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Get a Healthy Restaurant Meal Anywhere!

Natalie Stein
October 16, 2019
Get a Healthy Restaurant Meal Anywhere!

Picture this. You walk into a restaurant to meet some friends. You have a fun-filled evening and a great-tasting meal. The next morning, you step on the scale and have not gained an ounce. That is right, you just had a healthy meal that is part of a smart plan to prevent type 2 diabetes.

The Lark DPP check-in offered a few tips to getting a healthier restaurant meal. To be sure, this is easier at some restaurants than others, but most restaurants have at least a few options that will allow you not only to survive the experience, but to thrive. Here is how to keep calories in check while getting some protein and fiber to fill you up and keep blood sugar stable.

Value Your Vegetables


A meal with a solid foundation of vegetables cannot go too far wrong. They are low in calories and high in fiber, at least, that is, when they are close to their natural form. Raw, steamed, grilled, and in soups and stews, vegetables are a great choice.

Fresh fruit can be another option if there are no viable vegetable choices available. 

Pick Your Protein


A lean protein can solidify your healthy restaurant meal. Chicken breast, turkey, fish, and egg whites can be good choices, as can plant-based options such as beans, lentils, tofu, and veggie burgers. Grilled, roasted, baked, pan-seared, and broiled choices without heavy sauces can be low in fat, carbohydrates, and calories.

Be warned, though, that many menu items are high in fat and calories, and only thinly disguised as protein foods. Fried chicken, fatty steak, crispy fish and shrimp, and dishes with ground beef, such as meatloaf and burgers, can be high in fat, especially if they are served with heavy sauces or in creamy dishes such as pot pies.

Boost the Bonuses


Many restaurants have nutritious superfoods if you know where to look. Healthy fats such as avocados and nuts may be part of dishes or available for you to add as toppings or garnishes for salads, soups, sandwiches, or main courses. Olive oil is another possibility as a heart-healthy salad dressing base along with vinegar.

Sightings of whole grains have been increasingly common, such as in the form of whole-grain bread or pasta, brown rice, and quinoa. Sweet potatoes and butternut squash are also popping up on menus and are great sources of beta-carotene and fiber.

Eliminate the Excess


Aside from ordering a healthy main course, extra courses offer another challenge to getting a weight and blood sugar-friendly restaurant meal. Fast food joints and formal restaurants alike always offer add-ons such as appetizers, beverages, desserts, and more. These can be tempting because they are tasty and are often good value for the money, but they can easily double or triple the calories, carbohydrates, and fat in your meal.

It often makes the most sense to skip the extra courses. If that is not possible, there may be a few options that are less harmful to your waistline. Here are a few pointers.

  • Appetizers: Ask the server not to bring the basket of bread or chips or to place it out of reach if someone else in your party wants it, and beware of fried appetizers and fatty dips.

  • Soup: Broth-based without noodles is best, while cream-based or cheesy soups can have three times the calories. A bread bowl is a non-starter with up to 500 calories!

  • Salad: Opt for greens-based with extra vegetables and skip ingredients such as croutons, chips, crispy noodles, bacon, and dried fruit.

  • Dessert: Decaf coffee is a good way to end the meal while your companions eat dessert. Fresh fruit works, too, as does a single bite of your table mates’ dessert.

  • Beverages: Water and unsweetened iced tea and coffee can save hundreds of calories compared to alcoholic beverages and soft drinks.

It is also good to ask for sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side, and see if the server will bring only half the bread for a sandwich or swap in grilled instead of breaded, fried chicken. 

Common Possibilities


Restaurants naturally have their differences, but many of them have these or similar choices that can be good options. Consider looking for these on a menu if you find yourself overwhelmed!

  • Salad with grilled (not breaded or fried) chicken, salmon, or shrimp, lettuce or other greens, any additional vegetables, and olive oil and vinegar or light dressing on the side.

  • Greek salad with dressing on the side.

  • 1 slice thin crust pizza with vegetable toppings and a side salad.

  • Grilled or roasted chicken, fish, tofu, or shrimp with steamed vegetables.

  • Omelet or scrambled egg whites with vegetables.

  • Chicken or shrimp skillet or stir fry without rice and with sauce on the side.

  • Burrito bowl with chicken or beans, vegetables, salsa, and a bit of guacamole.

  • Steel-cut oatmeal with nuts and fresh (not dried) fruit.

Appetizers

Look for These

  • Raw vegetables
  • Skinless chicken wing
  • Edamame (soybeans)
  • Shrimp cocktail

And Look out for…

  • Creamy and cheesy dips
  • Fried appetizers
  • Chips, bread, and breadsticks

Soup

Look for These

  • Bean soup
  • Vegetable and beef or chicken soup
  • Chicken soup
  • Hot and sour or wonton soup

And Look out for…

  • Broccoli and cheese soup
  • Cream soups
  • Bread bowls

Salad

Look for These

  • Green salad
  • Tomato, cucumber, onion, and any other vegetable
  • Light dressing on the side
  • Beans, chicken, or other protein

And Look out for…

  • Prepared mayo-based salad, such as tuna, seafood, potato, and egg salad or cole slaw
  • Bacon and other fatty meats
  • Croutons and chips

Main and Sides

Look for These

  • Chicken, fish, shrimp, and tofu
  • Steamed or roasted vegetables
  • Side salad
  • Whole grains
  • Stir fry, stews, fajitas, and other dishes high in vegetables

And Look out for…

  • French fries, mashed potatoes
  • Pasta and rice as sides
  • Too much bread on sandwiches
  • Fatty and sugar sauces, spreads, and condiments
  • Battered, fried proteins

Desserts

Look for These

  • Tea or coffee
  • Fresh fruit
  • A piece of cheese

And Look out for…

  • Most sweets, including pie, cookies, cake, ice cream, cheesecake, and more

Breakfast

Look for These

  • Plain steel cut or regular oatmeal
  • Nuts
  • Egg whites
  • Whole-grain english muffin, toast, or ½ bagel
  • Fresh fruit

And Look out for…

  • Sugar-sweetened cereal
  • Muffins, doughnuts and breakfast pastries such as bear claws and danishes
  • Croissants and oversized bagels
  • Butter, jam, honey, and brown sugar
  • Bacon, sausage

Ask Away


It is okay to ask about anything you need to know to make an informed decision about the meal. Some questions might be:

  • How many calories are in this meal or menu item?

  • Do the nutritional facts for this item include extras such as sauces and sides?

  • Does the chicken (fish/steak) come with a sauce or topping? What is in it?

  • Is it possible to get a side salad or steamed vegetables for a side instead of rice/pasta/potatoes?

You are the customer, and you are entitled to know anything you want about the food that you are considering purchasing. If you feel dumb asking questions, think how much worse you might feel if you do not ask a question and you end up with a meal you are not happy with.

Good intentions and a smart strategy can get you a restaurant meal to remember not for its oversized indulgences, but for the good feelings it brought. Lark DPP can keep helping with restaurant meals and other parts of life that are wonderful and healthy.

Written by Natalie Stein on October 16, 2019
Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health
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