I know how much ordering out is going on these days, so I wanted to provide some guidance for healthy food to eat out. First off, choosing your ingredients and preparing a meal is best but when you need to order out and would like to support businesses at this time, try to do so less than twice a week. Controlling what goes into your food and how it’s prepared is a self-care practice. AND when you involve your family (especially children) it can be a powerful bonding experience from shopping to storing to preparing.
Here are some overall guidelines for healthy eating out options:
Incorporate All Food Groups/Macronutrients
- Grains: Fill one-quarter of your plate with grains. Choose whole grains when you can, such as brown rice or quinoa, whole grain pasta, or whole-grain bread.
- Protein: Make one-quarter of your plate a protein food, such as fish, tofu, bean, edamame, seeds, pasture-raised eggs, plain Greek yogurt, or a lean organic pasture-raised source of meat (not processed and try to avoid red meat).
- Fruits: Fill another quarter of your plate with fruit such as blueberries, tangerine slices, or strawberries. Try to utilize in season! Go for citrus and pomegranates for cold and flu season.
- Vegetables: The last quarter is for vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, or kale. Actually don’t ever limit veggies. Fill up your plate/bowl/trough!
- Healthy Fats: one serving of plant-based fat (minus palm oil) such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds for instance.
Tips and Tricks:
- Terms to be mindful of include “crunchy,” “crispy,” “battered,” and “breaded,” as well as “creamy,” “cheesy,” and “Alfredo,” which often can mean they’re higher in fat or calories. Limit items that are fried or served in sauces that are high in saturated fat. Items that may be more healthful options might use terms like “baked,” “grilled,” “roasted,” and “steamed,” as well as “al fresco” or “marinara.”
- Consider steamed vegetables or fruit as a side option, when available.
- Rethink your drink. Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages can add up quickly and provide little nutritional value. Choose options like water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or drinks such as unsweetened coffee or tea. Watch out for kombucha too! It has SO much added sugar typically. Check ingredients.
- Sauces and dressings usually come on the side when ordered to-go, but ask for sauces and dressing on the side to be sure and help control how much actually goes on your food.
- Instead of eating out of the containers, plate your food for a more appropriate portion size when servings are large. You also can save part of your meal for later.
- Start with a healthful restaurant that is conscious of wholesome nutritious cuisine. You will be more inspired and have more choices. I personally love Flower Child and True Food Restaurant for this reason.
Let’s go through the different cuisine and talk about things to look out for:
- Choose garden rolls over spring rolls. Most entrées have enough calories to let you skip the appetizer, but if you get one, go unfried with salads, lettuce wraps, or garden rolls.
- Choose the veggie stir-fries. Try pad pak (mixed vegetables), pad king (ginger, mushrooms, onions), or pad prik king (green beans) with sautéed chicken, seafood, or tofu. They can reduce calories quite a bit when you don’t get the huge portion of white-rice noodles you get in pad see ew, pad Thai, or pad kee mao (drunken noodles).
- Watch the creamy curries which are loaded with saturated fat. It’s the coconut milk (90% saturated fat). Just half a cup has 15 to 20 grams of sat fat (a full day’s worth), so that red, green, yellow, panang, or massaman curry could rack up more than a day’s supply. You can sidestep some sat fat if you spoon the vegetables and meat over your rice and leave most of the sauce behind. Like it hot? Spicy, brothy kaeng pa (aka jungle curry) is free of coconut milk.
Middle Eastern or Greek
- Dips. Getting a side of hummus, baba ganoush, or tzatziki? Choose veggies, and skip the refined flour pita.
- Go grilled. Choose chicken, salmon, or shrimp kebabs, or chicken souvlaki. Second best: falafel (more calories, less protein).
- Cucumber-tomato salads.
- Choose whole grains. Whole grain pitas can be hard to come by. Instead choose tabbouleh (bulgur, tomatoes, herbs), which offers whole grains that a side of rice (typically white) doesn’t.
- Ask for low oil preparation. Typically swimming in oil even if it’s healthy plant-based, too much is too many calories.
- Choose lean cuts of meat, lamb, and fish that are roasted or baked (fish over red meat and chicken).
