Healthy Restaurant Options When You Must Dine Out
It’s easy to be down on the restaurant industry for their massive amounts of fat & salt in most dishes, but there are healthier choices out there if you’re willing to look for them.
When eating out with others I find that it’s actually easier to eat healthily because most people that I dine with know I’ve lost weight, and know that I’m still working to lose more. So there’s a certain macho bravado with ordering the healthiest meal at the table. I’m sure some people are annoyed when I make When Harry Met Sally-style special requests to cut back on the salt & fat, put the sauce on the side, make the omelette with egg whites (sometimes – usually I’ll just eat whole eggs), or substitute a salad or side of fruit for hashbrowns or fries.
Strategies for Eating
Eating is such a pleasurable activity, and one downside of Clean Livin’ is that it makes it more of a chore. You’re no longer just eating whatever for the pure enjoyment of your food, but instead planning an eating strategy wherein you’re mentally calculating every calorie, nutrient, and figuring out what you should be eating instead of what you want to eat. That’s the opposite of fun. That’s work.
Once you’ve learned a few tricks, though, you can dine, if not with reckless abandon, then at least with the confidence that you’re doing the best that you can. Passing on the fries is a difficult moment in any eater’s life. Let’s take the sting out of feeling like you’re depriving yourself.
- Back Yourself into a Corner – Instead of eating the bread, getting a few drinks, an appetizer, unhealthy side dish, an entrée, and then dessert – get just one of those things in addition to your entrée. You can mix it up – one meal, get an appetizer. Another, go for your favorite dessert. It really sucks to spend your calorie budget on high-calorie foods that you don’t even really like that much, so if you’re going to splurge, ensure you make the most of it. As an American, I’m all about maximizing my enjoyment, making sure that everything is always the best it can possibly be.
- Gratis Schmatis – We sure do love things that are free. Skip the bread basket and butter (unless that’s your favorite thing), popcorn, or whatever other freebies they bring you to get you eating as soon as possible.
- You Booze, You Can’t Lose – Johnny Cochran rhyme aside, alcohol contains more calories per gram than any foodstuff other than fat, so be careful to not drink the equivalent of an entire meal.
Recommended Things to Eat
Since people are always asking me what I eat, as if there’s a magical diet that will make you lose weight, I’m going to be specific about things that I order in restaurants. Granted, you won’t lose weight as fast eating out a lot, since you have much less control over how a dish is prepared, and what ingredients go into it, but I like restaurants and I can eat out and still lose weight if I’m smart about it.
When I want to eat out but don’t want to blow through two days of calories in a single meal, I’ve made a mental (and now written) list of go-to foods that are reasonably healthy. With these choices you still have to watch things (sauces, side dishes, preparation method) but it’s easier to eat right when you eat the “more right” things. You know how I am about making the right choice the easy choice.
If you go easy on the soy sauce, skip the maki rolls loaded with fried breadcrumbs and mayonnaise, and eat only a small bit of white rice, sushi bars can be an excellent (albeit expensive) source of lean protein. I tend to stick with salmon, tuna, and other fish high in omega–3 fatty acids (since they’re known to help lower cholesterol). Miso soup, while high in sodium, is full of all sorts of beneficial compounds, and if I’m going to have anything unhealthy at a Japanese restaurant, miso is where I’ll blow it, which isn’t so bad.
Watch Out For: Soy sauce, which is essentially a flavored salt. Avoid “spicy” anything (since they make it spicy by adding chili oil to mayo – yes, fat & fat), vegetables prepared in the “tempura” style (i.e. breaded and deep-fried), and the fancier maki rolls that are stuffed with things like fried shrimp or cream cheese.
Broiled or Poached Seafood
Ask for it without butter, as most restaurants will glaze the fish with fat so it gets a nicer crust when they stick it under the salamander to cook.
Shrimp and scallops are excellent sources of lean protein. Don’t worry about the cholesterol in shrimp, especially in the small quantity you’ll be getting in a dish at a restaurant. Just be sure that it’s simply prepared without a rich, fatty sauce.
Avoid: Fish that’s battered, breaded, or otherwise fried, or served in “garlic butter” or some other heavy sauce.
Oh, restaurant salad, you’re such a tease. Salads offer the illusion of being healthy, but most salads on a restaurant’s menu get tarted-up with cheese, bacon, fatty dressing, croutons, and other unhealthy things that largely negate the nutritional benefit of the vegetables. Oh, I could write another whole post on how salads are often higher in calories than a burger and fries.
Get the salad with the most interesting greens or other vegetables, dip your fork in the dressing (that you’re getting on the side), and don’t be afraid to be annoying to your server and ask for it without the offending bits. Personally I’m a big fan of a beet salad with goat cheese, since beets are delicious and goat cheese is expensive enough that they tend to give you only a few crumbles. I love that beet salads also often come with walnuts, although a lot of places candy them first, which sullies their health benefits.
Since vegetables tend to be lower in calories, and greens are cheap, you can eat a lot of them. Fill up on the dark, leafy greens and go easy on non-vegetable toppings and dressing.
