How To Eat Out Without Pigging Out

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Planning on dining out this Valentine’s Day? Then you might want to make your reservations posthaste: The annual day of love is also the second-busiest day of the year for restaurants. (The busiest? Mother’s Day.)

Let’s face it, though. There are plenty of restaurant-worthy occasions all year long—not like most of us need an excuse to dine out. But eating out doesn’t also have to mean pigging out.

The temptation can be strong to overeat when someone else is doing the cooking and serving, and when heaping helpings of delicious food are put in front of you. But beware the consequences of allowing what were once splurges to become your day-to-day eating pattern.

Researchers have found strong linkages between portion size and obesity—although establishing a direct causal relationship could be difficult because of the many variables involved. But what better way could there be to exercise more control than by having less food on your plate in the first place?

Whether you call them tapas, mezes, dim sum, or simply appetizers, small plates in recent years have become a big trend. While I’m fortunate to live a big city with seemingly endless options, virtually every restaurant has appetizers on its menu, and they can be a great way to help you practice mindful eating.

Recently, a dear friend of mine who moved to the West Coast came back for a visit. We chose a tapas place for dinner. It turned out to be an ideal setting for catching up because the breaks in between the various dishes were conducive to more conversation.

Just as important as the social aspect, eating at a more leisurely pace will make your body more aware of the hunger cues that are crucial for “intuitive eating.” When I first look at a small-plates menu, my stomach tells me I’m going to need three or four different dishes. But if they are brought out one at a time, more often than not I’ll end up eating as few as two.

Of course, there are many other reasons to love small plates aside from portion control. They let creative chefs truly show off their stuff, and they allow you to experience a wider variety of a restaurant’s tastes and ingredients than you otherwise might.

And if someone is truly your Valentine, they’ll let you sample a forkful or two from their plates without your having to order another entire dish of your own. (When you’re not eating out, the IFIC Foundation’s “It’s All About You” project offers some great portion-control advice at home.)

Whether you’re dining out on Valentine’s Day or any other day, small plates are one way that less can literally be more.