Restaurants are only just now beginning to open up for inside dining. But before you dive into that high-calorie bacon burger, take a minute to reconsider. Are there healthy options? And more importantly, are there healthy options that taste good? I’ve never been a fan of burger alternatives like the “Impossible burger,” and if my vegan friends try to convince me by saying “Yeah, it almost tastes like the real thing!” Chances are, it doesn’t.
But after staying at home for the past three months and living on comfort food, many of us have put on weight. I asked some insiders about how to find the healthiest options restaurants have to offer:
Melissa Morris, an ISSN certified nutritionist who gives nutrition advice on the life insurance site QuickQuote.com, says : “It can be difficult to eat healthy at restaurants, but it can be done. It’s much easier to eat healthy when cooking at home, but eating healthy at restaurants is possible with some strategies. A common misconception at restaurants is that a salad is a healthy option. If you pay attention to the calories in restaurant salads, they are higher than many entrees!”
Sara also reminds me to watch my salt. She says, “Sodium is typically much higher in restaurant foods than the dishes we cook at home, so that’s something else to pay attention to. An otherwise healthy meal may end up having 50% to 100% of the sodium you need in an entire day in just one meal. To find healthy options, pay attention to the calories and sodium listed on most menus or websites. One pretty standard healthy meal you can find at most restaurants is a piece of grilled meat with no toppings and no breading (steak, grilled chicken, or grilled fish) plus vegetables or a side salad.”
Megan Robison, online health and fitness coach, says “I always tell my clients before you go out to a restaurant, check out the menu online. Not only is it easier to review your choices while your intentions to eat healthily are strong, but sometimes you can find nutrition information as well.” Megan also says “Don’t hesitate to request modifications to your server to make your meal healthier, such as grilled instead of fried, no butter or oil, sauce and dressing on the side.”
I loved checking out nutritionist Lisa Richards’ website, The Candida Diet, where I learned a lot about how our sugary diet full of processed foods damage the gut and cause inflammation. Lisa gave me some excellent tips for finding healthy options when dining out: “The easiest and most overlooked way to cut out excess calories and sugar when dining out is to pass on sugar-sweetened beverages. Opt for water instead, which will keep you from drinking your calories and cutting out unnecessary carbs in the form of sugar.” And as much as I love my fried foods, her advice is to avoid them: “Choosing grilled foods over fried will reduce the amount of saturated fat consumed and opting for lean meats like fish or chicken over beef will also make your meal healthier.” And all that wonderful-smelling, fresh bread they always bring out before the entrée is served? Too good to pass up. Or is it? Lisa says, “Avoiding refined carbohydrates in the form of sides and fillers, like complimentary bread, is a quick and easy way to make your meals healthier. Choose vegetables over starch-based sides like white rice and pasta.” And of course, the desserts. How could I possibly pass up dessert at a restaurant? Lisa says I don’t have to give it up, she says “If you must indulge in dessert try splitting it with a friend. This will cut the calories and the expense in half.”
Natalia Levey, chef, author and speaker and owner of the fabulous Speaks Clam Bar in St. Armands and Lakewood Ranch, Florida, gave me a few great insider tips that I plan to use once I am finally able to go out to restaurants again. Apparently, restaurant menus are something like real estate listings. Natalia says to “Look for key words that would help to identify items that are higher in calories or are unhealthy: crispy, golden fried, smothered, battered, tempura. Look for simple descriptions, and lowest ingredient list.” Natalia also points out something I have noticed time and time again, especially when comparing American restaurants with ones in Europe or Asia, where portion sizes tend to be smaller. Natalia’s advice: “As a patron, I usually go knowing that most portion sizes are bigger than what I can possibly eat. So I either ask my table mates to share something, or end up ordering an appetizer or a salad and a vegetable side.”
