Ok, you know you want to eat healthy. You would just prefer to be able to do so without actually having to cook. With all the nonsense that fills your week, who has the time? It is takeout or frozen dinners because you don’t have the energy for anything more. Think you are doomed to clot your arteries? Well, while it is preferable to have healthy and fresh home-cooked meals, there is a way to clean up your diet significantly while eating your meals from a restaurant barstool. Don’t believe me? Well here I am in my tights, cape and super-power goggles to help you navigate restaurants for a healthier lifestyle. (Ok, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but whose counting?)
I’m going to start with an old standard. A salad can often be a very good option, but it all depends on the type of salad you choose. Avoid the fillers like croutons, wontons and tortilla strips. Those just provide empty calories. Minimize the deli slices, bacon bits and the cheeses as they are heavily processed and salted. Also, it probably goes without saying but filling your salad with deep fried foods is probably not the best option. Grilled or broiled meat with a colorful array of veggies, maybe some beans all tossed together would be a much better option. Now here’s the clincher. The dressing is the make or break item of the salad. It isn’t enough to just choose a low fat salad dressing. Low fat dressings usually compensate with sugar which can be worse for your heart and waist line than the added fat. I often try to make my own dressing right there in the restaurant. Ask for oil and balsamic vinegar and a little side of Dijon mustard. Mix the oil and vinegar and put in a smidge of mustard to taste. Add a dash of salt and you have a no-sugar added, heart healthy salad dressing on the fly!
Of course, if you spend your life eating out, you eventually have to venture beyond just roughage. This is a good time to talk to the waiter. Are you in an Irish pub with everything smothered in cream sauce? Ask if they can just serve you a simple piece of chicken covered in basic spices that is grilled or baked. Most restaurants would have the ingredients to do that. Or are you just dying for an occasional burger? Ask for it to be served on a green salad instead of a bun. Or ask for it on type of brown rice if you are missing your carbohydrates. Removing the bun isn’t about limiting carbohydrates. It is about removing the sugar filled (yes, bread is usually made with sugar) refined carbohydrates that quickly turn to sugar in your body. Oh, and on the topic of sugar, avoid the most common condiments. Ketchup has tons of sugar and mayo is made out of oils that easily go rancid. Better options are mustard and Worcestershire sauce that usually have less sugar and bad fats. They are still often high in sodium so don’t go overboard!
Another great place to look for nourishing restaurant options is ethnic food. Now I’m not talking about the “American” version of certain ethnic foods that you will see at Panda Express or Del Taco. I’m talking about the small family run restaurant where everything is made from scratch from whole food ingredients. Foods that you will find at most Indian and Ethiopian restaurants tend to be unprocessed other than the breads and flavored with spices as opposed to sugar. Sushi is also a good option as it is often made of just basic, whole ingredients. That isn’t to say that you can’t get into trouble at these restaurants. If you go to Sushi and order just the fried tempura or the Philly roll stuffed with cream cheese, you will be missing out on much of the nutrient potential that sushi has to offer. So let’s talk about the popular Chinese food. Is that a good option? “American” style Chinese food sauces are often filled with sugar, salt and much of the food is fried. A better way to order Chinese food is to order it steamed. The vegetables will be crisper, offering more nutrient potential. You can add a little soy sauce for taste (high in sodium but no sugar) or enjoy a little bit of the sauce on the side if feeling deprived.
So that brings me to the final stop in our healthy bites restaurant tour. What about eating at fast food restaurants? While fast food will never be the best choice, sometimes you are driving cross country or you’ve got a small child in your backseat or you are just in a rush with limited options. In general, even the “healthier options” at burger joints aren’t the best. For instance, the granola/yogurt cup advertised as a “healthy option” is often filled with so much sugar filled cereal that you might as well be eating candy. So what should you choose?
Rotisserie or grilled chicken places can make better options. The best option is to remove the skin which will remove a not so heart healthy form of fat but will also remove a lot of the salt filled sauce. Part of the charm in many of these places is that you can load up on more nutritious sides like steamed vegetables or a salad. Then again, load up on the extra butter mashed potatoes and you’ve now turned your meal into much more of a blood pressure hazard.
Something like Chipotle can be a better option (though load up on the sour cream, cheese and tortillas and your meal is now an artery clogging nightmare). Choose as many whole food ingredients as possible to make the healthiest creation. Maybe today you may be in the mood for vegetarian. If you choose lettuce, black beans, brown rice and maybe the sautéed peppers, your meal will be lower sodium, low sugar and filled with foods that have nutritional value. Skip the salsa and use the hot sauce on the side to further reduce your sugar intake.
Finally, what about Subway? After all, they advertise themselves as being diet-friendly. I prefer people choose the salads over the sandwiches to avoid so much refined carbohydrate. Subway advertises there sandwiches as heart healthy if they are low calorie and fat. I prefer to look at the total nutrient content. A big roll that will be quickly metabolized into sugar can lead to a blood sugar imbalance and weight gain. Again, the best option will be a salad without the packaged salad dressing. Flavor your salad with oil, vinegar and maybe some hot or sweet peppers.
Now let’s get real. You aren’t going to deprive yourself of ever eating a double burger with fries, or an ice cream sundae ever again. Eventually you are going to go to a restaurant as a treat because they serve your favorite foods. This guide isn’t for the occasional restaurant dweller in good health. When you find yourself frequenting restaurants as a larger part of your diet, it is important to understand how to get more nourishing options. Restaurant food ideally will not replace home cooked sustenance. Yet when it does, this guide is the best bet to lead you to a healthy, well balanced, nourished life!