Butter, salt, cream.

These are the things that make dining out so much more pleasurable than eating in (that, and not having to do the dishes), right? The promise of romantic candlelight, good service and a big pile of saturated fat have kept plenty of us coming back to our favorite restaurants for years.

Most chefs and restaurateurs these days are sensitive to customers' health concerns, often eschewing heavy sauces and oodles of cheese in favor of broth-based sauces and herbal infusions. But if you know a few tricks, you can make almost any restaurant a waistline-friendly experience. In my experience, there are smart, and dumb, ways to eat out, instead of pigging out.


--Rip a page out of the Weight Watchers' manual by asking for sauces and salad dressings on the side; dip a bite in just enough to add "oomph." Better yet, dip your empty fork in the sauce, then spear the food.

--Not all vegetables equal automatic virtue: Gratins, mashed potatoes and frittatas are fat havens. Ask for veggies steamed without added fat.

--Shoot for grilled items or braised dishes. (Despite their perceived richness, in such entrees, lean cuts of meat are slowly cooked with stock and vegetables to add tenderness and flavor.)

--And the cardinal rule of healthful restaurant dining: Don't be afraid to ask your server to describe how a dish is prepared. "Crispy" and "golden" are obvious code words for fried, but there are lots of tricky menu euphemisms that your waiter can help decode.


--Scrimping on potatoes, pasta and other old beaus, only to load up on liquid calories. A 5-ounce glass of wine hits about 100 calories; count on 250 if you split a bottle with your date. A typical pina colada packs more calories (more than 600!) than a Big Mac.

--Letting the restaurant dictate your portions. Have the waiter bring a to-go container along with the entree, and pack up the excess for another meal before you start eating.

--Jumping on the scale the next morning to punish yourself after overdoing it at dinner. Resume your healthy habits instead. Restaurant food is often salty, so the scale may register temporary water weight.

--Denying yourself the fun of eating out because you're on a diet. If you want your healthy habits to become permanent, you're better off learning moderation away from home, too.