When it comes to eating out, it can be tricky to navigate a menu and figure out what to order when you are trying to be health-conscious. Most times, we don’t know what type of oil our food is cooked in, how much salt gets added in, and what other ingredients not listed on the menu get used.
Although I don’t obsess over these things, there are times where I have to be more strategic due to my dietary restrictions, so naturally, these questions come to mind. What I’ve learned is that there are a lot of “unknowns” when it comes to how restaurant food is prepared and you can’t control them all. However, you can control how balanced your meal is. When you go out with friends, you shouldn’t feel guilty for indulging if you want to nor should you obsess over counting calories when you’re eating out.
But, if you are trying to make an effort to eat healthier, you should know that there are ways to make healthier choices that don’t require you to sacrifice eating a good meal. To me, eating out is just as much about the experience as it is about the food.
Before I dive in, I want to provide a little background on why I started paying more attention to what I order at restaurants. I have an autoimmune thyroid disorder and my diet directly affects my symptoms and how I feel from a day to day basis. So, a couple of years ago, I started following an anti-inflammatory thyroid diet. As part of this diet, I gave up gluten, dairy (with the exception of hard cheeses which I love too much to give up), soy, and legumes. As you might imagine, there was a huge learning curve associated with figuring out what I could eat and how to order when I would dine out. However, over time I became more creative and picked up tips and tricks that have made a world of difference which is why I wanted to share some of them today!
Here are my suggestions:
- Salad ≠ Healthy. When you are trying to eat clean, it’s easy for your first impulse to be to order a salad. But simply because there is lettuce on the plate doesn’t make it healthy. In fact, most restaurant salads range from 450 to 700 calories! Why? It comes down to a couple factors. One, most restaurants salt/oil everything that goes in the salad, including the lettuce. Two, they overdress the salad or use a high-calorie dressing. I usually order dressing on the side so that I know how much is going in my salad, and also because no one likes a soggy salad. You can even opt to order lemon on the side instead of dressing for something like a chopped salad and in my humble opinion, it just enhances the flavor! Third, restaurants use salads as a vehicle for toppings, many of which are not that good for you. Dried cherries/cranberries, bacon, candied nuts, crispy shoestring onions…these things add up! This doesn’t mean you have to request for these things to be removed but just means that if you’re deciding the healthier option between fish tacos and a cobb salad, the salad isn’t necessarily the healthier choice.
- Pay attention to sauces. If you are ordering any type of protein: chicken, salmon, tofu, etc. it’s wise to think about what glaze or sauce comes with it. I tend to avoid anything with a bechamel or bearnaise which are richer and high in fat (not the good kind) as well as anything super salty like a barbecue sauce or soy-glaze. If you don’t want to skip on these, you can always order them on the side and don’t have to forego them completely. However, if there are options like chimichurri or dijon, these are great substitutes that pack just as much, if not more flavor.
- Substitute healthier side dishes. If you decide on something that comes with one or more sides, this is an easy way to make a healthier substitution. Although many entrees come with fixed side dishes, many restaurants are more than happy to accommodate you if you ask for a substitution. For instance, if you order brunch, many dishes will come with toast or a side of breakfast potatoes, so I usually ask for fruit as a replacement. Or, if you order a steak and it comes with mashed potatoes and a vegetable, I recommend asking to double the vegetable or add a second type of veggie to replace the potatoes, which are not only starchy but often have a lot of butter in them.
- Order something that will actually leave you feeling satisfied. From personal experience, I have learned that there is no worse feeling than ordering something you think will be healthier than other options and then leaving a restaurant feeling unsatisfied. The problem with this strategy is that inevitably, you get hungry later, and if you’re like me, you have a tendency to snack when you get back home. My rule of thumb is to always opt for something that comes with a protein.
- Choose your vice. If you are going out to dinner for a birthday celebration or special event, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to sit out on all the festivities. My philosophy is to choose the one thing I don’t want to skimp on – which for me is usually dessert. I have a terrible sweet tooth and would pick dessert over drinks or appetizers in a heartbeat. However, if you’re a sucker for dinner rolls or pasta then treat yourself, and find something else to cut back on so that you don’t leave feeling like you missed out.
- Read the menu carefully. Often, the biggest challenge with eating out is that you don’t have complete control over what goes into your food. However, the wording on the menu can give you clues as to how your food is prepared. I tend to stay away from anything that is “crispy”, “fried”, “breaded”, “battered”, “creamy”, or “sticky”. Instead, I look for words like “grilled” or “roasted” which usually involve less cooking oils and fats. Artichokes don’t fall into the “healthy” category once you deep fry them and serve them with aioli. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them, it’s just good to know the difference.
- Portion Size: I am someone who will eat whatever is in front of me, so portion control is something I’ve become more aware of over time. Even if you order a lean protein or a salad, restaurants often serve much larger portions than what is considered a “serving” For instance, the recommended serving for any type of meat or fish is 4 oz. and 2 oz. for rice or pasta. Truthfully, I just eat until I am full and don’t think anyone should drive themselves crazy trying to measure how much they eat. Also, if I get a huge plate of food that I know is more than I need, I’ll eat half so that I can take the other half home for leftovers.
These tips in mind, I think you also have to factor in what type of cuisine you’re eating so I thought I would include my suggestions for different types of restaurants:
- American: For a burger joint, if there are no other options (ex. In n Out) I get a burger with a lettuce bun. Otherwise, I am a sucker for a kale salad (I’m basic I know; sue me!) with salmon or chicken. *note: I don’t get the dressing on the side for a kale salad because it’s tough and typically needs to sit in the dressing for 10-20 min beforehand.
- Mexican: Fish tacos (corn tortillas) or a tostada (I don’t usually eat the shell)
- Italian: Roasted chicken or fish
- Japanese: For sushi, I like to ask if they can wrap the roll in cucumber instead of rice and avoid anything with a creamy/spicy mayo drizzle. For poke, I choose seaweed or kale as my base.
- Mediterranean: Chicken or salmon kebob with roasted veggies on the side (sans pita or pilaf)
- Brunch/breakfast: Egg white omelet or scramble; sub toast or potatoes with fruit
If you want to know more or have other questions please leave me a comment below! Thank you for stopping by and stay tuned for more posts on healthy eating!