You want to make your health more of a priority, but there’s no way you have time to cook healthy food each day. Do you devote time to cooking or watch your resolve fade away with each order you place from a take out menu? Thankfully, Her Campus has three key measures a collegiette can take to ensure she is making the most nutritious choice possible at a restaurant:
2. Look for descriptive words that show how the food is prepared.
Avoid anything “fried”, “battered”, or “stuffed”. The words “baked” and “steamed” are your friends!
“Search the menu for fresh and plain items such as fresh vegetable sides rather than over focusing on the entrée. Think of variety of textures, colors, and types of foods,” explains Sally Berry RD, of Bodyfuel, Inc.
3. Use your waiter as a resource! “What are the main ingredients in this dish?” and “What would you recommend as the healthiest entrée on the menu?” are two questions that will get you on the right track. Also, don’t be afraid to politely ask your waiter to change something. “Order dressings and toppings on the side,” says Sharon Donovan RD, Department of Food Science at the University of Illinois. “Control how much dressing, mayonnaise, butter or sour cream is put on your salads, sandwiches and potatoes. These can pack on a lot of calories.”
Here are some key things to look for no matter what cuisine you’re craving:
This one’s tough, because some of the best Mexican dishes involve a lot of calorie-packed ingredients. The key to eating Mexican food in a healthy way involves portion control and avoiding anything fried.
Pick It: Salsa
Skip It: Queso Dip
Most Mexican restaurants offer chips and salsa as an appetizer, but it can be very tempting to order nacho cheese or queso dip as an extra. Resist temptation if possible! Salsa has about 15 calories per serving while queso has around 40.
Pick It: Chicken Enchiladas
Skip It: Chicken Burrito
Burritos are yummy, but also jam-packed with calorie-dense refried beans, rice, and cheese. With an enchilada, you’re still getting similar flavors as you would with a burrito, but it is much easier to watch portion size. Most dishes come with two enchiladas, so eat one and save the other for a delicious lunch tomorrow!
Extra Tip: Taco salads are only healthy if you don’t eat the fried tortilla bowl it comes in!
Pick It: Sopapillas
Skip It: Flan
A slice of flan, a Mexican custard dessert, is about 310 calories per slice, with high levels of cholesterol. Sopapillas aren’t exactly healthy, but if you’re positive you want dessert, they’re the better choice. Each flaky pastry puff is about 100 calories so you have more control over the amount going into your body.
Ordering at an Indian restaurant can be perplexing. It is important to go into it knowing that your meal will most likely involve a flatbread of some sort and rice. Anything you can do to make the accompanying dish healthier is a bonus!
Pick It: Roti
Skip It: Naan
Naan is the popular, and delicious, choice for starting an Indian meal off the right way. But, naan is made with white flour while roti is a whole-wheat bread-automatically giving it an advantage health-wise.
Pick It: Chicken Tikka
Skip It: Chicken Curry
Chicken Tikka is a healthy option because it is marinated in yogurt or spices and doesn’t have the creamy consistency of a curry. It is high in protein and about 260 calories per serving. Chicken curry served with rice can be closer to 550 calories per serving.
Pick It: Mango Ice Cream
Skip It: Kheer
Indian rice pudding, or kheer, has much higher sodium and calories. Mango ice cream is not only cool and refreshing, but also only around 100 calories per serving. Not bad for a dessert!
If you’re looking for unusual contradictory flavors that taste wonderful together, Thai food is a great choice. The wide variety of ingredients really has the potential to expand your nutrition horizons. But you can easily go wrong with popular dishes like Pad Thai, which is majorly high in calories and fat.
Pick It: Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup
Skip It: Spring Rolls
This broth-based soup is a much better choice than the ever-popular spring roll. It’s packed with flavor, and you get protein from the shrimp. Watch out for high sodium content in Thai soups though!
Pick It: Yam Neua Yang
Skip It: Pad Thai
This spicy grilled beef salad topples Pad Thai in nutrition value. There are less carbs due to lack of noodles, and you’ll have some vegetable intake as well. Plus, you still get intense Thai food flavor from the chili, lime, and mint leaves.
