We love eating out so much that it’s not really a weekly treat as much as it is a regular part of our daily diet. But when you’re eating out that much, it’s sometimes good to have some organizing principles that can help you choose the healthiest foods while also helping you feel like you’re indulging and having fun.
We’ve asked four nutrition experts to explain their approach to eating out and how they would order at four different kinds of restaurants. See which philosophy aligns with your perspective, and then check out what that person would order at Chinese, Mexican, Italian and Japanese restaurants.
Alexis Joseph: The Portion Controller. As a dietitian, founder of hummusapien.com and co-founder of Alchemy Juice Bar + Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, Joseph loves eating out but doesn’t love obsessing over a menu beforehand. Instead, she has some go-to guidelines that help her choose the healthiest vegetarian dishes and she focuses on portion control.
“Just because you’re served a huge plate of food, doesn’t mean you have to eat it all in one sitting,” she said. “If you wouldn’t eat five servings of pasta at home, you don’t need to eat it in a restaurant!"
Alissa Rumsey: The Mindful Eater. A dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that if people eat out no more than two to three times a week, it’s fine to indulge a little bit. To get the most out of the experience, Rumsey says, focus on the food in a mindful way.
“Focus on eating mindfully, paying attention to the smell, taste, and look of your food,” she advised. "This will help you to be more in touch with your hunger and fullness signals, making it simpler to stop eating once you start to feel full."
Nancy Farrell: The Menu Navigator. A dietitian and spokeswoman of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Farrell approaches restaurants in an open-minded and adventurous way. Instead of ordering the same entrees every time, she explores the menu in search of “wonderful, colorful, flavorful foods” that are prepared using healthier cooking methods.
"Watch preparation methods and strive [to select] foods that are baked, broiled, steamed or grilled,” said Farrell. "And, always, always ask what the vegetable of the day is and work to incorporate it or a salad into your meal.”
Rachel Lander-Canseco: The Planner. An LA-based dietitian, Lander-Canseco prefers to save restaurant meals for a once-a-week treat or a special occasion (and to her, Saturdays count as a special occasion). But if you are eating out every day, Lander-Canseco is a huge fan of researching the menu choices before you arrive, so you can customize a meal to suit your needs based on nutrition facts or ingredients. And if you’re serious about portion control, Lander-Canseco wants you to “feel empowered” to reject bread baskets of bowls of chips for the table.
"That table bread and chips and salsa can be tough to resist even for those with the best of intentions (and especially after a couple of sips of that wine or margarita), so feel empowered to ask the waiter to not serve it,” she says. "Don't feel guilty for saying ‘no' or asking questions."
There are some guidelines that seem to unite all four nutritionists. They’re all big fans of vegetables and sensible portion control. They all reject deep-fried foods and cream-based sauces. And they’re not carb-averse: Farrell is a fan of the fortune cookie at Chinese restaurants (because treat yo’self!), Joseph orders udon noodles and Rumsey loves handmade pasta. But there are some interesting differences, too. Joseph is a vegetarian and fills up on beans for protein at Mexican restaurants, while Lander-Canseco advises readers to skip the beans and rice if you’re filling up on everything else.
It just goes to show that while there are a few common-sense tips to remember while eating out, there are countless ways to care for and nourish your body.
Alexis Joseph: The Portion Controller: "Asian cuisine can be super high in sugar, salt, and MSG, so I like to play it safe with a veggie stir fry with brown rice (add tofu if it’s not fried). No mystery sauce for me! Do your body a favor and stay away from the fortune cookie, which is essentially white flour, sugar, trans fat, and artificial colors and flavors. Yum."
Alissa Rumsey: The Mindful Eater: "I start with hot and sour soup which is broth-based and helps to fill me up a bit before the main meal. For my main dish, I either get chicken and broccoli or moo goo gai pan, as they both have stir-fried chicken with a variety of vegetables in a pretty light sauce. I like that they both come with a lot of vegetables, so they are the main part of the meal and not just an afterthought. Portion-wise, I stick to about a cup or two of the dish with a half-cup of brown rice."
Nancy Farrell: The Menu Navigator: "Vegetable Egg Foo Young with rice. No MSG please! The egg foo young is like an omelet. The egg provides a complete protein, and the crisp broccoli and Chinese vegetables are nice nutrient-rich additions. I usually skip the gravy, or at least use small amounts, to avoid additional sodium. A little bit of pineapple or orange sections complement this meal. And I wouldn’t miss out on the fortune cookie!"
