I have a secret: I am a food writer who regularly eats out in the hottest new restaurants. I always order what I want, but I never gain weight. And here's the best part: You can do the same - even if you dine out in restaurants that are notorious for their high-fat offerings - by following key strategies I've developed with Shari Bilt, M.S., R.D., a nutritional consultant in New York City. Here are the basics that work:
There are two approaches to any menu. First, you can order a fattening item, like spaghetti carbonara, but plan ahead by eating lightly throughout the day to ensure you have "budgeted" enough calories and grams of fat. Or, if you forget to pre-plan, you can order the pasta and take half of it home in a doggie bag. To avoid feeling deprived, sip a frothy skim-milk cappuccino for dessert.
The second approach involves selecting a naturally healthy menu item, such as miso-glazed salmon over a bed of spinach. If you can't spot a similar offering on the menu, sweet-talk the staff into making substitutions or tiny changes to a dish, such as requesting that the shish kebob be made with skinless chicken rather than higher-fat lamb. Remember, most chefs will be happy to accommodate special dietary needs. And don't forget: Size does matter. Because American restaurant portions tend to be Godzilla-like and fats lurk in surprising places, another trick is to eat only as much of your entree as would fit in comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Also, ask yourself if you really crave dessert. If so, order a low-fat option, such as sorbet, or order something deliciously high-fat, such as crème brûlée, but share it. Finally, exercise regularly, particularly on the day you plan to eat out, as exercise not only burns calories but curbs your appetite.
Savoring a well-prepared restaurant meal is one of the greatest pleasures in life. So is being in shape. By heeding these strategies when eating in your favorite restaurants, you can savor Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Italian and American eateries without saying ciao to lasagna or hasta luego to tostadas.
Many eateries serve quasi-Mexican food doused in sour cream, guacamole and cheese. Authentic ones, though, offer dishes to which you can raise your glass of sangria. Here's the skinny.
* First, send back the chips. A typical basket contains 645 calories and 34 grams of fat. But save the salsa, which makes a terrific, piquant sauce for grilled fish or chicken entrees.
* Order salads without the cheese and skip the fried taco shell they're likely to arrive in.
* Chicken fajitas win points for flavor and nutrition. Flour tortillas are a low-fat carbohydrate, chicken offers lean protein, and grilled vegetables supply valuable nutrients. Skip the guacamole and sour cream, which can rack up 24 fat grams. Or eat less of them by using Shari Bilt's "fork method": Dip your fork in, shake the fork, then spear the fajita.
* Chicken enchiladas, ordered without cheese, are another good choice: The corn tortillas are baked, not fried. Make sure the refried beans, which often come with the dish, don't contain lard; it can add 17 grams of saturated fat and turn 1/4 cup into a 375-calorie splurge.
* Opt for grilled or baked fish and chicken instead of fried. If the sauce is shiny, creamy or white, it's likely laden with fat. If you order a rich sauce, ask for it on the side or scrape some of it to the side of the plate and eat a small amount.
* Make friends with the word Veracruz. It's a traditional Mexican sauce made from tomatoes, onions and chilies.
* For dessert, try fresh fruit, sorbet or a little bit of flan, which gets its velvety texture from eggs and cream or milk.
Despite high-fat ratings from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are many ways to enjoy Chinese food. Yes, the dishes can be fatty, but that's generally their only nutritional drawback.
* Eat like the Chinese: Let rice serve as your meal and the entrees be your condiments. Request fiber-rich brown rice when available.
* When possible order items steamed - dumplings, vegetables and even seafood and meat dishes. Avoid stir-fries; most are made with 4 tablespoons of oil and contain 56 grams of fat - the amount in 16 strips of bacon.
* If dining with a group, order a whole steamed fish. It's low in fat, bursting with flavor and very satisfying. Your portion size should be comparable to a bar of soap.
* A Mongolian hot pot is another low-fat group entree. A sort of Chinese fondue, the chef plunges raw vegetables and meats, poultry or seafood into a savory bubbling broth until cooked.
* Szechwan shrimp is a fine choice: It's high in protein and filled with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The light sauce is usually chicken-stock based. Because the dish has 27 grams of fat and 945 calories per 1 1/3-cup serving (about the size of a grapefruit), eat half a serving (about the size of an orange).
* Befriend hoisin, duck sauce and plum sauce. These thick, fat-free condiments make nifty impromptu sauces when swirled together with soy for steamed entrees. They're high in sugar, though, so be judicious with amounts.
* Eat with chopsticks. They'll slow you down.
* Vitamin C-filled orange or pineapple pieces, often given at the end of the meal, make a great dessert along with a fortune cookie, which has little fat and about 25 calories.
Thai food swings from extremely healthful to saturated-fat-filled dishes (coconut milk is the culprit). Here's how to navigate your way through the Thai culinary jungle:
* A great appetizer is Tom Yum. This hot and sour soup consists of chicken or shrimp floating in a brothy base seasoned with fresh lime. It's filling and very low in fat.
* Chicken saté (peanut sauce) is a fine starter, as long as the fatty sauce arrives on the side. Dip sparingly; just coat the tip of the chicken strip.
