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NEW YORK (CNN) — If you're watching your weight and carefully monitoring your calories, a fast food restaurant may not seem like the ideal place to grab a bite. You may be intimidated by jumbo-size meals and drinks — not to mention other unhealthy attributes of fast food.
The good news is, you can find slimmed-down options at most fast food chains, thanks to the availability of smaller portion sizes and foods with lower fat and sugar counts.
"It is possible to eat almost anywhere when watching calories, especially at fast food restaurants," said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of "The Small Change Diet."
It takes some planning, though. And there are proven tips and strategies for eating at fast food restaurants while counting calories and hoping to shed pounds.
1. Look up nutritional information ahead of time
Most menus are available online, so you can choose lower-calorie options before cravings come on strong.
You might be surprised at what you find. "Calorie counts are helpful when comparing items," said Nicole Silber, a New York-based registered dietitian who counsels families and children on how to eat healthier. "For example, it's common for salads to be higher in calories than hot entrees like burgers, because they are practically drowning in cheese and dressing."
2. Avoid the drive-through
"Even if you are in a rush, try to allow at least 15 minutes to sit down and enjoy your meal. Taking a break from your day to relax and eat mindfully allows you to register those calories as satisfying, which can prevent overeating or snacking later," said Rachel Lustgarten, a clinical dietitian at Weill Cornell Medicine.
3. Steer clear of "super" sizes
The bigger the portion, the more calories, fat, sugar and sodium. "The most important thing is to not supersize anything. In other words, order the small where available, and stay away from 'doubles' and 'triples,' " Gans said.
4. Order off the kids' menu
This will automatically downsize your meal. At McDonald's, a small order of fries has 230 calories, and a medium order has 340 calories, but a kids' size has 110 calories. Additionally, a Quarter Pounder with cheese has 530 calories, but a kids' cheeseburger has 300.
"You can have a kids' burger and fries for less than half the calories and fat," said Angel C Planells, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
5. Go for grilled
"Try and choose those foods that are not fried," Gans said, "for example, grilled or oven-roasted chicken." A grilled chicken wrap at Wendy's has 270 calories, but the spicy breaded version, cooked in oil, has 370 calories.
6. Keep it simple
Especially with sandwiches and burgers, "avoid extra toppings, such as bacon or cheese, and opt for lettuce and tomato instead," Gans said. By adding available vegetables to your sandwich, you get more volume without a lot of calories, Lustgarten adds.
7. Be careful with condiments
If you want to have a little added flavor, request your mayonnaise, sauces or salad dressings on the side so you can control the amount you eat. "The more you are in control of what goes on your plate, the more successful you will be," Gans said.
Generally speaking, mustard, ketchup and salsa are lower in calories than tartar sauce and mayo. But salad dressings can vary. "Commercial dressings can have close to 200 calories per packet," said Martha McKittrick, a registered dietitian and health and wellness coach at Wellcoach. She recommends light dressing or oil and vinegar, and using half of the packet to save calories.
8. Be smart with sides
Vegetables and fruit sides can be a great substitute for fries, according to Planells. They are lower in calories and higher in fiber, which keeps you feeling full. Side salads can also be a healthier option, especially if they are not drenched in dressing.
9. Choose water or unsweetened tea
Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and sugary lattes. At Starbucks, going "skinny" — that is, choosing non-fat milk, sugar-free syrup and no whipped cream — can help you save a significant amount of calories.
10. Consider half-portions
At Panera Bread, you can order half-portion sizes of salads and sandwiches, and the soups come in three sizes with a wide range of calories. A cup of broccoli cheddar soup has 230 calories, a bowl has 360 calories, and a bread bowl has 900 calories. If a restaurant doesn't offer half-portions, consider splitting an entrée with a friend.
11. Plan ahead
If your calorie budget doesn't leave room for fries or dessert, don't succumb at the register. Staying on track while calorie-counting should come with its own rewards.
Editor's note: Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and health journalist.
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