Eating healthier while eating in restaurants isn't impossible. It only requires that we make better choices this week than we did last week.
But then we have to do it again the next week. And the next. And -- you get the picture: We have to stick with it to make a difference.
It's not easy to keep saying no to foods we love. But for me, having a game plan usually helps.
So here are some of the best techniques I know to help avoid unwanted calories after you walk through those restaurant doors.
First and foremost, never arrive starving. If all you can think about is how hungry you are when you pick up the menu, you're starting in a hole. Your brain's impulse control center is switched to the off position; your will power is at its lowest point. Buy a big bottle of water on the way to dinner if you have to, but get something in your stomach before you order.
If you're waiting for a table, stay in the foyer. Don't grab a seat in the bar, where you're likely to have an extra drink for the night. Liquid calories are insidious: They come in small quantities, go down easy and don't fill you up. They're also relaxing — a fine thing for a spa day but not always helpful when you're ordering dinner. (See previous reference to impulse control.)
Avoid the bread basket. Ask the server not to bring one, especially if it comes with a saucer of olive oil for dipping. Keep repeating "120" — the number of calories in 1 measly tablespoon of olive oil. It may be heart-healthy, but it's not hip-friendly.
Be wary of the appetizer list. It can be your friend — or your enemy. In better restaurants, the list of starters and small plates can offer stylish, interesting dishes that can sub as entrees when you're looking for smaller portions. But in casual-dining venues, the appetizer list is too often a minefield of the fried, fatty, indefensible stuff we're trying to avoid.
Remember the old-fashioned fundamentals: Choose salad dressing on the side, clear soups instead of cream soups and grilled rather than fried meats and fish. Ask for steamed vegetables instead of starches.
Stop eating when the plate is half empty. Just stop; take the remainder home. For inspiration, look at your plate when it arrives and imagine all that food, plus what you've already had, in one container — your stomach. It's quite motivating.
And finally, think of each dish and course as a new chance to make a good choice. Success breeds success and, for me at least, every little victory reinforces my resolve to continue. If I've done five small things during a meal to eat healthier, I don't beat myself up so much for using cream and sugar in my coffee after dinner.
I'm not aiming for perfection, just improvement.
It's my new strategy in 2011, inspired by the often-cited First Law of Holes: When you're in one, stop digging.