- Replace a side of rice or pasta with a small salad or extra vegetables (dressing on side).
- Squeeze lemon juice onto your veggies, meat, and fish instead of using traditional cream sauces.
- Ask for low-fat Greek yogurt in place of traditional Greek yogurt.
- Greek frittata (skip the cheese and potatoes and ask for olives on the side), plaki (fish cooked in tomatoes, onions, and garlic).
- All beef fatty lamb or beef gyros.
- Refined flour pita.
- Full fat salty/fatty feta, olives and pepperoncini.
- Getting dressed salads. Typically overdressed!
- Traditional béchamel sauces that are rich with milk or cream and butter.
- Spanakopita (spinach pie with egg and cheese).
- Moussaka (lamb and beef casserole) and other creamy or cheese entrées.
- Fried foods, like fried calamari.
- Phyllo pastry dishes.
- Feta Cheese or get ½ the amount.
- Flatter is better. Order a thin or flatbread crust instead of deep-dish, pan, or hand-tossed to save on refined carbs (and calories) per slice. Whole-grain crust available? Go for it!
- Salad, anyone? Round out your plate with a cheeseless salad to fill up. Put leftover pizza slices in the freezer.
- Pile on the veggies! Typically there are at least a few options like spinach, broccoli, and bell peppers.
- Bypass pepperoni, sausage, etc. Come on seriously it’s processed meat (actually carcinogenic).
- Be mindful of those personal pizza restaurants: At customizable spots like Pieology, typical pizzas have 800 to 1,000 calories because the crust alone has 350 to 600. Cauliflower crusts may be no lower (thanks to rice flour and cheese).
- Can you reduce the cheese amount? Cheese is saturated fat and lots of kcals so perhaps you don’t need as much and may not notice the reduction.
- Choose a la carte. Instead of a starch-heavy combo meal or fajita platter, order a few chicken, bean, or fish tacos plus a side fish salad.
- Salsa or pico de gallo cuts calories and can double as salad dressing and very nutritious!
- Choose the corn tortillas or a bowl without a tortilla or shell.
- Don’t add 2 types of dairy like cheese and sour cream. Every quarter cup of cheese or sour cream adds about 100 calories and at least a quarter of a day’s saturated fat. Guac beats sour cream because it slashes the sat fat and has a lot more nutrients. Salsa or pico de gallo cuts calories and can double as salad dressing and very nutritious!
- Skip the burrito tortilla at fast-casual spots like Chipotle. It’s roughly 300 calories, largely from refined flour. A bowl has 200 calories of rice. A salad has 15 calories of lettuce.
- Fried crispy shells are almost equal to the kcals of flour tortillas.
Salads or Bowls
- Start with darker greens. Spinach and kale pack more nutrients per serving than romaine or iceberg.
- Get mostly veggies (or fruit). They lower the calories per bite, they’re nutrient dense, water filled, high fiber (filling), and delicious! Bumping up the cals: grains, cheese, dressing, avocado.
- Split your “grain bowl” or “warm bowl.” And make sure it’s whole grain! Half grains, half greens saves room for toppings. Some chains will swap grains for lentils (Cava) or cauliflower “rice” (Sweetgreen).
- Choose healthy fats: avocado beats cheese because it’s sodium-free and monounsaturated fat which is hugely anti-inflammatory.
- Choose a plant protein: edamame, beans, hemp seeds, quinoa, chickpeas, pepitas, nuts, etc.
- Lose the refined flour. Get some crunch from nuts or seeds rather than fried wontons, pita crisps, or croutons.
- An already dressed salad. If it’s good fat, great, but 1-2 tablespoons are all you need. Try half to start and always get it on the side.
- Hold back on salty toppings like olives, cheese, and pickled veggies. Pick just one to shave sodium.
- Watch that saturated fat: dairy and meat are where this is from – high calories and more inflammatory fats that we don’t need.
- Veg out. Chinese takeout menus are flush with items that feature more vegetables than meat (or noodles). Hooray! We’re talking dishes like Szechuan string beans, Buddha’s delight, moo goo gai pan, home style tofu, or chicken with broccoli. Without rice, expect 500 to 900 calories, rather than the usual 1,000 to 1,500 in other dishes on the menu.
