We've all been there: You walk into a restaurant planning to order the healthy grilled chicken, but when the server turns to you, "fettucine Alfredo" comes out of your mouth. What changed your mind? Most of the estimated 200 food choices you make daily are subconscious, based on hidden cues from your surroundings, says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. But with the simple strategies here, you can start identifying and ignoring those external influences and stop ending restaurant meals with the guilt-ridden question, "Why did I eat that?"
Plan your meal.
Americans get about one third of our calories from dining out, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, yet only one in five of our meals comes from a restaurant which means when we do eat out, we eat a lot. "Eating out presents challenges because of large portions and lots of hidden fat and oils," says Hope S. Warshaw, R.D., author of What to Eat When You're Eating Out. So each week, figure out how many times you're going to dine out. Designate one night for a "splurge portion" of something special, and for the other occasions, plan to eat healthier. Fortunately, practically every restaurant offers healthy options, says Warshaw. You just have to come prepared to choose one.
Sit in a quiet spot.
People who sit in the more distracting parts of restaurants (by a window or in front of a TV) eat considerably more, says Wansink. Commotion makes it easy to lose track of how much you're putting in your mouth. If you're making a reservation, request a quiet table. If you walk in and are offered a table in a busier spot, ask for one away from the action it's worth the wait.
Recognize seductive menu traps.
Mouthwatering descriptions like "tender, juicy chicken breast" or "ripe heirloom tomatoes" are increasingly common on restaurant menus, and research shows that words that promote taste and texture or appeal to diners' emotions can increase sales by 23 percent, and can even affect the way you think the food tastes. "These appetizing words prep your taste buds to expect your chicken to taste juicy, so to some degree it probably will," says Wansink. Try picking out the colorful adjectives on the menu whenever you dine out; eventually, you'll get better at recognizing them and they'll lose their power over you. Be extra aware of sensory terms like "velvety" mousse and nostalgic ones like "legendary" mac and cheese, which could be particularly appealing after a stressful day when emotions are high and your guard is down.
Be the first at the table to order.
You've decided to pick something light off the menu, but when your friend orders the decadent steak frites, you start to rethink your boring grilled salmon.
To sidestep the temptation of your friend's less healthy dish, place your order first, says Warshaw. If you can't order first, then make your decision, close the menu, and repeat your selection to yourself to help you stick to it. If you're dining at a restaurant you visit often, just ask for your favorite healthy option without ever opening the menu.
Be the last to pick up your fork.
Dining companions distract you from monitoring what you're putting in your mouth, says Wansink. His research shows that if you dine with one friend, you'll eat 35 percent more than if you'd dined alone; sit down to dinner with seven, and you'll consume 96 percent more. And when you eat out, you're usually with people you like, which ups your desire to extend the experience by, say, ordering dessert or more wine.
So pick up your fork after everyone else has started eating, and pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table, suggests Wansink. Then stop eating once you notice another person has finished his or her meal. You'll minimize your total eating time, and your slower pace will result in less food intake plus you'll be able to focus on and enjoy the company, which is why you're dining out with friends in the first place.