It may seem ideal to have home-cooked food always available. However, that may not always be practical or possible. We may need a break from cooking, cleaning dishes, or just need time to relax. There may be guilt or shame about ordering out as if cooking a homemade meal is always better. However, ordering takeout food tonight can still be part of a healthy lifestyle!
There are several restaurant meals that are balanced, healthy, and in-a-pinch will still keep you on track. Nutritious take-out meals allow us to stay focused and consistent with our health without sacrificing our time, routine, or social life. Here are some tips for getting a meal that keeps your health goals in-line.
Read Your Menu Closely
Regardless of where you go, spend a couple of minutes researching the menu. When you read the details in a menu, you are more likely to make a thoughtful decision by ordering something that will be exciting and make your body feel great afterward.
Limit calorie-rich menu items such as:
Words that indicate added sugar and fat, like these descriptive words: fried, crispy, crusted, creamy, velvety, gooey, rich, confit, candied.
“Tempura” is a Japanese word for deep-fried. Don’t get this in your bento boxes and sushi rolls, if you can help it.
Pork belly, the popular boneless meat, has 16 times more saturated fat than pork tenderloin and 10 times more saturated fat than pork chops.
Confit is a meat-preserving method, where meat is fully submerged in its own fat (or in duck fat), and then cooked.
Try to read between the lines of unusual techniques like "oil-poaching," which involves submerging food in oil and cooking it slowly over low heat.
Detailed descriptions make food sound even more appealing: In a study by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the author of Mindless Eating, diners were 27% more likely to get dessert when it was called "German Black Forest double-chocolate cake" instead of just "chocolate cake.”
Not all salads can be healthy. Salads can be loaded with bacon, high-fat cheeses, candied nuts, fried bread, and creamy dressing, which may have more calories and saturated fat than some healthy entrees.
Foods that say grilled, blanched, steamed, poached, or baked.
Natural, whole foods (items in their most natural form).
Reading the menu more closely will also help you avoid falling for any gimmicky advertising. Look for certain terms that are meant to be eye-catching, like a dish that advertises itself as “fat-free,” but is loaded with added sugar and/or salt.
Know Which Nutrients You Need
Regardless of what or where you are eating, it’s important to balance your combination of carbs (from high fiber sources), protein, and fat. The fiber, protein, and fat will help slow down the digestion of carbs. As a result, you can avoid glucose spikes with pre-diabetes and diabetes. You also feel more satisfied or full for longer.
Examples of a balanced meal, using the portioned plate method:
A whole wheat chicken wrap with lettuce, tomato, and avocado
A salmon sushi roll with brown rice instead of white rice
Half a baked potato topped with salsa or chili
3 Mexican street tacos with grilled meat, salsa, and grilled vegetables on the side
Some restaurants have their nutrition facts listed on their menu, available in their store, or on their website. A picture of a meal says a thousand words: if there are reviews of the restaurant online with photos, try to identify if the meal looks balanced using the portioned plate method - half veggies, a quarter of healthy carbs, and a quarter of protein.
It's not all about the Macros
While we often want to focus just on the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), there are several micronutrients and hidden items in restaurant meals that may put a wrench in your healthy routine. Watch out for high-sodium foods and foods with low nutrient quality. The main thing we are worried about with sodium is bloating, fluid retention and blood vessel narrowing. To prevent your body from holding on to too much sodium, balance your meals by adding more potassium-rich foods (this goes for home-cooking, as well). Beans, lentils, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, avocado, tomatoes, chicken, salmon, and yogurt are great sources of potassium. Potassium counteracts some of the sodium effects and helps manage blood pressure and cholesterol. You can’t always tell how much sodium is in a food by looking at it, so here’s a little cheat sheet for you:
Miso is high in sodium (986 mg in one cup; 251 mg in a tablespoon).
Aside from being fatty, the sweet-smoky flavor in bacon and sausages is also salty.
To figure out the right combo of nutrients for your health goals, brainstorm the menus of your favorite food spots ahead of time with your Health Coach or Dietitian. They can help you figure out what to order that is balanced, nutritious, and meets your particular health needs.
Experiment with New Cuisines for New Healthy Takeout Ideas
Whether you’re going out to eat or ordering in, eating from a restaurant is an opportunity to try something new.
If it’s available in your area, try exploring foods outside of your culture. Many cuisines around the world, including Middle Eastern, Thai, Chinese, and Greek cuisines offer a wider variety of vegetarian meals and plant-based side dishes than most traditionally western cuisines.
So go ahead and try a food adventure to break up your routine and keep dinners interesting! Normally you are grocery shopping, meal-prepping, cooking, and cleaning up all the dishes when making a meal. Eating out is a chance to not only let someone else do most of the work, but also an opportunity to explore international flavors within your hometown!
Be Honest: How Hungry Are You?
Reading the menu, ordering, and eating before you get too hungry is a great general rule to follow. If you are making food decisions when hungry, you may resort to a few blunders:
You are more likely to order the more indulgent, higher-calorie foods.
You are more likely to order too much.
You’re more likely to eat past fullness and binge.
You are more likely to rush the meal, eat too fast, and may not enjoy your food.
Try to be mindful of what you are eating - eat slowly, savor the food, and pay attention to the flavors. Doing this can also help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and improve digestion. If you are in a rush or eating while driving, try pausing for a few minutes to take some deep breaths and be in the moment with your meal. Sometimes all it takes are a few moments of mindfulness.
Sometimes overeating happens, or a less-than-perfect meal is all we can get. That’s okay, don’t feel guilty about it. Focus on the positives about your meal, eat and try to enjoy it. But also be aware of how it made you feel (even if that feeling is a combination of guilt and satisfaction). Look at your next meal as a chance to eat something more balanced, or plan your day, exercise, and other meals to accommodate that scenario.