Dating is difficult enough without having to worry about eating too much—or too little—while out to dinner with the guy you're trying to impress. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked out to some fattening restaurant, and instead of worrying about what to wear, I was busy worrying about what I was "allowed" to eat.
It's normal to obsess about the details—like how to seem like a cool girl who eats without looking like a cow, or how to stick to your diet but avoid being one of those "salad-eating girls" who orders everything on the side. But they don't have to take over your dating life. Your goal should be to strike a balance: Enjoy the meal, and still feel good about your choices afterward. Here's what I tell myself, and my clients, before a big night out on the town.
Pick the place
If your date asks you to suggest a place to eat, check out menus online first so you can scout out the healthier options. Sushi, Mediterranean, and Spanish tapas places are typically full of healthy, delightful, and well-portioned fare—while sports bars, ethnic cuisine, and heavy French food might make it more difficult to find the best choices. Ambiance matters too: Research has shown that eating outdoors or in lots of bright lights can help you eat less, perhaps because you're paying more attention to your date and the pleasant surroundings. If you get stuck in a total fattening zone—a Super Bowl party or an all-you-can-eat buffet, for example—then try everything but don't fill your plate with any one thing.
Spoiling your appetite just a little bit is a good thing: You will most likely be going to a restaurant with lots of fattening choices, starting with a tempting bread basket. But if you eat a 200-calorie, high-protein snack—such as edamame, whole-grain pita with hummus, a packaged veggie burger, or a handful of nuts—right before leaving the house (or at most, no more than three to four hours earlier), you should be able to tear off just a small chunk of bread, dip it in some heart-healthy olive oil, and push the rest aside.
Snacking beforehand will also keep you from drinking on an empty stomach, which can lower your inhibitions about food and leave you ravenous.
Drink in moderation
If you decide to have a drink or two (no more than that, though!), choose a clear-liquor cocktail like a vodka tonic or my SkinnyGirl Margarita—clear tequila on the rocks with lime and a splash of citrus liqueur. Typically, darker liquor has a higher sugar content; plus, many people say they trigger worse hangovers the next day, provoking greasy eating binges.
Wine is a good choice too, because of its antioxidants and health benefits. But you may tend to drink wine faster than liquor, and it's important to remember that each glass contains about 100 calories, depending on the grape: Dry white wine, for example, is slightly lower-cal than sweeter Chardonnay.
The most important thing to remember about drinking on a date (or anywhere, for that matter), is to drink water too: Have a full glass before, during, and in between each of your cocktails. It will help you feel fuller faster, and prevent overeating (and overdrinking) while helping to negate the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
Order an appetizer
Appetizers scare most people who are watching their weight, but to me, they're like a gift: Most are already portioned for you (skip the sampler plate!), so overindulging is kept to a minimum. Still, it doesn't hurt to order something with a vegetable base, like a mixed greens salad or a non-cream soup.
Skip—or share—the entree
Restaurant entrees are way too large in this country: It's a fact that if you eat out more often, you'll gain weight—unless you bundle up your leftovers or make smarter food choices. I can usually get around this predicament, however, by ordering a second decadent appetizer instead of an entree. At most restaurants, you'll be able to choose small, single-serving plates such as crab cakes, grilled calamari, mini–burgers, or chicken sate.
To turn your appetizer into a satisfying meal, order a side dish—or two if you're sharing with your date. One should be green and healthy (sauteed spinach or broccoli rabe), and one more indulgent. If your date really wants fries, for example, have a few, but leave them on his side of the table.
Here's where you can practice my mantra: "Taste everything, eat nothing." Obviously, that doesn't mean eat nothing, but it's my way of saying it's better to have a tiny bit of everything, including fattening food options, than to be left unsatisfied. With anything, including salad, always leave at least two bites on your plate. You're eating enough to show that you've enjoyed the food and aren't being wasteful, but in the long run, you're saving lots of calories.
If your date seems like a sharer (which is a quality you should be looking for anyway!), suggest ordering one appetizer each and then splitting a more indulgent entree. If you're sharing a full portion (and still leaving two bites on your plate), you'll be fine chowing down on a New York strip steak or a big bowl of pasta. Whatever you do, don't order some boring steamed chicken breast that will make you miserable—because you'll just end up eating when you get home.
Enjoy a tiny dessert
If your date suggests dessert, choose a cake with fruity toppings to share. Have a few bites, but aim for more of the fruit and cream and less of the cake. Or suggest foregoing dessert at the restaurant for an evening stroll with some coffee or ice cream from a nearby shop: You'll probably have a few lower-calorie options there, and at least you're getting some exercise!
Practice often for best results
Research shows that the more often you eat out, the more likely you are to become overweight—but by following these guidelines, there's no reason you should limit your social life. Mixing up your dating schedule with activities that aren't centered around a dinner table or a bar is another way to control your calories: Go bowling, walk in the park, see a band, or take a healthy cooking class. And when a dinner date is on your schedule, eat sensibly throughout the day—with well-balanced, protein- and fiber-rich meals—to prevent binging at or after the restaurant. Remember: Food should always come second to great conversation and company.