Houston can be a tough city to find healthy meal choices when eating out. Here in Texas we like our southern fried foods and fatty meats and most of us have never met a potato we didn’t like! With our daily schedules, cooking at home is just not an option for a large number of busy professionals, executives, parents, and students. But if you are working toward a fitness goal, or if you have simply put healthy eating at the top of your list of priorities, then you need to know where you can go and what you can order when you can’t make your meals at home. Knowledge is power in this situation, and I hope to arm you with some of my experience and expertise on the matter.
Planning ahead…at least a LITTLE BIT
Most days you probably run out of the office and hit the road for home (or the gym!) at breakneck speed. Chances are your tummy starts rumbling while you are still sitting in traffic and you find yourself turning in to pick something up for dinner. Or perhaps it is lunchtime and you need something fast. If you have made the conscious decision to eat healthy, fast food is not on the menu. In fact, quite a few standard American choices are ruled out. So what’s a hungry guy or gal to do? The first step to a fool proof healthy eating plan is to do just as the name suggests…and PLAN. Pack your lunch and a few healthy snack options to curb your hunger. But if eating out is a major part of your routine, then you at least need to know where to go and what to order. The easiest way to do this is to know the healthy restaurants in your area (list below) or find it on HealthyDiningFinder.com or a similar site. Then, browse the menus online ahead of time. Many restaurants provide nutrition information online and in stores these days. When we have goals to accomplish it is important to stick to the plan and eat healthy even when we don’t prepare it ourselves.
This one can be tricky when eating out with co workers but if you know where you are going then you can take a sneak peak at the menu on line and plan ahead. Choose the item you will order while you are sitting at your desk. It is easier to think about and follow through with your healthy choices when you are not rushed by the people behind you or tempted by the table next to you. We live in a time when information is literally at our fingertips. Use your smartphone—most sites have mobile versions—and plan ahead. You can always call ahead as well and ask for special preparations. In fact, calling ahead and ordering your meal for pick up instead of eat in might just save you the temptation of ordering that dessert you saw. Don’t DRINK your calories. This should be a no brainer by now, remember a healthy diet does not include soda or alcohol for that matter. Many people automatically order a soda or alcoholic beverage with every restaurant meal and the calories can stack up by the hundreds. It just “goes together” in their mind and this is a thought cycle that will sabotage even the best of healthy eating plans. Choose water or unsweetened tea or coffee instead of regular soft drinks or alcoholic beverages. This will save a lot of calories. This is one more place where ordering your food to go can help you stick to your healthy choices when flying solo. You are far less likely to order a drink “to go”—it can be a pain to transport it home, and you know you have plenty of drink options in the fridge anyhow. Or better yet, water!
Whole Grains Are Your Friend
Most restaurants have a whole grain option for their pastas and sandwich breads, and brown rice in place of white. If you MUST order one of these types of starchy items, go for the whole grain varieties. The added fiber will offset some of the carby content at least to some extent. Let’s not forget our new gluten free friendly menus. More restaurants and healthy on the go places are catching on to the wheat free trend of eating.
Sauces: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
If you’re in the mood for pasta, look for tomato-based sauces rather than cream-based sauces. Tomato-based sauces are lower in fat and calories. In addition, the tomato sauce (or marinara sauce) can count as a vegetable! Another option is to ask for your pasta to be tossed in a small amount of olive oil with steamed veggies and a dash of garlic and salt. Always order sauces and salad dressings on the side. This way, you have control over how much or how little you add. When choosing a dressing, stay away from cream-based dressings like Ranch and Blue Cheese. These pack a huge punch when it comes to calories and instead choose a vinaigrette. One excellent trick is to ask for “oil and vinegar.” The waiter will bring you a little caddy of olive oil and some kind of vinegar, allowing you to control the amount of oil in the dressing you eat. Sour cream counts as a sauce too. Ask for salsa with a baked potato instead of sour cream, butter, cheese, or bacon. Salsa is very low in calories, tasty, and a healthy alternative with a lot of spice. Another tip is to ask for reduced-sodium soy sauce. Too much sodium will sabotage your healthy lifestyle in ways far too numerous to list here. Just go easy on the shaker and high sodium sauces like this one. Order sandwiches with mustard rather than mayonnaise or “special sauce.” Mustard adds flavor with virtually no calories. Other sandwich tips are to choose gluten free, whole grain bread, skip the cheese, and add vegetables as toppings. Also keep in mind that chicken salad, tuna salad, and egg salad are made with mayonnaise. These are calories that can add up and not considered the good kind.
Bread and Chips
A steaming basket of bread or fresh hot tortilla chips is sure to send your hunger bells into attack mode and innocent snacking on these while you wait for your order can result in hundreds of unhealthy calories offsetting all your hard work at the gym. Request that the waiter NOT bring these items to your table. No need to make it harder on yourself than necessary. Yet another good reason to order it all to go!
There have been studies done that show consuming a small cup of low calorie soup before every meal lowers overall caloric intake and will therefore aid in weight loss. Just be sure you choose a broth-based soup over a cream based option. Keep in mind that cream-based soups are higher in fat and calories than broth-based soups. Soup can serve as a great appetizer to a meal, or as an entree. Most soups are low in calories and will fill you up.
Salads at many restaurants have been teased and tossed and dressed within an inch of their healthy core. A small pile of iceberg lettuce loaded with grated cheese, bacon or ham, croutons, and smothered in creamy dressing can have as many calories as a cheeseburger! So be sure to ask for the dry Garden salad and dressing on the side. If you think you can’t leave them behind on the plate, request that the croutons and other toppings be left in the kitchen.
Where’s The Beef? Or Meat?
For meat dishes, look for leaner cuts such as skinless chicken breasts, turkey burgers, pork loin and beef sirloin. Select options that are flavored with spices and fresh herbs, as those items are more likely to have lower fat and sodium content. When ordering grilled fish (or vegetables,) ask that the food either be grilled without butter or oil, or prepared “light,” with little oil or butter. Do I have to tell you that anything battered or fried is out of the question?
Whenever possible order steamed or grilled vegetables rather than anything starchy. If your only choice is potatoes, choose baked or steamed rather than French fries, tots, chips or any kind of fried hash. Always ask for healthy choices, even if there are no healthy options listed. Restaurants often have veggies and fruit available for other dishes that they will be willing to prepare for you as a side dish.
Keep in mind that eating out, if at all possible, should be something you do only occasionally. Almost everything you make at home is going to be a leaner, healthier option. The hamburger you grill up at home is better than the one you can get at most restaurants when it comes to fat, additives, and other questionable ingredients. Plus no one looks at you funny if you choose to only eat half so that you can afford a french fry or three. Also, asking the waiter to box up half of your meal in the kitchen is increasingly more popular. Or you can ask for a box to be brought at the beginning of the meal and box it up before you dig in. Out of sight, out of mind! Restaurant portions are typically twice what you should have in one sitting in terms of calories and fat. If you get in the habit of only eating half of what is served, you will not only be spreading your calories out properly and avoiding over-indulgence, you will be saving money too, since you have leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch (or tonight’s dinner!)
HEALTHY EATS IN HOUSTON
The following restaurants are a few of my favorite places to eat healthy. Their menus are designed to have less fattening items and will tailor to your requests.