Eating out is a national pastime.
On a typical day, 133 million Americans dine outside their homes, according to the National Restaurant Association, which projects that we will spend $558 billion on restaurant fare alone this year.
Letting a restaurant do the cooking might be quick, easy and tasty, but it can also mean relinquishing control over what -- and how much -- you eat.
Just ask Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University who once regaled me with this cautionary tale: As part of a meal at a Manhattan restaurant, Nestle and a group of nutrition experts and food writers dined on a delicious risotto. It seemed like a sensible choice -- with rice, vegetables and a sprinkling of cheese on top. Only after eating did they learn that each small serving contained 100 grams of fat and 1,200 calories -- more than half a day's worth of calories for the average American adult.
No wonder that the New York City Department of Health, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a Washington-based consumer advocacy group) and others are pressing for nutrition labeling on most restaurant menus.
In the meantime, a growing number of fast-food chains provide nutrition information -- if you know where to find it. Much of it is online, which may not be so convenient when you're standing in line or waiting in your car. But if you pull out a PDA or a phone with Internet access, you can view an array of fast-food nutrition information that I've collected at www.leanplateclub.com, under the tools section.
Most fast-food restaurants provide brochures or notebooks with nutrition information, but you need to ask for them since they're usually kept behind the counter. Au Bon Pain has gone a step further: This chain provides computer stations where you can touch a screen to check the calories, fat, protein and other nutrition facts about your order.
Another option is the Healthy Dining Finder (www.healthydiningfinder.com/site/diners/findrestaurants/index.php) from the National Restaurant Association. It allows you to search for healthful fare by location, price and your preference: to dine at a restaurant, get takeout food or arrange for catering.
This is a great service for travelers, but read the menu options carefully because some are still higher in calories and fat than most people watching their weight plan to eat. The almond and cashew chicken at P.F. Chang's in Minneapolis, for example, clocked in at 745 calories, with 23 grams of fat (although only four grams were unhealthy saturated fat.)
Other helpful options are available in paperback. Three books, in particular, provide good information and are small enough to tuck into your laptop bag, briefcase or purse:
"Eat This, Not That" by Men's Health magazine editor-in-chief David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding (Rodale, $19.95). Slick and filled with mouth-watering photos, resist the urge to drool on the pages. It will guide you to smart options at Arby's, Cold Stone Creamery, Five Guys, Wendy's and many other chains. It also gives tips on how to choose wisely whether you're dining at fancy restaurants or grabbing a snack from vending machines.
Follow its advice to save hundreds of calories. At Smoothie King, for example, order the skinny, 20-ounce Amaretto Coffee Smoothie, which has about a third of the 277 calories found in the skinny Mo'cuccino Smoothie. And at Panera, choose the tempting and cheesy BBQ Chicken Crispani (380 calories) with less than half the calories of the Sierra Turkey Sandwich (840 calories). Get that information and more from this book. It's a winner.
"Eat Out, Eat Right" by registered dietitian Hope Warshaw (Surrey, $12.95). This one gets high marks from some noted nutrition experts, including one of my former graduate school professors at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition. With 450,000 copies published since 1992, this slim volume clearly appeals to consumers too, although it's not very flashy. What you'll find is solid restaurant information, help in knowing how best to ask for more healthful substitutions and handy nutrition tips.
"Restaurant Confidential" by Michael F. Jacobson and Jayne G. Hurley (Workman, $12.95). This book remains a reliable standby six years after its publication. It was written by the Center for Science in the Public Interest team that regularly gives an eye-opening reality check to consumers with roundups of restaurant food. Find great nutrition nuggets here, including why ordering chicken Caesar salad is not a wise choice and how Mexican restaurant meals often pack more unhealthy fat and calories than their Chinese and Italian counterparts. The only things that have changed since publication are trans fat gram counts. A growing number of fast-food chains are eliminating that artery-clogging fat, thanks in large part to petitioning from these authors and their colleagues, who also led the charge to get trans fat labeling on food nutrition labels.
You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.