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!
William Butler says
When it comes to eating healthier, many restaurants now have a heart healthy label right on the menu, but even then, as you say, they are not always the healthiest choice. Takeout foods are mostly processed foods, with too much sodium, sugar, cream, cheese, deep fried batter, etc.
When you get a plate full of fries and a half chicken for lunch, it goes against the wisdom of eating a portion the size of your fist.
Much of a healthy lifestyle involves smart choices. This post is a great reminder of that. Have a nice week!
You are right the heart healthy doesn’t always mean healthy. Heart healthy usually means lower in fat and calories. There have been many studies that have shown that refined carbohydrates and sugar play a large roll in heart disease and healthy fats actually prevent it. That is why it is very powerful to be educated about what is really in your food.
Deidre M. Simpson says
Erica, this was informative and easy to accept. I’ve been going about it in the wrong way, getting stuck in the spontaneity and overwhelm of takeout orders. I appreciated your substitution suggestions, especially for Chinese food. They are realistic, healthier, and reasonable. This was a great lesson.
Hi Deidre. I’m glad you find the substitution for Chinese food helpful. As an ex-New Yorker, I used to live on Chinese Food so I eventually had to find a way to make it healthier. Thanks for reading and commenting!
A few years ago I was working as a consultant in California and ate out every meal of every day for nearly a year. I have never been so unhealthy. I gained a boat load of weight, my cholesterol went through the roof, and I had to buy new pants in a new size…ugh! Since then I have eaten healthier, cut out sugar, cut out added salt, miss none of it and am back to normal. I look at that time as a wake up call. Thanks for this post Erica as it make sure I stay in line.
Hi Tim. I think we’ve all been in that situation at one time or another where we’ve been so busy that we feel we don’t have time to focus on what we eat. I’m glad you eventually found a healthier way as some people really struggle once they go off track. Great that you were able to take it as a wake up call!
Michele LoBosco says
Great post, Erica! Recently I’ve been trying to make changes to my diet, and limit my sugar and processed food intake. It can be so much easier to take the fast and easy route rather than to stay committed (and not to grab the first thing you see). Love your suggestion to make your own dressing…and to eat Indian and Euthiopian as they may be more unprocessed…thanks for such an informative read!
Thank you Michele! Congratulations on the diet changes. I know it is difficult to avoid processed food and sugar since it is everywhere and it is even more so when eating out. I think it is great to work to make better choices and to also not be too hard on yourself when you slip up!
Hi Erica – this is a great post. When I was working I traveled a lot which meant eating out and after a while it all tasted like cardboard, especially the fast food stuff. Your post would have come in so handy at that time. I like the mixing of your own salad dressing – great tip.
Hi Lenie! Wow, I can’t believe you used to have to travel so much for work! That really is a challenge in a lot of ways because you don’t have any of the comforts of home around you. I’ve done a little travelling for work, like seeing different sites, but am always happy to be home. Glad you like the salad dressing. I can’t eat gluten (which is in many dressings) so this has come in handy for me.
maxwell ivey says
Hi Erica; Thanks for sharing this post. I am a gastric surgery success. I haven’t been away from my house much since the surgery. the one week I was last year I did very well because we went to the grocery store and bought plenty of healthy stuff to keep in the motel room or the truck. I would like some more suggestions on better fast food choices. I plan on traveling more in the future. By the way you are so right its often the add ons that do the most damage. thanks for sharing, Max
Hi Max. Bringing a cooler is really such a good plan when avoiding fast food on the road! I did the same thing a couple of years ago while driving cross country. The great thing is that even most motels have mini fridges and ice makers so you have everything you need to keep things cool day after day. By the way, congrats on the weight loss success!
JACQUELINE GUM says
This was a great post – so informative with substitutions that are easier. I don’t travel as much I once did…but now there really are healthier choices. Making your dressing is quite brilliant, by the way!
Hi Jacqueline! Yes, it is so nice to know there are options. It is so easy to eat in a way that makes us feel bad just because it seems that is all that is available!
