By: Madeleine St. Marie

In shape, out of shape, getting into shape, doesn’t matter: eating out is downright difficult.

I find making healthy choices for myself at home is relatively easy, provided I’ve set myself up to succeed that week with healthy produce, whole grains, and lean meats. But when I go out to eat at a restaurant? My brain is chanting, “Salad, grilled chicken, salad, grilled chicken” in an effort to drown out my stomach, seductively crooning “Cheeeeseburger…country fried steak…spinach and artichoke dip…” like so many sweet nothings.

Needless to say, it’s hard to maintain my healthy eating habits when I eat out. Over the last year or two, however, I’ve picked up a few handy tips that allow me to go out with my friends while still prioritizing my health.

First and foremost: you know that basket of chips or bread rolls that come as a free appetizer in many restaurants? Ditch it. It’s not what you came for (unless you did, in which case, carry on), so push the dish or basket away. You can always ask the server to take the extra carbs away to lessen the temptation.

When it comes to the dishes, keep in mind that many restaurants serve portions that are much larger than what is recommended. Therefore, and this is important, YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO FINISH YOUR MEAL. I know, I know – this flies in the face of conventional wisdom and probably some deep-seated cultural practices that you grew up with. In most cases, you can take what you don’t finish home with you. And if anyone judges you, just tell them that you take Kickboxing down at Arena Fitness and you’d love to show them what you learned last night. (Just kidding.)

When it comes to the menu, sometimes you’ll have the caloric value listed for your viewing pleasure, instantly helping you decide between something that sounds innocuously unthreatening and something that actually is good for you. If the restaurant doesn’t provide this information, read the dish descriptions. It’s a no brainer, but stick with words like “grilled” and avoid words like “fried”. Even with something that seems like it should be automatically healthy, like a salad, because while there might be green, leafy stuff in there, it could also have candied walnuts, cheese, and bacon.

When it comes to salads, try and stick to dressings that are low-fat and don’t start or end with “ranch”. Vinaigrettes work very well for this task, and I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like. Don’t forget to ask for the dressing on the side – not only will it keep your salad from being over-dressed and then soggy, it also provides you with the option to control exactly how much dressing (and extra calories!) go into your meal. I find that dipping my fork into the dressing before digging into my salad gives me the flavor of the dressing without the guilt afterwards.

Lastly, eat slowly. Take your time. My mother used to always tell me to put my fork down in between bites when I ate dinner. I thought that she did this primarily to make my life miserable as a teenager, as mothers are wont to do, but as it turns out, if you eat really quickly, you can trick your body into eating more than it actually needs before it realizes its full. Listen to your body. When you start feeling full, you probably are. Huh, turns out Mom does know best.