By Stephanie S. Saunders

There was a time not too long ago when dining out was a rare and exciting treat. People would get dressed up, spend hours lingering over a meal, and remember the experience fondly for days or even weeks. Today, dining out is often more common than eating a home-cooked meal. How many mornings does breakfast equal a cup of coffee and a bagel at Starbucks? A good portion of the American workforce eats lunch out every day. And how often do you just grab dinner on the way home—or have it delivered to your front door? Yes, we are a nation of consumers, especially when it comes to paying someone else to prepare our food.

But for those of us following a fitness plan for any length of time, dining out can be inconvenient and sometimes a tiny bit scary. It's hard to know what to order, how it fits into your plan, and most of all, how not to say, "Forget it; who needs a six-pack?" and order that three-cheese lasagna with Italian sausage. But making the right choices is easier than you think, and willpower has more to do with preparation than tenacity. So let's look at some ways to prepare for dining out.
  1. Get a copy of the menu. This amazing thing called the Internet gives us instant access to just about anything. Want to know how to defect to Russia? Googl® it. Want to learn how to grow pumpkins in your backyard? Wikipedia® has the answer. Want to laugh hysterically at your very drunk cousin during your sister's wedding? It's on YouTube®. And if you want to plan for dining out, you can find an online menu for almost every fast food joint and high-end establishment out there. From McDonald's® to Spago®, you can instantly summon the information you need so you can select your meal without the pressure of a waiter—and your date—staring at you. Then when you get to that uber-trendy bistro everyone raves about, you can impress your date by not touching the menu and saying, "Oh, I already know what I want. I eat here all the time."
  2. Look up nutrition facts. Once you've made your choices at home, you can easily look up the nutrition facts pertaining to those choices. Many low- to mid-priced establishments list not only their menus, but their nutrition facts online. For the higher-end places, you can look at each individual ingredient to figure out the approximate amount of protein, carbs, and fat. With this knowledge, you can figure out what might be the most appropriate choices, and what to avoid.
  3. Eat your meals and snacks as scheduled. Everybody knows not to go shopping when you're depressed, not to call your mother when you're having relationship issues, and not to pick someone up in a bar when you're drinking heavily. Now here's another rule: Don't go to a restaurant when you're famished. It's a common misconception in the United States that you should always get your money's worth when dining out by making sure you clean your plate. Unfortunately, that plate probably contains enough food to serve a family of four in another country. American restaurants serve massive portions of food, which leads to the massive tummies and backsides evident in our national obesity epidemic. But if you're not actually starving when you walk into the restaurant, you'll be a lot less likely to lick your plate clean. So eat your already-scheduled meals and snacks for the day to help keep your cravings in check. If you're really hungry when departing for the restaurant, grab an apple on your way out the door. And please note that you'll still get your money's worth if you take half your meal home in a to-go box.
  4. Make sure you complete your workout. It's fairly obvious that most fitness enthusiasts are unlikely to push through a tough workout, then destroy it with chili cheese fries and a bacon cheeseburger. Yet when you miss a workout altogether, there's the tendency to think, "I already messed up today, so what the hell?" Not such a great idea. If you'd only have gotten through that INSANITY® Max Interval workout first, you'd have had some motivation, and you'd probably eat less overall. A study by a team of Brazilian researchers discovered that exercise actually increased feelings of fullness in your brain. That's right: Work out first, and you won't feel like shoving the entire Hometown Buffet® in your mouth. (Of course, if you felt like doing that in the first place, you might want to get your brain checked out.)
  5. Write it down. So you've done your due diligence and you know exactly what you'll order for that lunch meeting. Before even leaving your desk, record it in your food diary. When you commit something in writing, you're a lot more likely to follow it through. You're also a lot less likely to add on a bunch of extras, like appetizers or dessert, which you'll have to account for later. Keeping a record also gives you the opportunity to see where you are calorically for the day, and to see if that lunch means you'll need to adjust things accordingly.
  6. Be honest and firm. One of the most difficult things about dining out is peer pressure. How easy is it to give in to "Oh, just try one" or "You work out—you don't have to be perfect all the time"? Or my personal favorite: "If you get hit by a bus tonight, you'll be really sad you didn't have some cheesecake." Well, the reality is that having one off-plan treat can open the door to many more; working out is only half the fitness equation; and if you get hit by a bus, dessert's going to be the last thing on your mind. Sometimes the way to get your companions to be supportive is to be very clear about your goals before you even sit down. If you explain honestly how hard you've been working toward your goals, even your mother is likely to back off. And if she keeps at you, continue to be firm about what you want, which includes not dating her next door neighbor's "nice, available son." Willpower is often as simple as getting those around us to leave us alone.
  7. Have a conversation plan. This particular point might seem ridiculous if you're dining with family or close friends, but if your intended meal is with someone you don't know well, like a business lunch or date, you should consider having a conversation plan. A lot of calories are ingested in this lifetime as the result of nervous energy. If you're sitting across the table from the most beautiful girl you've ever seen or the man you hope will invest in your company, you'll be all the more likely to grab for the bread basket to fill awkward silences. Also, when you "eat emotionally," your desire to overcome your anxiety often trumps your desire for a six-pack. But if you walk into the situation with a few talking points, preferably not just about yourself, and some questions for your new friend, you'll probably be so invested in the conversation that you can skip pigging out on the bread and wait for the salad. This doesn't require a PowerPoint® presentation or even a cheat sheet, just a few topics to discuss that you "happen to think of in the moment." You also might find the person is a lot more interested in you, because you express an interest in them.
  8. Wear the skinny jeans. There's an old dieting trick that involves wearing a bathing suit every time you have a meal at home. That second blueberry muffin isn't as appealing when you're staring at your "muffin top." Unfortunately, wearing a Speedo® to Ruth's Chris isn't exactly smiled upon. Instead, try to wear your tightest pants, skinny jeans, a form-fitting shirt, or that dress that makes your boyfriend drool. When you feel your clothes pushing against your belly, you'll be a bit less inclined to continue shoveling in the food. Of course, there's nothing to stop you from unbuttoning your top pants button and continuing your feeding frenzy. Unless of course you can't get it buttoned again, which will look creepier when you stand up than if you'd worn the Speedo. The right clothes can provide a gentle reminder that just enough food is enough.
A wise person once said, "The toughest part of a diet isn't watching what you eat. It's watching what other people eat." That really is the crux of the problem with dining out in public. When you're surrounded by people who are consuming the equivalent of their body weight in fat grams, it's really tough to stick to that chicken breast and steamed veggies. But if you have a game plan, you're more likely to walk out with both a satisfied tummy and a satisfied mind. So spend a few minutes on researching, on eating, and on exercising beforehand, and be strong when you get there. The effort will be worth it, and you might even be an inspiration to your dining partner. What greater reward is there than that? Oh, yeah—a six-pack.