You exercise diligently and cook healthy meals all week.  When the weekend arrives, you’d like to relax and dine out with your friends, but you don’t want to wreck all of your progress. Avoiding typical fast food restaurants is the easy part, but here are some tips for navigating all dining establishments and making healthy choices.

Most chain restaurants post their menus on their websites.  In addition to listing the nutritional information on menu items, many will often tell you the types of oil used in preparation and other hidden facts. Check the menu and decide what you’re having before you even leave home. Also, if you don’t see anything that meets your standards, then you can choose another restaurant.

Dining out doesn’t mean you can’t have things your way. Be assertive when asking for changes on the menu, such as grilled or baked rather than fried and sautéed or substitute a vegetable for french fries. Restaurants are usually cooperative.  Also, ask how the food is prepared.  Like food labels in the grocery stores, “lite” and “low calorie” can be misleading.

Skip the bread basket upon arrival.  This will save you calories and an appetite for real food.

Many restaurants have a special list of “healthy menu options” and provide nutritional content for those items. Some establishments even offer Weight Watchers approved entrees and the like.

For those restaurants without a special list, you’ll have to read the descriptions carefully to avoid extra fat and calories.  Beware of the following words on a menu: sautéed, au gratin, breaded, crispy, stuffed, pan-fried, buttery,  au fromage, scalloped, and creamy.

The biggest problem with dining out are the portion sizes. Restaurants typically serve two to three times more than a regular portion. You can order an appetizer (or even two) to keep this in check and focus on the vegetable or seafood based ones. If you see a dinner item that you just can’t resist, have the waiter box half of it before the plate arrives at your table or have a box brought to you so you can immediately remove half of the temptation.  You already have leftovers!

Salads are your best friend when dining out, but there are guidelines to insuring they remain healthy choices. Those who ate salads before other entrees ate fewer calories overall. Salads, like appetizers, should be vegetable-based and avoid toppings such as bacon bits, fried toppings, and creamy dressings.  Load up on vegetables, fruits, and even nuts, but go easy on the meats and cheeses. As for the dressing, ask for it on the side and dip your fork into before adding a bite of salad.

Baked potatoes are tasty and have gotten a bad reputation in recent years by carb watchers. Avoid butter and sour cream, but load up the potato with vegetable toppings from the salad bar.  Salsa is another great topper for flavor and vitamins.

Drink water throughout the meal. It will make you feel full before you clean your plate. If you must have an alcoholic drink, avoid daiquiris and margaritas due to the sugar. Instead choose wine, light beer, or a vodka and tonic.

The most tempting part of dining out is often the dessert options. The best choice is to skip it and have a treat at home, such as sorbet or fresh fruit.

Eating out doesn’t have to derail your health and fitness goals. You just have to be smart about it.