Last Saturday night I went out to dinner with a wonderful old friend. (Side note – it was my first trip to an Indian restaurant… What in the world took me so long!? Everything was amazingly delicious! I’m definitely heading back with my husband very soon!) We sat at our table for hours, laughing, reminiscing and enjoying good company. On nights like that, you don’t want to end your evening early (nor should you), but you know that the longer you sit with food in front of you when dining out, the more food you will inevitably eat. So sit, relax, enjoy your meal and keep your calorie intake under control with these 5 tips:

1. Look for vegetables on the menu.

A vegetarian entree is usually a great choice – a portabella mushroom burger can save quite a bit of calories and fat over a large hamburger. The salad section is also good to check out, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. (This Indian restaurant had an entire page of the menu devoted to vegetarian dishes. I was in heaven! I had an amazing eggplant dish.) Many restaurants also have a seasonal side vegetable on the menu. You might have to ask for it, but substituting a small salad or vegetable for the more common French fries or mashed potatoes will save you lots of calories and fat. Plus, you’ll get tons of important vitamins and minerals.

2. Ask for sauces and dressing on the side when dining out.

These are often high calorie and high fat additions to your entrees, and they are never used sparingly. If you ask for it on the side, then you can control the amount added to your food. An appropriate serving of salad dressing is about 2 Tablespoons, but restaurants can use up to 1/4 of a cup or more. Ask for it on the side and consider dipping eat bite into the dressing instead of pouring it on top. You’ll use less dressing and still taste it with every bite.

3. Put your fork down between bites.

The idea behind this tip is just to slow down. Notice the smell, taste and feeling of the food in your mouth. Sit back and enjoy your food and your company.

4. Stop eating after 15 minutes to check-in with your hunger.

It takes about 15-20 minutes for your stomach to send a signal to your brain that you are no longer hungry. After your meal has begun, check-in with yourself in about 15 minutes. Ask yourself – Am I still hungry? If the answer is “no” or “not sure,” ask for a to-go box and put the food out of sight. This mindful eating practice can save major calories when dining out or at home!

5. Ask for a to-go box early in the meal, before you’ve had a chance to finish your plate.

In fact, restaurant portions are often so large that you could almost immediately divide you plate in half and pack up half of the meal to go. Stretch your food dollar when dining out by paying once and eating twice!

Enjoy your meals away from home, but make sure you are still putting the type and amount of food into your body that makes you feel good.

How do you make smart choices while dining out?

Note: Did you know that some of our MNT RDs write about nutrition and wellness on personal blogs, or for other sites? Mary Wissman, MS, RD, LD, has shared her thoughts on weight management and family nutrition on her personal blog. This post originally appeared here

Mary Wissmann

Mary Wissmann is our weight management and family nutrition guru. As a Registered Dietitian for over 11 years, she has worked with individual clients, conducted research, taught community nutrition and health programs, and led many community health initiatives. She spent 7 years as a university faculty member, which provided her with extensive experience reading and interpreting the latest nutrition and health research. If you are interested in working with Mary, please visit our contact page.