Eating fresh and healthy 'al fresco'

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth). The latest post is from clinical nutritionist Christine Dobmeier.

More and more establishments in the Baltimore area now offer outdoor seating, so you can dine al fresco and take in the balmy weather along with some good people-watching.

Some of the more unusual outdoor dining spots I've spotted around town include the upstairs deck and street-level seating at Speakeasy and the misted outdoor tables at Mama's on the Half Shell, both in Canton. Blue Hill Tavern in Canton features a side terrace and a back deck area upstairs. Many of the restaurants in Harbor East also have outdoor tables; Ouzo Bay even has some beautiful white couches to settle in for a meal that may make you feel like you are in Greece instead of Baltimore. In Fells Point, neat spots include the Admiral's Cup and Tapas Adela.

Eating out in restaurants can be tough on the waistline. Meals tend to be calorie-dense, higher in fat and sodium content. It is much more difficult to hide our eating indiscretions in the warm summer months: There are no sweat pants and parkas to hide in this season. But you can keep summer eating fresh and healthy.

Think lean

Choosing a lean protein choice can be a great start to a healthy meal. Look for words like "grilled," "steamed" or "broiled," which typically signify a lower-fat cooking method. Many restaurants add fat to even more healthful foods (such as melting butter on a sirloin steak), so don't be afraid to ask for no added fats. You don't always need to order an entree — a great "meal" can be a shrimp cocktail appetizer served with a couple vegetable sides. If you are skipping the meat, look for protein from beans, hummus or almonds. If nuts are added to a salad, beware of the candied nuts that have added oils and sugars.

Think green

Try to make vegetables a bigger part of your meal. With high summer temperatures, it's easier to eat light. If an entree comes with a starch (potatoes, rice, grits, pasta), ask if you can swap for an extra vegetable instead. Vegetables will typically be lower in calories and higher in fiber.

Think fresh

Take advantage of the fresh fruits and vegetables that abound this time of year. Ordering a salad featuring local heirloom tomatoes and basil is a fantastic choice. Be mindful of salad dressings, as they can easily up the calorie and sodium content of your meal. With a fresh vegetable salad, a simple balsamic vinegar and olive oil addition can be the perfect touch. A citrus vinaigrette often can be a good option as well; ask for dressing on the side. Many restaurants are incorporating fresh fruit salsas or grilled fruit on a salad or as an accompaniment to meat or fish. Often you can order a small fruit salad as a side dish for breakfast or dinner.

Think 'filling'

The word "filling" is usually associated with a big heavy meal. But food that has more volume (liquids, vegetables) can help keep you feel full with a lower calorie load. Soup is a great example. Go with a broth-based soup instead of a cream-based one, which typically is much higher in calories. With hot weather, people don't always think of soups, but many restaurants offer some chilled varieties, such as a traditional gazpacho or something along the lines of a chilled melon / cucumber soup. A great local stand-by is a bowl of Maryland crab soup. It's fresh, filled with vegetables and lean protein so it certainly will fill you up (though it does tend to be high in sodium). By ordering extra vegetables, it's a great way to fill up as well.

Think fluids

With hot weather here, it is even more important to stay hydrated. Whatever you choose to drink, make sure to ask for a glass of water with it. Many restaurants are offering infused waters, which is a great way to get hydration and flavor without the calories. Before you eat, drink that water. As it fills you up, you'll be less inclined to overeat. It's also important to think about any calories you are getting from fluids, particularly alcoholic beverages. These can add up quickly. Whether it is a mixed drink made with soda or juice or a margarita, a large cocktail can be more than 300 calories. Lower-calorie options include a glass of wine, a white wine spritzer or a light beer. Portion size can affect drinks as well as many wine glasses in restaurants are larger than your typical 3-ounce pour. It's easy to forget about including the drinks in the calorie count of our overall meals.