Favorite Healthy Salad Ingredients: arugula, field greens, avocado, grilled chicken breast, steak, shrimp, tuna fish, fruit, beets, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, shredded parmesan, olives, feta cheese, capers, bell peppers, jalapeños, hot peppers.
Skip: Creamy or sweet dressings which are full of sugar & fat. Croutons, tortilla strips, or other deep-fried crunchy things. Fatty cheeses like bleu cheese, cheddar, or swiss.
Depending on the place, of course – having tortillas made with lard in the traditional method will add hundreds of calories to a meal that can otherwise be fairly low-cal, and even if you get steak, chicken, or shrimp on your taco, they tend to be lean and you don’t get much on each.
Squeeze some fresh lime juice on your taco for a huge kick of flavor for almost zero calories. Most hot sauces contain little more than vinegar, hot peppers, and salt, and are usually calorie-free as well while packing in a lot of flavor (and heat!).
Beware “fish tacos” as the traditional fish taco is battered, deep fried, and covered with mayonnaise and cheese. Some places will let you substitute a grilled fish, and you can always ask them to hold the mayo.
Skip: Crunchy fried hard-shell tacos. Anything covered in a sauce, like enchiladas. Mexican Coke (just because it has sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t suddenly make it a health food).
Steak & Potatoes
A leaner cut of beef (think filet mignon, flank steak, or sirloin) and a baked potato (bonus points if you can get a baked sweet potato) and a side of some steamed or grilled vegetable like asparagus can be a pretty healthy meal (you don’t have to eat the entire potato, as the russets that most restaurants employ are gigantic).
Avoid: High-calorie sides of french fries, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and the hollandaise sauce often served with the vegetable.
Okay, so falafel balls are deep-fried, but usually in vegetable oil, and the falafel itself is porous and tends not to hold much oil after frying. Falafel (ground up, fried chickpea balls) are usually served or garnished with hummus, mediterranean salad, tabbouleh, and pickled vegetables, all of which have numerous health benefits. I enjoy a falafel sandwich in a pita from time to time, but if you get it as a platter instead you can save yourself 100 or so calories by skipping the pita.
No need to avoid the hummus or tahini sauce – the garbanzo bean mash and sesame seed tahini come together to form a complete protein. Generally, the combination of beans + seeds = good for you.
Also recommended: lentil soup, especially if it’s vegetarian.
I’m not going to lie – very little of what I eat would be described as a “dessert” by most people. Having said that, I’ll have a post-dinner evening snack most nights, and while most of the time we’ll skip dessert when eating out, there are still some desserts that I’ll eat when out.
- Frozen Yogurt – I especially enjoy the extra tart pro-biotic froyo from Pinkberry. Most frozen yogurt these days just tastes like soft serve vanilla ice cream (and isn’t much healthier or lower in calories) but some of the healthy frozen yogurt places do it right. The original should taste like yogurt, not vanilla. Pass on the toppings (yes, even the fruit, which is usually macerated in sugar).
- Popcorn – I used to get a big tub of popcorn just about every time I went to the movies. Now I’ll get a small popcorn from time to time (without the artificial butter-flavored grease). If I’m going to eat popcorn I’d much rather make it at home where I can control the oil and especially the salt, but if you can get air-popped popcorn out that’s not heavily salted, go for it. Popcorn is high in fiber and very filling. Just be cautious of the movie theater since the average medium movie theater popcorn contains over 1,000 calories (without the “butter”).
- Fruit – You may say that fruit isn’t a dessert, and that’s where we differ. I eat fruit most nights at home (and often for breakfast) and if I can get a fruit cup or side of fruit at breakfast I often will.
The three most beautiful words in the English language are “Breakfast served anytime.” I could eat breakfast foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack. Thankfully, my favorite breakfast food is also one of the healthiest: eggs.
I may have mentioned my love of eggs before. I especially love omelettes because the combinations of fillings can make what’s essentially the same dish taste completely different.
However: Sure, you need to avoid the side of hash browns, butter on toast, and fatty breakfast meats (although I’ll splurge to spend some calories on bacon or sausage sometimes), but if you want a nutritious meal that’s filling and satisfying, eggcept no substitute.
So I Just Shouldn’t Eat Out, Right?
If you’re careful you can eat out without torpedoing your fitness goals. Just remember to skip everything that’s delicious. I kid, but pick your battles. If you want a BLT get a BLT. Try eating just half of it. If you want a little extra kick in your salad, get the bleu cheese dressing every once in a while, count it in your food log, and eat more healthily the rest of the day.
Your daily caloric budget is yours to do with as you please. Enjoy yourself when eating out but a little moderation goes a long way, and restaurants are definitely working against your best health efforts.
Thanks to the low-carb Atkins Diet that was popular a decade ago, a lot of restaurants have Atkins-friendly substitutions right on the menu. Sometimes there’s an extra charge for fruit instead of potatoes, but I’ll pay an extra buck to not eat a meal’s worth of calories in my side-dish. Then again, sometimes I’ll just get the potatoes, because they’re delicious. ↩
I love you, too. ↩