Question: In the past week, how many times have you eaten a meal at a restaurant? According to the National Restaurant Association, on a typical day in America more than 130 million individuals will be food-service patrons. Restaurants will provide more than 70 billion meals and snacks.

Eating away from home is challenging for health-conscious consumers. If it's a special occasion, go ahead and splurge on a rich dish or dessert. But at the rate Americans eat out, we can't afford to overindulge each time.

Today begins the 11th annual Corporate Meltdown. This is a great time for Meltdown team members and all of us to find the healthier items at our favorite eating places. Watch out for these common eating-out mistakes:

Six traps to avoid when eating out

1. Baked is better ... right? Congratulations! You chose a baked potato instead of French fries. But to be truly healthier than the fries, be sure the baked potato toppings don't add the fat and calories you were trying to bypass. For example, the typical baked potato with sour cream and chives packs in 24 grams of fat. One with cheese and broccoli weighs in a bit lower at 16 fat grams. Without the sour cream or cheese, you're looking at a virtually fat-free food. Specify that you want your potato topped with steamed vegetables or chili, or ask for the margarine, butter or sour cream on the side and use only a small amount.

2. No such thing as free chips or bread. Many restaurants greet you with bread or fried tortilla chips as soon as you sit down. A basket of bread contains around 400 to 1,000 calories while a basket of chips contains 700 to 900 calories. Would you pass around a bag of chips or basket of bread before dinner at home? Take a handful of chips or slice of bread, then ask your server to remove the basket from the table. If you are starving, ask him/her to bring you a salad while you look at the menu.

3. Don't blame the chicken. Fast food finally seemed a bit healthy when chains introduced grilled chicken sandwiches. And you'll find them on almost every full-service restaurant menu. But you still have to watch it it's not the chicken that's the problem, but what's added to it. Some come with high-fat condiments like mayonnaise or special sauces, while others pile on bacon and cheese. Ask for a plain chicken breast, then add lettuce, tomato and any other veggies available.

4. "I only ate a salad." Salads are usually touted as healthy on restaurant menus, but smart diners know what to look for. Obviously, one topped with fried chicken tenders or high-fat meats, cheese, eggs, croutons and bacon bits isn't a good choice. Neither is one with dressing slathered on top.

Choose a salad that goes heavy on dark greens and other vegetables, light on lean meats and cheese, and always order the dressing on the side (dip your fork into it before each bite and you'll use less). When building your own at the salad bar, use a light hand with the higher-fat toppings for a healthier result.

5. Bigger is better, and cheaper. Fast food restaurants want you to think bigger is better, and cheaper, too. For only pennies more, you can "upgrade" to a larger size of sandwich, fries and soft drink. Don't fall for it! You end up paying a few pennies more for more fat, more calories and, ultimately, more weight and health problems. Going from small to super-size fries can add 16 fat grams to your meal. A quarter pounder with cheese has 17 more fat grams than a small cheeseburger. Excessive serving sizes aren't limited to fast food. Full-service restaurants commonly offer huge portions, like half-pound hamburgers (three ounces will do, thank you), 16-ounce steaks and unbelievably big bowls of pasta. Share an entree or take home half, but be sure to get it off your plate and into that doggie bag before you end up eating it all just because it's there.

6. Mom always said to "eat your vegetables." You hear it all the time ... eat at least three servings of vegetables daily. They're packed with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. But veggies prepared away from home may give you more fat than you expect. Ask how they are prepared. Deep fried? In butter? Rich dressing? If specific nutrition information is not available, you'll need to ask questions and make special requests to stay within your eating goals.

Consumers spend more than $566 billion on food prepared away from home every day. You can spend your share of that wisely by recognizing that eating out can't be an occasion to splurge every time. Using these tips, you can make smart, healthful choices.

For more information on living a healthy lifestyle, see my "Living Well" blog at