Since you likely don’t want to give up eating out entirely, learning your way around a menu and how to “dine responsibly” are skills worth mastering.

If you only ate out a few times a year, I’d just tell you to enjoy anything on the menu. We eat about a third of our meals away from home, however, so it’s worth paying attention to some of these common restaurant diet traps and tips.

  • Don’t get derailed from your usual meal plan. Keep a general meal plan in mind and stick to it. If you normally eat some combination of protein, veggies and salad for lunch, then look for something similar on the menu and don’t let your eyes wander toward a sandwich or pasta dish. 
  • Watch out for foods that sound healthier than they are. Sandwiches can be healthy if they’re made with lean meats, veggies and whole-grain breads. Unfortunately, sandwich calories add up fast with ingredients like cheese and mayonnaise, or if the sandwich is a foot long. Watch those healthy-sounding salads, too. A Chinese chicken salad can rack up more than 1,000 calories, thanks to the crunchy fried noodles and heavy dressing.
  • Beware of the daily specials. Your server might come by with a mouthwatering description of the daily special – so watch out. Many specials can’t be modified, so you may not be able to skip the sauce, gravy, or have the fish grilled rather than fried. If the special fits the bill, great – but decide on something from the regular menu ahead of time so you have a backup. 
  • Don’t fall in the supersize trap. Stand firm if you’re offered more food than you want, even if it sounds like a good value. When your server says, “For just a dollar more, you can have a side of fries with that,” think to yourself, “For just a dollar more, I’ll be getting 600 more calories and an extra 40 grams of fat.”
  • Read calorie counts on menus carefully. Research has shown that the calories on menus are around 20% higher than what’s specified. Also, restaurants sometimes list the calorie counts of items separately, rather than the counts of entire meals as they’re served. So, while you’re noting the calories for the entree, don’t forget to add in the calories for the sides.
  • Restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entree with your dining partner and order an extra side of veggies, or have your leftovers packed up as soon as you’ve eaten your portion. When it comes to supersizing, restaurants may be able to afford to pile it on – but you can’t.

Don’t feel like you can never eat out. A busy lifestyle plus the sheer enjoyment of eating new food in a new environment makes going out for meals occasionally a healthy choice for emotional and mental health. Stack that with following the tips above, and you’re good to go!