Shannon Leininger at Livewell Nutrition in Las Vegas has some sound advice I wish I had during my last visit to Sin City, home of fabulous restaurants where it’s easy to go back home ten pounds heavier than when you arrived. Shannon tells me, “Making healthier decisions at restaurants is easier than it’s ever been. Not only are chain restaurants required to list their calorie counts on their menu, but those looking for specific nutrition information can find it by checking out the establishment’s website, or using popular apps such as Calorie King. One of the biggest nutrient pitfalls is the amount of sodium found in foods when dining out. Unfortunately when a consumer goes out to eat, they lose control over the preparation method, and salt is one of those hidden ingredients that someone may not know is present in excess in certain food items. Even items that appear to be healthy may have high amounts of sodium. In addition to sodium, other nutrients of concern may be carbohydrates for someone with diabetes, or perhaps fat content for someone who has their heart health in mind. I usually recommend that my patients look up the nutrition content before they go out to eat so they can go in with an idea of what they’re going to get and be assured that it falls within their eating plan. It can be helpful to decode the wording on the menu also; for example, a menu item that says it’s “crispy” is code for fried; a “creamy” sauce most likely indicates it has a lot of fat. Foods prepared with healthier methods may use words like grilled, broiled, in its own juice, etc. Also don’t forget to ask for modifications; most places are ok with consumers asking for sauces or dressings on the side, subbing out a salad in place of French fries, etc. Going out to eat is an important and sometimes necessary part of life, but it doesn’t have to mean that someone has to stray from their healthy eating plan in order to enjoy their meal.”
Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition, an online coaching and nutrition certification platform, has a very complete list of ways to avoid those menu landmines, as he calls them. There are definitely a few things to look for – Brian says that it doesn’t have to be absolute, but only order these things occasionally when you choose to indulge. Here’s what Brian has to say:
1) Smoothies made with sweetened/sugary fluids.
Smoothies can be a great way to get in a convenient and well-rounded meal, when made well. However, they are often made with fruit juices and sweetened nut milks, providing lots of sugar and unwanted excess calories. Or they contain excessive amounts of healthy fats (nut butters, seeds, avocados, coconut milk, etc.), that are healthful in reasonable amounts, but can also provide unwanted excess calories. Instead, aim to get smoothies that combine some protein (at least 20 grams), vegetables (spinach works great, as it is virtually tasteless), whole fruit, and a moderate amount of healthy fats.
2) Fancy coffee drinks
Frappe’s, coolatta’s, frappacinno’s, latte’s or practically any coffee drink with whipped cream is going to pack a wallop of calories, due to the extreme sugar and fat content. Often in the neighborhood 600-1000 calories per drink! Instead, include only a moderate amount of cream and/or sugar into your coffee to keep things reasonable. And take a quick peak at the calorie content of your favorite fancy coffee drink if you are unsure.
3) Salads loaded with dressing and excess empty carbs
Salads are often touted as paragons of health. And they can be, when they are well constructed. But Caesar salads and others that are pre-loaded with lots of creamy or oily dressing and significant amounts of croutons or other crunchy carbs are often unexpected calorie bombs. Instead, order a salad with plenty of veggies that you like, with dressing on the side. You can still get some croutons / crunchy carbs, just eat them in moderate amounts along with moderate amounts of dressing, along with adding a palm-sized portion of protein of your choosing (e.g. chicken, shrimp, beans and eggs, etc.)
4) Salads or sandwiches with fried meats
It can be easy to think you are making a top-notch choice by getting a salad or a sandwich. But when that meal comes with fried meat, it is loaded with significantly more fat and empty carbs, and therefore calories, than we often realize. Instead, choose the grilled meat option most of the time. And pick the fried option only when looking to purposely indulge a little bit.
5) Creamy sauces
Whether you are getting a sub, pasta or other meal where sauce can be added, creamy sauces tend to sneak up on you. While they add great flavor and mouthfeel, they add an enormous amount of calories; often bringing meals well above 1,000 total calories! Instead, try to order pasta with red or light white wine sauces. Or order sandwiches where you are controlling the added fats by choosing lean proteins (think chicken breast rather than saucy chicken, or meat salads) and then adding fats in the type and amount of your choosing (such as cheese, guacamole, sour cream, etc.).
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.