Beth Niebuhr says
Great suggestions for options in takeout and other fast food delights!
Hi Beth. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!
William Rusho says
I am glad more and more restaurants are providing healthier selections. Once, going to a restaurant meant you gained 10 pounds earing unhealthy food. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks William. Yes, I’m very glad that going to a restaurant doesn’t have to mean a 10 pound weight gain! It is really great that there are healthier selections in a lot of places since eating out can also be a fun social activity.
Meredith Wouters says
Great tips, Erica, and I loved your opening few sentences! You hit the nail on the head. I also love the small ethnic food places. I think they’re healthier, and it’s great to get some variety. I also agree with Bill, that portion control has a lot to do with it too.
Hi Meredith. Yes, portions can be crazy in some restaurants. The day I flew into Paris, my friend and I ended up at a restaurant called American Dreamz (we spent the rest of the time eating more local food so we didn’t miss out on French cuisine) Anyway, the whole restaurant was a spoof on American decadence and the portions were gigantic. I actually feel disappointed when I eat all my food at a restaurant because I’m used to having leftovers!
Lorraine Reguly says
Great tips. I especially like the one about removing the skin from chicken, as I do this already… except when I’m eating at KFC! That’s when I definitely indulge!
Hi Lorraine. I haven’t had KFC since I was a kid but I do remember that was good stuff! It is definitely good that you know what foods are worth it to you to indulge in. Then it is worth it!
Susan Cooper says
What a great post. I love the information about the various substitutions. They really can be so easy. I don’t travel like I did in the past. Still, these healthier choices can come in handy at any time. There are so many ways of making eating healthier. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity, like the many you’ve addressed in your post. 🙂
Thank you so much Susan! Yes, I really feel like you can have good, tasty food while making healthier choices. It just takes knowing what to look for!
Mina Joshi says
Eating out is unavoidable these days so thanks for sharing your tips on suggesting healthier options. I prefer to go to small bistros where the menu is small and evrything is made from scratch. It’s worth the wait.
I agree Mina! Small bistros and family run restaurants are the best!
Pamela Heady says
Great advice to follow as I am frequently traveling with mu husband and that means eating out a lot. One of the things I’ve loved about being in California, any restaurant with 5 or more locations (I think that’s the magic number but can’t remember for sure) has to have nutritional information on their menu. I will often visit websites too for different establishments and browse the healthiest options for me prior to visiting. Some of my favorite places with easy to find nutritional info is Rubio’s (fish tacos), BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery and Lazy Dog Cafe and Brewery. Of course sometimes I cut back on food calories so I can enjoy a finely crafted hoppy beer, but I do utilize the info and wish it were standard in all states.
That is so interesting Pamela! I live in California and I’ve never noticed the nutritional information on the menu. Hmmm, maybe that means I don’t go to a lot of chains. Wait, come to think of it, I saw the calories posted when I was at Chipotle. I’ll have to check out Lazy Dog Cafe. I often drive by it but have never been there to eat.
When thinking about burger, I usually imagine about the burger served on the bun. You are right. I can place the burger on brown rice or on fresh green salad. You made a good point about the Americanized ethnic restaurants. Still, there are great healthy options available. Thanks for sharing the insight.
Hi Bindu! I’m glad you like the burger idea. Yes, there are lots of Americanized ethnic restaurants out there. Good thing there are also lots of small family owned restaurants. It really gives us the opportunity to get the real thing!
Very good tips here. When I was in the U.S., it was very difficult to eat healthily where I lived. My town (Huntington, WV) was featured on the Jamie Oliver show where he tried to change the eating habits of school kids there. I think things might be changing there but it’s still not the healthiest place in the world. Options also make a difference when considering eating out. I’d opt for eating at home in places like that.
Hi Carl. Yes, there are definitely places where it is easier to eat out and places where it is more difficult. I used to watch Jamie Oliver’s show when it was on. Very interesting that was your hometown. I imagine your town was used because it was reflective of American’s eating habits in general. I feel lucky living in a major city to have a range of options when eating out so it is easier for me to find the healthier ones.