Pick It: Coconut Custard
Skip It: Mango with Sticky Rice
Usually, custard is something you want to avoid health-wise. However, when compared to the 600 calorie-per-serving mango with sticky rice, it is a much better option. A serving of mango with sticky rice has 19 grams of fat, compared to the 7 grams in a serving of coconut custard.
Are you an adventurous collegiette? If so, going out for sushi can be one of the healthiest (and yummiest) choices restaurant-wise! Sushi can be packed with protein from fish and vegetables, but additional ingredients can lead to high fat and sodium consumption.
Pick It: Edamame
Skip It: Soft Shell Crab Roll
If you’re looking to fill a void in your healthy appetizer life, edamame will do the trick. These steamed soybeans (110 calories per serving) are an excellent source of protein and relatively low in sodium despite the salt sprinkled on top. Edamame is also high in iron and cholesterol-free. Soft Shell Crab Rolls are relatively typical of sushi restaurants, but are about 310 calories per serving in comparison.
Pick It: Sashimi
Skip It: California Roll
For the novice sushi eater, sashimi may be a challenge initially. Raw fish cut in slices? That sounds scary! However, most sashimi has great flavor and the lack of rice or condiments make it much more calorie-friendly than a California roll. You should also avoid any kind of sushi with “Tempura” in it. This means it was battered and fried!
Pick It: Sweet Mochi
Skip It: Green Tea Ice Cream
Sushi joints are usually limited in dessert selection, and will vary widely on options. Green tea ice cream has decent nutrient value and is only 110 calories per serving. However, Mochi (sweet rice cakes) have an edge calorie-wise because if you eat only one, it is just about 60 calories. The key words there are “only one” though!
Ah, Chinese takeout. There is a time and place for it, but it can be deadly to a diet if consumed too often. Obviously, it’s better to stay away from anything with “fried” or “crispy” in the name. Instead, go for steamed options containing vegetables. Not as indulgent, but still appetizing.
Pick It: Egg Drop Soup
Skip It: Crab Rangoon
Crab Rangoon or egg rolls may be calling your name, but getting soup before a meal has the ability to curb your appetite so that you don’t overdo it with your main dish. Not to mention, only one Crab Rangoon has the same amount of calories (60) as a whole cup of egg drop soup. Usually, an order comes with 3 to 6 Crab Rangoon.
Pick It: Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry
Skip It: Orange Chicken
Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry is prepared in a much healthier way than Orange Chicken. It cooks faster without as much oil and fat and will be high in Vitamins A and C from the broccoli. Double win.
Extra Tip: Eating with chopsticks will force you to eat more slowly!
Pick It: Almond Tea
Skip It: Eight Precious Pudding
Tea is only as healthy as what you add to it, but if you steer away from too much sugar and milk it is definitely the better choice here. Almond Tea is about 105 calories per serving, with no fat or sugar. Eight Precious Pudding on the other hand, is very sugary and contains sweet fruits with little nutritious value (such as maraschino cherries).
Besides what you order, the amount you eat is a crucial factor in how healthy or unhealthy your meal is.
“Don't go out to eat hungry. If your last meal was more than 4-5 hours away, then you are more likely to overeat,” says Berry. “If you last meal was hours ago, try a snack a couple hours before like yogurt or fruit and a half ounce of raw nuts.”
This is a solid start to making smart restaurant choices, and here are a few more things to have in your head next time you go on a dinner date or out to eat with your girls:
- Order water. Zero calories AND it’s free! Water also has the ability to make you feel fuller and cause you to eat less at a meal.
- Get a to-go box and put half of your entrée in it before you start eating (or set it aside and put it in a box at the end of the meal).
- Keep your plate colorful! Mostly brown usually indicates that your meal is mostly carbs.
- Give a vegan or vegetarian restaurant a try (even if you’re an omnivore)!
- Have a healthy appetizer instead of an entrée.
And of course, if you follow healthy guidelines, allow yourself the occasional reward of something fried or salty. But who knows? Maybe you’ll end up preferring the healthy option if you give it a shot!
Sally Berry, Registered Dietician and founder of Bodyfuel, Inc.
Sharon M. Donovan, Registered Dietician, University of Illinois Faculty