Rachel Lander-Canseco: The Planner: "Fill up on veggies and a broth-based soup. Try greens traditional to Asian restaurants that you might not be able to get elsewhere, like bok choy or Chinese broccoli. Pan seared or steamed in a wok may have oil added, but it will be nowhere near as much as that deep fried meat. By filling up on foods high in water content and fiber, you can permit yourself to enjoy your favorite main dish in a smaller portion. Shrimp or chicken make for excellent sources of lean protein to add on."
A.J.: The Portion Controller: "Though lots of Mexican options can be meat-heavy and drenched in cheese (aka saturated fat), there’s typically no shortage of fresh salsa, sautéed veggies and beans. Skip the chimichangas and life-size burritos and go for veggie tacos or fajitas with black beans and lots of guacamole instead. Your body will thank you for all that healthy fat and fiber. If you have the choice, opt for corn tortillas over the white flour ones."
A.R.: The Mindful Eater: "I will order a large salad topped with either chicken or fish, black beans, salsa, and guacamole. This way I get the taste of the Mexican food in a balanced way that includes lots of veggies, protein, and healthy fat from the guac that helps keep me full."
N.F.: The Menu Navigator: "I love the sizzle of the meat and vegetables served at the table when I order chicken fajitas. Each food is served in its own dish for me to then assemble my own fajita. That allows me to portion control the amount of chicken, vegetables, beans, avocado, salsa, and reduced-fat cheese and non-fat sour cream that I put on my tortilla.”
R.L.C.: The Planner: "Look to the appetizers and sides here, as well as a la carte ordering (do you really need those rice and beans?). A standard taco (or two) is fine, but there is no need for two tortillas per taco as is standard in a lot of Mexican restaurants. Only eat one tortilla per taco to save an extra 200 calories. Black bean soups, nopales salads, and ceviches are all excellent healthy choices."
A.J.: The Portion Controller: "I go for thin crust pizza piled high with lots of tomato sauce, mushrooms, peppers, onions, olives for that salty bite, and fresh arugula on top. Choose primavera, pomodoro, or marinara sauce over carbonara or pesto. Another tip: skip the bread basket and start with minestrone soup instead."
A.R.: The Mindful Eater: "I am a huge fan of good Italian food. I always start with a salad, ordering whichever one has the most veggies in it. I love pasta so I usually order one of these. However, since the portions tend to be very large, I try to split it with a friend (or take half of it home for leftovers). I usually get a homemade pasta with a red sauce and some type of protein, like chicken or shellfish, which helps me fill up and feel satisfied with just a small portion of the pasta. Skip cream-based sauces as the calories can add up quickly."
N.F.: The Menu Navigator: "Stuffed shells with ricotta cheese and spinach served with an extra side of marinara sauce and an Italian salad. Multiple stuffed shells are served and I can then decide how many I want to eat based on my hunger level. It’s easy to take part of this meal home to enjoy for lunch the next day."
R.L.C.: The Planner: "The carb-heavy [dishes] and portion sizes of American-style Italian can be a dangerous place for healthy dining. Order a side of steamed asparagus with lemon and a caprese salad on the side to fill up, then split that entree with a friend or yourself for lunch tomorrow. Look beyond pasta as well for baked chicken or shrimp, and don't be shy about asking for an adjustments to the menu within reason. Just swapping marinara sauce in place of an alfredo sauce can really save you on fat and calories."
A.J.: The Portion Controller: “I like to start with edamame for a high-protein, plant-based appetizer. When it comes to sushi, I love brown rice rolls loaded with, you guessed it -- every veggie they have and avocado, duh. Usually there’s a good soba or udon noodle option as well. Avoid cream cheese, tempura, and sweet sauces. Using chopsticks may help slow down the shoveling, too!"
A.R.: The Mindful Eater: "I start with steamed edamame, as soybeans are a great source of protein. I typically get sushi with either tuna or salmon and I substitute brown rice for a little extra fiber. I skip anything tempura, which basically means fried, and the spicy mayo, and instead top the sushi with some ginger.”
N.F.: The Menu Navigator: "Salmon salad. This is salmon mixed with red and green peppers, cucumber and green onions, tossed in a light mayonnaise served on a bed of lettuce and sprinkled with lemon juice. It’s light, refreshing and filling. Let’s face it -- the oh-so-healthy omega-3 fat in the salmon is a draw!"
R.L.C.: The Planner: "Japanese food makes healthy eating easy. Edamame, miso soup, and sashimi are all excellent choices. Avoid rolls with crazy names that sound like they were invented by Guy Fieri -- they are probably fried in tempura batter or contain elements that are."
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