eat a snack before
To prevent coming into a restaurant with a big appetite, eating a small snack an hour or so before may help curb a ravenous appetite. Typically a food with protein and fat will do the trick. Macadamia nuts are a personal favorite.

Drink water
Aside from tea, most other drinks will encourage you to eat more freely. Wine and soda are particularly adept at enhancing appetite. Stick with water and don’t drink calories unless it’s a special occasion.

Order off the menu
A failsafe move at most places is to simply ask if they could prepare something simple for you. I have used lines like “I was wondering if you had anything like grilled fish and vegetables you could do for me.” Most of the time they can fashion something pretty close to what you want. If they don’t or aren’t willing to, make that your last visit to that eatery.

Split entrees
An easy way to limit the volume of what you eat is to split an entree with someone else. It will also save you a few bucks. You can also split a meal in half, bag it before you start eating and take the other half home for leftovers.

Pass on dessert
Unless it is a special occasion, pass on dessert. Extra and almost always unhealthy, dessert at a restaurant is almost certainly a splurge. Either skip it all together or make your own once you get home. Chances are by the time you get home you will no longer want it.

More than anything, successful dining out comes down to having a plan and executing. Put yourself in good positions as often as you can then let the chips fall where they may.

A side note: Don’t stress too much about the little details if you get the basics taken care of. If I can get a piece of grilled chicken with veggies I am not going to worry too much if the seasoning has a little modified food starch in it. Grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal. As much as I want to make smart dining out choices it’s not worth agonizing over too much. I try to enjoy dining out as much as possible while keeping reasonable food choices an important part of the experience.

The Bare 5 Bottom Line for Dining Out:
1. Be prepared
2. Keep it simple
3. Skip the free appetizers
4. Drink water
5. Pass on dessert

Thanks for reading and, if applicable, have a great dining out week!

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