- Leave some rice behind (or save it for later). Every cup adds 200 calories. A typical takeout carton holds two cups.
- Watch the sodium. Use a fork or chopsticks to transfer your takeout to a plate so you leave some sauce (and its sodium) behind. Or mix in a side of steamed broccoli, snow peas, or mixed veg to stretch the sauce into more servings. Get soy sauce on the side.
- Don’t coat your protein. Order chicken, tofu, or seafood stir-fried rather than breaded, battered, or deep-fried.
- Choose roasted, poached, grilled, broiled, or braised lean protein, like fish and shellfish.
- Fill up on non-starchy vegetables, like steamed asparagus, roasted tomatoes, or fresh salad green.
- Select broth-based soups.
- Enjoy vinaigrettes on the side as a salad dressing.
- Look for menu items that are en brochette (cooked or served on a skewer) or nouvelle cuisine (lighter, more delicate dishes).
- Bouillabaisse (fish stew), Navarin (lamb and vegetable stew), ratatouille, fish and vegetables en papillote.
- Cheese and crème fraiche.
- Quiche, cordon bleu, and stuffed foods/casseroles.
- Creamy soups and rich sauces.
- Au gratin.
- High fat meats like sausage and foie gras or pate.
- Farce (bread-based stuffing with added fat).
- Choose lean protein that is steamed, sautéed, braised, grilled, barbecued, broiled, or served in broth.
- Fill up on non-starchy vegetables, like bell pepper, snap peas, cabbage, and mushrooms, or a side salad (dressing on the side).
- Select broth-based soups, like miso soup.
- In place of white rice, ask for extra veggies, brown rice, or soba noodles (made from whole grain buckwheat) instead.
- Ask for low-sodium soy and teriyaki sauce and just use less or dilute it with water.
- Unsweetened green tea.
- Salmon sashimi with a side salad (dressing on the side).
- Seaweed salad, grilled calamari with steamed vegetables.
- Tuna & avocado roll.
- Battered and fried foods, like tempura shrimp and crunchy shrimp roll.
- Creamy sauces, including those served with special rolls.
- Large portions of white rice.
- Chawanmushi (chicken and shrimp in egg custard).
- Agemono (deep fried foods), like tempura.
- Tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet).
- Fried bean curd and fried dumplings.
- Sushi with crispy, crunchy, tempura, mayo, cream cheese, or similar words in the title or description.
I know there are many more types of food but hopefully this covered quite a bit. Now, “take-out” with a plan!
And here’s a related segment by Studio SWEAT family member Haley (our beloved Eric’s wife) who is a master at sustainability and homeopathic recipes and lifestyle. She inspires me weekly (you simply MUST follow her on Instagram @hippiehappyhaley):
A homemade recipe might seem like a bad fit for a conversation about eating out, but hear me out! I’ve honed in on one of my favorite kinds of takeout from this list (Mexican!) and wanted to give you all a fun and simple homemade addition that’s healthier than what you’ll get at a restaurant. I’m talking about tortillas! Delicious, warm tortillas. Well, the takeout ones won’t be warm by the time you get them home, and unfortunately they don’t add much nutrition to your meal. They are often made with lard and if they’re not made fresh they’ll likely contain preservatives. Why not skip the takeout tortillas and make your own at home? My tortilla recipe is only five ingredients, includes almond flour for some added protein, and is a super fun way to get the whole family in the kitchen. Let’s get cooking!
-3 tablespoons olive oil
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Add water and oil and thoroughly mix until a dough forms. If it’s sticking to your fingers add a little more flour.
Set on a floured surface and knead 10 times. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then cut into 8 equal portions, and roll each portion into a ball.
Use a floured rolling pin to roll out to desired thickness, then cook in a lightly oiled skillet for about 1 minute on each side.
This recipe will make 8 medium sized tortillas and can easily be doubled or tripled if you need more. Goes great with any kind of Mexican filling. Grab your favorite rice, beans, veggies, and guac to go and fill them on up!
-Miriam Jirari MPH, RD, CPT, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
Studio SWEAT Dietitian
- Optavia Odering Out Guide