* Thai salads make fabulous appetizers or dinners when combined with another appetizer or soup. Most dressings contain no oil and are made with lime juice, fish sauce - a salty brown sauce similar to soy - and sugar. Pla Koong is a traditional healthy salad made with shrimp, onion, basil, mushrooms, tomatoes, scallions and lemon grass.
* Steamed mussels can't be beat. They're rich in protein, low in fat and take a long time to eat! Often cooked with chilies, lemon grass and other aromatics, they make a scrumptious entree with a side of rice.
* Curries are tricky. Avoid ones with coconut milk, which contain 48 grams of saturated fat per cup. Ask for a broth-based curry when available. If you want to splurge, order a coconut-based curry but make the rice your dinner by lifting the ingredients out of the sauce with a fork to eat over the rice.
* Pik Pow dishes are excellent choices. Made with fiery chilies, they contain little fat, lots of high-fiber vegetables and a lean protein such as shrimp or squid.
* Steamed or grilled fish is another great option. Order soup or salad as an appetizer and accompany the meal with rice.
* Who doesn't love pad thai? Unfortunately, this oily, eggy, peanutty noodle dish packs a fat-filled wallop. Ask the chef to make it without the eggs, with the peanuts on the side and with a wedge of lime to season the noodles (a traditional garnish). Then eat an appetizer portion (about the size of a tangerine).
* Thai restaurants usually offer few desserts. Avoid or only eat a small portion (about the size of a lime) of any ice cream. Better yet, order fruit, such as litchi in syrup, and save calories by leaving the syrup behind.
From high-end ristorantes to casual cafes, Italian restaurants tend to offer plenty of healthy and delectable items. Here are several smart strategies:
*Order two appetizers as dinner. Choose either shrimp cocktail, grilled calamari (not fried) or even melon with prosciutto (the meat is high in fat, but restaurants usually use 1 ounce, which has only 80 calories) and pair it with a bowl of soup. Italian soups tend to be chock-full of vegetables and beans and rarely contain cream.
* Order a half-portion of pasta and a salad and use Bilt's "fork method" with the dressing: Dip your fork into the dressing, shake the fork, then spear the salad. You'll use about 1 1/2 tablespoons of dressing vs. 1/4 cup, which saves almost 20 grams of fat.
* Think tomato red. Not only are tomato-based sauces and soups low in fat, but tomatoes contain lycopene - a compound which shows promise in fighting certain types of cancers. Pasta primavera (with vegetables) in a marinara sauce supplies lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
* Go easy on the cheese - use about 1 tablespoon - and remember that 1 cup of pasta and 1/2 cup of marinara sauce topped with a tablespoon of cheese supplies 300 calories and 6 grams of fat.
* Avoid pesto or eat it in moderation, since this oily basil paste contains significant fat and calories from pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
* Grilled fish prepared with garlic, lemon and olive oil is flavorful and heart healthy. However, grilled vegetables, while seemingly nutritious, tend to absorb lots of oil. Even though it's likely to be monounsaturated olive oil, you're better off with a salad.
* High-fiber berries or icy granita are great dessert bets. For heavier sweets, such as tiramisu, share or eat half. Remember, a rich shot of espresso or a cappuccino with skim milk make terrific finales.
Here are some tips for ordering off the menu at all-American restaurants, most of which offer lots of deep-fried, cheese-topped, gravy-smothered dishes.
* Make a beeline for the healthful fare, which are usually marked with tiny hearts. These breakfasts, lunches and dinners contain less than 15 grams of total fat.
* Breakfast on high-protein, cholesterol-free EggBeaters, high-fiber and vitamin-rich fruit, such as the applesauce, and a toasted English muffin topped with jelly. Skip bagels, which, although fat-free, are very caloric because they're so big.
* Another morning option is high-fiber oatmeal with raisins, a side of antioxidant-rich fresh fruit (such as a grapefruit) and an 8-ounce glass of skim milk, which provides protein and calcium.
* Lunch could be a grilled chicken salad with fat-free honey mustard dressing. If you choose full-fat dressing, order it on the side and practice Bilt's "fork method."
* Avoid or eat only half of the grilled chicken Caesar salad. With approximately 46 grams of fat per serving, it contains almost as much fat as a cheeseburger. Also, avoid or eat only a few of the Buffalo chicken wings, which contain (drum roll, please) 68 grams of fat per dozen (15 ounces) - as much as three-fourths of a stick of butter. The battered cod with tartar sauce is also a land mine, unless you eat only a few bites and take the rest home.
* Clear soups, such as vegetable beef, accompanied by a garden salad topped with fat-free or reduced-fat dressing, make a nice light lunch. If you're still hungry, order a side of vegetables or some applesauce.
* Healthy dinner options include grilled chicken or salmon entrees. A "splurge" could be the pot roast - ask for the gravy on the side. An 8-ounce portion of pot roast (about the size of a pack of cards) has 260 calories and 11 grams of fat. Substitute a fiber-rich baked potato for mashed potatoes or french fries and swap honey-glazed carrots for the corn and your whole meal weighs in at only 14 grams of fat.
* Do you really crave dessert? If so, ask for a banana split without the ice cream, sauces or whipped cream and substitute fresh strawberries, blueberries and nonfat whipped topping for a dessert that's sweet, high-fiber and virtually fat-free.