You’re at a Mexican restaurant with some friends, and the food looks amazing. You see nachos smothered in cheese, giant bowls of chips and mounds of guacamole. You’re so hungry, but you don’t want to order anything that will weigh you down. Is it possible to find a healthy choice?
Believe it or not, there are good options at every restaurant. Whether you’re craving Mexican, Italian or Chinese cuisine, you don’t have to avoid eating out just because you think it’ll make you feel full and sluggish. DS talked to three registered dietitians for advice on how to navigate menus and find the best options. Their answers might surprise you!
Eating healthy at a Mexican restaurant isn’t as tough as it looks. Guacamole has good omega-3 fats that help fight inflammation, so don’t skip it—just don’t eat the whole bowl. “Instead of eating guacamole with chips, ask your server to put some on your main entrée plate,” suggests registered dietitian Lauren Antonucci at Nutrition Energy in NYC. Choose entrées with grilled chicken, a lean and healthy protein, and beans, a filling and energizing carbohydrate. Something with lots of veggies, like fajitas, is a great choice. But steer clear of the onions and peppers if you’re going to dance within the next couple of hours. “They’re hard to digest,” warns Antonucci.
The portions you see at most taquerias are meant for two or three people, so consider splitting something with a friend. “The size of what you order makes a big difference,” says Norae Ferrara, RD, director of the San Francisco Nutrition Clinic. Tacos are often a better choice than huge burritos, and you can substitute a side of rice for fried hard taco shells.
There’s more to Italian food than gigantic bowls of pasta with heavy cream sauces. “Lots of traditional Italian food is vegetable-based, with simple proteins,” says Kimberly Evans, RD, owner of Whole Health Nutrition in Vermont. Chicken cacciatore has little cheese and lots of tomatoes and mushrooms. Fish entrées are a good choice because the protein usually takes up most of the plate (as opposed to a giant, carb-laden “side”). Chicken piccata and eggplant parmigiana are also smart options, since they have just a little pasta on the side—unlike a big plate of fettuccine alfredo. “We tend to overeat when there’s not enough protein on the plate,” says Ferrara.
Salads seem like a safe bet, but be careful: Some are loaded with toppings you don’t need—like bacon, cheese and croutons. Consider ordering a house or garden salad to kick off your meal, and asking for the dressing on the side. Go for oil and vinegar rather than something thick and creamy. “Start with a salad so you’re not starving by the time your entrée comes,” suggests Evans. Filling up on veggies beforehand will lessen the temptation to overeat during the main course.
If you’re going out for Thai or Chinese food, look for stir-fries with lean protein and lots of vegetables. But be sure to ask how the meat is prepared. “Just because you can’t see the breading doesn’t mean it’s not fried,” says Antonucci. “If the chicken is pan- or batter-fried, choose a different option.” Some places might even substitute boneless, skinless chicken if you request it. Beware of sauces that are super-sweet and high in carbohydrates—like the sauce on General Tso’s chicken. A black bean or broth–based sauce is healthier than something made with butter and oil.
Japanese restaurants are often full of good choices. Fish or crab-based sushi, sashimi and edamame (soybeans) are good sources of protein. “Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for a dancer,” says Evans, “but vegetarian maki rolls are often just a lot of sticky rice.” If you don’t eat seafood but still crave a roll, ask the chef to make it with brown rice instead.
Diner-type restaurants are diverse and often offer breakfast 24 hours a day. “Eggs are energizing,” says Antonucci, “with a lot of vitamins in the yolk.” Even fast-food chains will have some kind of egg you can pair with a baked potato instead of home fries. A cheese, lean roast beef or ham sandwich on whole wheat bread is another good option, especially if you top it with tomatoes, cucumbers or sprouts. Or try a turkey burger and opt for a side of vegetables instead of fries. Beware: “At a diner, there’s going to be a lot of starch on the plate, like the crust on a chicken pot pie,” says Ferrara. “That’s probably the worst thing you can order.”
But what about those massive dessert trays? Go for a cup of chocolate pudding instead of a huge slice of seven-layer cake. “One scoop of sorbet is a decent choice, or berries with a bit of whipped cream,” says Antonucci. “Just make sure you’re not eating more whipped cream than berries.”
Don’t Go Hungry!
If you know you’re going out for dinner, don’t skip breakfast or eat a smaller lunch. “Some people try to save up by eating less during the day,” says Ferrara. “But that always backfires. You’ll exercise less control over your choices and probably end up overeating.”
If you’re starving, eat an apple on the way to the restaurant. The fiber will take the edge off your hunger, so you won’t feel ravenous by the time you sit down. It’s also a good idea to look at the restaurant’s menu online beforehand. Pick a healthy, nutritious dish and stick with it when it comes time to order.