Eating out with friends or family should be all about having fun, enjoying a tasty meal, and not having to worry about cooking or clean up. But when you’re trying to take care of yourself and eat healthfully, going out to eat can sometimes feel frustrating… or maybe even downright unpleasant.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Take the following guidance to heart and you’ll have a much more enjoyable time the next time you head to your favorite restaurant.

Do Your Homework. Perhaps the most important thing you can do before eating out is to plan ahead. If I’m going to a chain restaurant then I try to spend a few minutes at home checking their nutritional charts online before I go out. I try to narrow my choices down to a few that look good to me and are consistent with my health goals. Then I can make a final decision at the table, based on how I’m feeling and what sounds yummiest at that moment.

This is a key step because most big restaurant chains don’t include detailed nutritional information on their menus. You might get calorie counts on the menu, but that’s not nearly enough information for you to be able to make a healthy choice. (After all, a few ounces of gummy bears might only have 300-400 calories, but that would be a horrible choice for dinner, even though that’s fewer calories than you’d get with a big grilled salmon salad.)

Don’t Assume a “Salad” is Going to Be Your Best Bet. “Salad” means different things to different people. I grew up in the Midwest, so as a child some of my first experiences with “salads” included ingredients like jello, whipped cream, and marshmallows. The takeaway lesson here is that you need to take a closer look at the descriptions on the menu, and choose something with healthy fats, a good amount of protein, and little or no sugar.

A steak with a side of grilled vegetables, as decadent as that sounds, is likely much healthier than a salad that’s topped with fried chicken or quesadillas (yes, one of the more popular restaurant chains has such a thing).

Steer Your Family to Healthier Restaurants. This might take a little bit of finesse on your part, but you can make it easier on yourself by choosing restaurants which have a lot of different healthy choices. It doesn’t have to be a “health food” restaurant, but it should be someplace that won’t put you off the healthy path.

Quality Matters. Not all cheese is created equally. Not all cuts of beef are the same. When you can, try to choose organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, and raw or organic dairy products.

Embrace the Positive. You can approach going out to eat with one of two mindsets. You could focus on all the things on the menu that are oh-so-tasty, but which you know are bad for you. Or you could focus on the fact that you’re getting out of the house, don’t have to cook or clean up, and get to have something that you probably don’t ever make for yourself at home. Choose the second approach and you’ll enjoy the experience more.

“Cleaning Your Plate” is Not a Challenge! The sad truth is that most restaurants serve entrees, appetizers and even drinks that are far too large! A juicy ribeye might be a good choice for you, but probably not in a 20 ounce portion. A doggie bag or to-go box is a better choice than stuffing yourself.

Finally, be sure to make the right decision to you. Even when you find yourself at a restaurant without any obvious healthy choices, you can choose to order something small but tasty, then top it off with some better food when you get home.

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