Americans love to eat out.

In fact, a large part of every food dollar is spent on food prepared by someone else.

Unfortunately, eating out is a habit that may come at a cost to our nutritional health.

While it may be easier to drive to the window of a fast food restaurant or have pizza delivered to our door, eating foods prepared away from home tend to be higher in calories and fat compared to what you could prepare in your own kitchen. This creates a challenge for people who are watching their weight.

The following tips can help avoid waistline expansion when dining out.

Plan before you go. If you are watching your weight or trying to eat fewer calories, think about what you will eat before you enter the restaurant.

Many restaurants post the nutrient analysis of their menu items on the internet, and smart phone apps make the information available at the touch of a screen. Restaurants are also beginning to place calorie information next to menu items. This can help you order a meal that won’t break your calorie budget.

Other ways to watch your calories when eating out:

  • Free foods offered at restaurants are not really “free.” A basket of bread sticks or fried corn chips can cost up to 900 calories. The solution? Ask for plain corn tortillas instead of fried chips or request that bread be served without butter. Better yet, decline the “free” food altogether.
  • A baked potato is usually better than one that is fried unless butter, sour cream, bacon and cheese are added. You may get a little more flavor with these toppings, but with that comes extra fat and calories. The solution? If you must top your potato with a little extra “something,” get the toppings on the side and use them sparingly.
  • Bigger portions may be cheap, but what value are you really getting? A small order of French fries has about 220 calories and 9 grams of fat. Upgrading to a larger size for a few cents can add as much as 170 calories and 6 extra grams of fat. Is that really a value? The solution? If you eat at a fast food restaurant, just say “NO” to value-sized portions. If restaurant portions are too large for your needs, ask for a child-sized portion or ask for another plate and split the entrée with a friend.
  • Restaurants that advertise “all you can eat” may be easy on the wallet but not on the waistline. The solution? If you have a tendency to overeat when eating out, stay away from buffets and places that offer unlimited quantities of food.
  • Eating out with others may encourage some people to eat more even when they are not very hungry. The solution? Order an appetizer as your main course. With bread and side salad, that may be all you need to take away the hunger pains.

For more information on this topic, contact the Harrison County Extension at (903) 935-8414.

— Louraiseal McDonald is the Harrison County Extension agent for family and community health.