When you’re strapped for time and high on stress—as most educators are—eating-on-the-go is the natural meal-planning solution. Trouble is, eating healthfully on takeout, delivery and drive-thru food can be a challenge.
Many quick serve meals pack excess calories, harmful saturated fats and unrealistic portion sizes. Given that most of us eat out more than we eat in, the rising cost of these dishes—at least in terms of weight gain—is really adding up. But dining on the go doesn’t have to be a diet disaster.
According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly three out of four Americans are trying to eat healthfully in restaurants.
“A growing number of restaurants are recognizing that customers want affordable, convenient menu choices that are also healthy,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., founder of HealthyDiningFinder.com, an online resource providing dietitian-approved menu choices and nutrition information for restaurants across the country.
Next time you’re in a bind and need a quick meal, try these tips for finding the best items on the menu that won’t bust your belt.
1. Breakfast: Any breakfast is better than none, so trying to fit a morning meal into an already packed schedule is a step in the right direction. Starbucks, Jamba Juice, even McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box offer a bevy of healthful breakfast options.
Your best bet: Choose fruit smoothies, oatmeal and whole-grain breakfast sandwiches over high-fat egg sandwiches boasting bacon, sausage and cheese.
2. Chinese: Chinese food and monosodium glutamate (MSG) used to be inextricably linked but many Asian restaurants are now eliminating MSG completely from their recipes and trying to lower sodium in their meals.
Your best bet: Buddha’s feast (a dish of steamed or stir fried veggies), chicken with broccoli and Hunan shrimp (shrimp, broccoli, corn, carrots and mushrooms). Just request sauce on the side. Most of the sodium lurks in the liquid, so it’s best if you control the dipping. And go easy on the soy sauce (even the reduced-sodium variety).
3. Fast Food: While your local fast food joint may not be the healthiest option on the block, you can almost always find something on the menu that meets your diet and nutritional needs.
Your best bet: Choose a grilled chicken salad or sandwich over a beef burger. “Steer clear of items that say fried or breaded, skip high-fat add-ons such as cheese, sour cream, mayo and guacamole, and always ask for dressing and sauces on the side,” says Jones-Mueller.
4. Indian: Indian cuisine is full of healthy ingredients. Most dishes are loaded with vegetables such as spinach (“palak” or “saag”), cauliflower (“gobi”), eggplant (“baingan”), potatoes (“aloo”), onion (“pyaas”) and spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and red chilies. Plus, many Indian dishes feature vegetarian sources of protein like tofu, beans and lentils.
Your best bet: Start with a cup of dal soup or Indian bread (called “naan”) and cucumber yogurt sauce (raita) instead of deep-fried samosas. For entrées, pass on curries made with coconut milk in favor of vegetable-based curries and stir-fry dishes. “Also, be wary of dishes with “ghee” (which means clarified butter), “korma” (creamy sauce) and “malai” (clotted cream), which have the potential to be high-calorie, high-fat dishes,” says Jones-Mueller.
5. Italian: Often viewed as rich, cheesy and laden with calorie-busting carbs (pasta!), “real” Italian cuisine is quite healthy. Tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, whole grains, leafy greens and flavorful herbs are all hallmarks of Italian cooking. Just dodge heavy cream sauces and cheesy dishes (like manicotti), which can add extra fat, calories and sodium to your meal.
Best bet: Look for choices that include plenty of vegetables, lean meats and whole grains, and opt for tomato-based marinara over cream- or oil-based sauces. Bruschetta, minestrone and spaghetti primavera (with marinara sauce) are all good choices. Ask for whole grain pasta and you’ll get added fiber and B-vitamins to boot.
6. Mexican: Mexican food gets a bad rap. Sure, high-fat ingredients like cheese, sour cream and guacamole are hallmarks of this tasty cuisine, but all three can be healthy in small doses. Guacamole is loaded with healthful omega-3 fatty acids, cheese is chock full of calcium, and sour cream contains immune-boosting probiotics. More importantly, the crux of Mexican fare includes healthful ingredients like beans, whole grains, lean meats and fish, as well as antioxidant-rich spices.
Your best bet: Grilled chicken or fish tacos (opt for corn tortillas over flour), a salad (salsa is a great dressing!), or fajitas (shrimp or chicken are typically lighter than beef). Sides like corn, black beans and brown rice are high in fiber, too. Just say no to the fat-laden fried chips.
7. Pizza: After a busy week in the classroom, Friday night pizza delivery is incredibly tempting. The good news: It can be healthy, too. The key, says Jones-Mueller, is moderation (meaning one big slice or two small slices and a big salad on the side). Some restaurants offer “personal pizzas,” which are also perfect for sharing with a friend and pairing with a side salad.
Your best bet: Opt for a thin crust pizza with light cheese and a selection of veggie toppings like mushrooms, bell peppers, fresh tomatoes, red onions, spinach, artichoke hearts and broccoli. Ditch high-fat extras like Alfredo sauce, extra cheese and processed meats like pepperoni and bacon.