Are you a Cocktail Party Princess who nibbles her way through a different event every night or a Fast-Food Fiend who grabs Chinese takeout and crashes on the couch? Either way, your evening eating routine could be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts. "Many women consume half or more of their calories at dinner and during the evening, often overdoing it on fat, sugar and processed grains -- food choices that undermine their health, figures and moods," says SHAPE contributing editor Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of The Food & Mood Cookbook (Owl Books, 2004).
The key to success lies in revamping your dining habits in a manner that suits you, nutrition experts say. Turn the page to discover your dinner personality along with expert weight-loss solutions tailored to the way you like to eat. We've also included four customized recipes by Kathleen Daelemans, author of Getting Thin and Loving Food! (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and a chef who's maintained her own 75-pound weight loss for more than 13 years.
THE FAST-FOOD FIEND
The problem Too tired to cook, you reward yourself with takeout. Yet convenience comes at a price: The typical burrito has 700 calories and 26 grams of fat (7 saturated); a typical serving of a Chinese chicken dish, like kung pao, has 1,000 calories. "But fast food doesn't have to be synonymous with junk," says Lisa Sasson, R.D., an assistant clinical professor at New York University's department of nutrition, food studies and public health in New York City. Step outside the pizza box, suggests Carolyn O'Neil, M.S., R.D., co-author of The Dish: On Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous (Atria Books, 2004). Train yourself to look for the healthiest choices in the unlikeliest places.
Solutions for Fast-Food Fiends
* Look for lower-calorie options at your favorite fast-food joints. Choose smaller portions and dishes prepared with minimal fat. For example, swap a beef burrito with sour cream for a grilled chicken soft taco with salsa. You'll save 510 calories and 22 grams of fat. Trade General Tso's chicken for steamed chicken and vegetables with a cup of brown rice. You'll save 500 calories, and over the course of seven takeout meals you'll have cut enough calories to lose 1 pound.
* Stop being so "value-minded." Biggie sizing doubles your fries for an extra quarter, but it's your body that pays. A large serving of french fries has 520 calories and 26 grams of fat. Though still not the healthiest choice, a small serving has 210 calories and 10 grams of fat. Instead, order a baked potato with salsa; a 5-ounce potato has just 100 calories, no fat and 3 grams of fiber.
* Learn to make your own "fast food," says cookbook author and weight-loss guru Kathleen Daelemans. Instead of stopping at a restaurant after work, pick up a piece of fresh fish at your local market, which you can later steam in the microwave in minutes. While you're at the store, stock up on a few staples that make whipping up healthy dinners a cinch, like pre-washed greens, salad-bar veggies and canned black beans.
THE DEPRIVATION DIVA
The problem Subsisting on a restricted-calorie diet -- coffee for breakfast and a vegetable-only salad for lunch -- makes you feel virtuous. But the truth is you're not getting enough nutrients to make it through the day. By evening you've hit a wall. "You're starving!" Sasson says. "Never allow yourself to go hungry -- it has a rebound effect." The result is "speed eating" at dinnertime, O'Neil says, a binge session that can leave you feeling defeated and depressed.
Solutions for Deprivation Divas
* To keep moods stable and avoid dinnertime bingeing, divide breakfast and lunch into nutritious mini-meals every three to four hours throughout the day, being mindful of your total calories consumed. "You can't offset your temperament if you're a grazer, but you can offset the sense of being overly hungry and setting yourself up for a binge," says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center.
* Banish the skinny lunch salad. Add lean protein to your greens and you'll keep hunger at bay. Try 3-4 ounces of water-packed tuna, 1/2 cup of beans, chopped egg whites or an ounce of chopped almonds, O'Neil advises.
* Choose high-volume, high-fiber foods for dinner. You can have a satisfying meal without blowing your entire day's calorie allotment in one nighttime sitting. Just make sure the bulk of what's on your plate comes from healthfully prepared vegetables.
THE NOTORIOUS NOSHER
The problem After eating what you consider a sensible dinner -- a diet frozen entree and some cherry tomatoes -- the snacking begins. Though you nibble on just two or three cookies at a time, the night always ends with a box as empty as the 1,440 cookie calories you consumed. "Hunger is either true and authentic or emotional," Daelemans says. "If food is a very temporary fix for whatever else is ailing you, it won't work -- and it's time to explore some real solutions. If you're truly hungry, you need more nutrient-dense calories at dinner and to plan ahead for the evening snack attack."
Solutions for Notorious Noshers
* Figure out what's behind all that snacking. Keep a food journal for two weeks to get to the bottom of why you're eating, Daelemans says. Record the times you ate, what you ate and what you were feeling at that moment.
* Work healthy fat into your dinner. If you're still hungry 20 minutes after dinner, it usually means you didn't have enough protein or fat -- both bump up a meal's satisfaction level. And there's no need to be fat-phobic. "A little fat goes a long way," O'Neil says. Try drizzling a teaspoon (a mere 40 calories) of lemon- or basil-infused olive oil over steamed vegetables.
* After dinner, prep for the next day's meals. By washing spinach, chopping onions, peeling carrots or rinsing grapes, you'll satisfy your desire to be around food in a healthy way, Daelemans says, and you'll be ensuring that tomorrow's dinner is nutritious too.
* Plan your snacks. Save 200 calories of your daily total for after dinner. Split them up in the way that suits you best. Like to nibble all night? Pick post-dinner delights that offer greater volume for fewer calories, such as light popcorn, pre-cut vegetables with salsa or Mock Deep-Fried Chickpeas (see recipe here.) Or, divide your dinner in two; eat half at your usual hour and the rest later in the evening, Daelemans advises.
THE COCKTAIL PARTY PRINCESS
The problem Your evenings are a whirl of work and social functions featuring cosmos and appetizers; you've never used your oven for anything other than shoe storage. More important, you have never taken control of what you eat for dinner.
Your excuse? It's a special event. "But this is not a special event; this is the norm for your life," Sasson says.
Solutions for Cocktail Party Princesses
* Never hit a party starving. Bring a second, small lunch to work, such as soup or a pasta dish with protein (see recipe for Sesame Noodles With Chicken), and eat it about one hour before dashing out the door, Sasson advises. Or have a 150-calorie protein bar "to take the edge off," Fernstrom says.
* Set some goals for each event. Planning ahead is key. If the party is at a truly great restaurant, save calories for it, Daelemans says. Typical cocktail fare? Try taking three healthy bites (the crudités) for every high-calorie bite (the crab puffs) you consume. Also, instead of grazing, put together a meal on an actual plate -- and then curb your eating after you've finished it.
* Keep your alcoholic-drink intake to one or two -- max. Drinks add empty calories to your day's total without doing a thing to fill you up. "Liquids are not perceived by the body as well as food," Fernstrom says. To maintain a festive look, ask the bartender to make you a mocktail with seltzer, a splash of cranberry juice and a slice of lime, O'Neil advises.