Going out to dinner is one of life's great pleasures and a wonderful way to share time with friends. However, unless you understand the menu and how to order to your advantage, dining out can be stressful when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle or get lean! Making healthy menu choices is actually very easy, you just need to know what to look for, and what to avoid.
Overall, bear these three things in mind at any restaurant:
1) Watch the sauces/dressings, if in doubt, get them on the side
2) Avoid anything fried, crumbed, or gratinated
3) Substitute vegetables or salad for grains and carbohydrates (such as rice or pasta)
Diversity is the spice of life, and in cosmopolitan cities such as London, the range of different types of food available to you is half the fun. Taking in to consideration the most common restaurant choices, below you will find some tips for ordering healthily no matter where you end up dining.
First trick of the trade; When the bread basket arrives...send it away! If it is sitting on your table while you chat and wait for your food, there is no doubt it will get eaten every time. Send it away! The same goes for poppadoms, prawn crackers and those yummy crunchy bread sticks in Italian restaurants. If they are not there, you can't eat them.
For starters, avoid deep-fried anything, so you will need to skip the spring rolls, money-bags and fritters. Consider a flavoursome soup instead like Tom Yum, which is hot and sour with vegetables and either chicken or prawns, or Tom Kha Gai, made with coconut milk. Chicken Satay, if you can handle the peanuts, is a healthier option, or go for Panang chicken if they have it. There are always tasty salads like the traditional spicy beef (Yum Neau) or a Chicken Larb.
Believe it or not, curries are not necessarily bad for you. While calorific, coconut milk/cream is a "good, clean fat", full of easily digested medium chain triglycerides, and considered one of the best fats out there! If going low carb you can avoid rice by asking for extra vegetables with the dish (sometimes you may need to pay a little extra, consider it a "hot-body tax") or ordering a separate vegetable dish instead.
Indian Restaurants often add a lot of cream to their curries, but not all the dishes are made this way and you can often ask them to make the dish without the cream. I love anything from the Tandoor Oven, the Tikka meats (marinated in yoghurt and spices and cooked in the tandoor oven) the Tandoori meats and the mixed grills are healthy and delicious! Again, avoid deep fried choices like Samosa and Onion Bhaji. Poppadoms are basically deep fried flour, so I always skip those too.
Mains for Indian to be avoided if you are looking for healthy choices, are the cream-based curries and for obvious reasons, the butter chicken. Vindaloo if you like heat should not ever be made with cream, and Jalfrezi is a good choice too. Lamb Saag (lamb and spinach) if made without cream is usually fabulous. Some Indian curries are also made with coconut milk, which is fine, unless you are watching calories, in which case keep to the tandoori oven, or any of the mains that are "dry curries" or grills.
As someone who can't eat gluten and wheat I don't order the breads, delicious though they are. If you do get Naan or Roti then ask for it with no butter as they smear it in ghee once it is cooked. Pilau rice is a good option too.
Japanese food is pretty synonymous with being very healthy. Sashimi is about as good as it gets for lean protein and low carbohydrate lovers. Dose up on the tuna and salmon which are high in essential fats. Avoid tempura or anything deep-fried. Choose meats and grills with rice, sushi and sashimi. Teriyaki sauce is full of sugar so avoid it if that is something you are working on. Substitute soba noodles over Udon any day of the week. The crumbed dishes are fried too so look out for Tonkatsu and Karaage Chicken, which though delicious, are basically wheat soaked and fried in refined vegetable oil)
The vegetable side dishes are worth exploring and the seaweed salads are extremely high in antioxidants.
Everyone loves pizza and pasta, but they are refined carbohydrates on a date with gluten and wheat...on a field day! I don't do gluten so these are safely off the menu for me. If you are going to choose a pasta, opt for a tomato based sauce over the creamy ones.
Eating very healthy Italian food is actually easy to do. I love seared scallops, the way they do their fish dishes, lamb racks, roast meats, or veal with tomato-based sauce.
Italian Salads are always good too. As with any type of food, watch the sauces and dressings. For desert...sorbet, while mainly sugar, is a cleaner choice than tiramisu which is heavy on fats and gluten.
Almost any gastro pub will have healthy options. Grilled meats and fish with substitute salad and vegetables over the fries is an easy, clean option. Burgers can be ordered without the bun, salads can be made with dressings on the side, and I have yet to come across a pub where there is nothing healthy on offer if you mix and match a little!
While a lot of oil gets used in the Spanish dishes, healthy tapas is out there!! Try the anchovies (which when good are amazing) and full of essential, clean omega 3' fats. Otherwise you will always find meats, vegetables and fish dishes. Watch the sauces and the vegetable oils, and with more modern tapas...the mayonnaise!
Lose the pita breads and head for the grilled meats and fish. If you want the dips (who doesn't love hummus?!) then eat it with your meats instead of smearing it on bread. Olives are the green-and-black joys of my life and though calorific are not a bad fat so go crazy, and the Greek know a good olive when they see one! Grilled Halloumi is better for you than the Spanokopita or fried entrees, but is still high in fat.
Gyros is out, shish/kebab (grilled cubes of meat) is in! Salads are always on offer so know that there will always be healthy options on the Greek Front.
The three basic rules for healthy dining options apply to most everywhere. When in doubt, check what comes with your meal and make the healthier food adjustments before it arrives at your table. Once you have had a glass or two of wine, if it is in front of you, you will eat it!
Most restaurants are happy to cater to your personal requirements if you ask with a smile and offer to pay a little more if necessary. Now go forth with this healthy-options checklist as armory and relish every dining-out experience.
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