7 Healthier Alternatives to Your Favorite Restaurant Meals
Cooking meals at home is one of the easiest ways to stick to healthy diet since you’re in control of what ends up on your plate. For most, making every meal at home isn’t practical or much fun. Eating out is the clear answer when you’re feeling exhausted or want to meet up with friends, but that’s where sticking to nutritious foods starts to become more of a challenge.
We’ve all seen information about gut-busting meals that supply a day’s worth of calories and fat, so making better choices is key. We spoke to Lisa Moskovitz, RD and founder of NY Nutrition Group, to get the lowdown on how to stay on track without sacrificing taste.
The good news is it’s a lot more manageable than you think. “While some restaurants have more healthy dishes to offer than others, there is always a healthier menu option wherever you go,” Moskovitz said. In that spirit, we’re taking on seven of your favorites from a variety of restaurants and cuisines to help you ward off weight gain.
1. Skip: Bacon cheeseburger with fries, Swap: Bison burger with sweet potato fries
It’s hard to beat a juicy burger topped with melted cheese and crispy bacon in the flavor department. The nutrition department is another story. Instead of the fully loaded beef patty, Moskovitz recommended going for a bison burger without the fatty toppings. Omitting the bacon and cheese is a fairly straightforward choice, but going with bison is equally as smart. According to the USDA, a 3-ounce serving of grass-fed bison contains 152 calories and 7 grams of fat, only 3 of which are saturated. By comparison, the same amount of 90% lean ground beef contains 184 calories and about 10 grams of fat, with 4 grams dedicated to saturated fat. And keep in mind most restaurants don’t opt for beef that lean when making their patties.
When it comes to the side, remember fried food is still fried food. Both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes are similar in terms of calories and fiber, but the orange tubers have a slight edge thanks to high levels of vitamin A. If baked fries are an option, go for those instead.
2. Skip: Sausage and pepperoni pizza, Swap: Grilled chicken pizza or veggie pizza
Most guys will happily dive into half a pie or more without considering other choices when pizza night rolls around. This mindset is probably worse than going for the meat-heavy order, because you’re missing out on the opportunity to get some great nutrients from the salad bar. Moskovitz explained, “starting off with a salad or vegetable appetizer at the beginning of the meal when you’re hungriest is the easiest way to make sure you get enough vegetables in your diet.” Since you’re filling up before diving into the main course, you’ll also cut down on the number of slices you need to feel satisfied.
The biggest takeaway from Moskovitz’s pizza suggestion is to stay away from the salty, fatty meats. Her recommendation has plenty of scientific backing. For example, a 2014 study published in Circulation: Heart Failure found consuming processed red meats, like salami and sausages, increased the risk of developing heart disease. Opting for chicken on top of your order will give you plenty of satisfying protein without all the additives. Better yet, go with more veggies. Many pizza places offer vegetarian pies that taste phenomenal.
3. Skip: Fried chicken and fatty sides, Swap: Oven-fried chicken and vegetable sides
A typical southern spread involves fried chicken, braised collard greens, candied sweet potatoes, and a biscuit. The first red flag on this order has to do with the chicken. Though the crispy coating on a fried piece of poultry is satisfying, it’s pretty fatty. “Look for keywords like grilled, baked, broiled, steamed, or roasted as these types of cooking methods usually contain minimal grease and saturated fat,” Moskovitz said. If getting breaded and baked poultry isn’t an option, you can almost always find a standard roast chicken.
The other red flag with this order has to do with the high-calorie, low-nutrient side dishes. The one exception is collard greens, which are loaded with fiber, vitamins, and a surprising amount of calcium. Both the biscuit and candied yams are loaded with sugar, carbs, and very little else. Moskovitz suggested opting for corn on the cob and a baked sweet potato instead
4. Skip: Ribeye with rich sides, Swap: Filet mignon and smarter sides
Steakhouses usually go the à la carte route with the menu. It’s not great for your wallet, but this actually makes it a lot easier to customize your meal. For many guys, a typical order includes a hefty ribeye, a loaded baked potato, and creamed spinach. The easiest way to make this meal healthier is going with a different cut of meat. A 4-ounce serving of ribeye will set you back 310 calories and 25 grams of fat while the same amount of filet mignon is about 230 calories with just under 11 grams of fat. Also, Moskovitz said to “tell the waiter to hold the butter.” Confused? Most steak restaurants baste the meat in the fat while it cooks. This one request will save you a lot of calories you probably didn’t realize you were consuming.
Though many of the sides on steakhouse menus are indulgent, lighter options are available. You can always request a baked potato without the toppings, and you’ll often see some type of low-calorie vegetable preparation. Moskovitz recommended sautéed spinach, but any steamed veggie will do.
5. Skip: Fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, Swap: Pasta with red sauce, grilled chicken, and a side of broccoli rabe
Portion sizes have gotten out of control, and they’re a driving force behind the obesity epidemic. We especially see this at Italian-America restaurants where pasta comes in bowls large enough to be considered serving dishes for a small family. “For men, I usually recommend eating only two-thirds of your plate and leaving one-third leftover to keep portions in check,” Moskovitz said.
Of course, you still need to consider what’s on your plate. Any pasta dish containing cream is a bad idea, even if it’s topped with grilled chicken. A version of this dish is available at Olive Garden for a whopping 1,480 calories. Going for pasta with red sauce and chicken is just as flavorful, and a lot better for you. Moskovitz also said it’s a good idea to get a side of broccoli rabe as a way to boost your vegetable consumption.
6. Skip: Pulled pork sandwich with heavy sides, Swap: Pulled pork sandwich with lighter sides
Eating out should be fun, so it’s a downer when you feel like you have to give up your favorites just to fit into your pants. You don’t have to be that hard on yourself, though, especially if you only eat at restaurants a few times per week. “On those rare occasions, give yourself a pass to eat something more indulgent that you wouldn’t normally eat at home,” Moskovitz said. “It won’t derail your diet or turn off your colleagues or friends off from ever inviting you out again.”
Even a rich pulled pork sandwich got the green light from Moskovitz. Once again, the sides are where most of the damage is done. Skip the sugary baked beans, cornbread, and creamy slaw, and go for a salad, corn, and black beans instead. You’ll be just as satisfied, without feeling weighed down.
7. Skip: Sweet and sour chicken with egg rolls, Swap: Chicken or beef with broccoli and egg drop or hot and sour soup
Since most guys are starving when they finally make it home, it can be tempting to inhale everything in sight. Instead of sticking to a rigid three-meal-a-day plan, try to eat more regularly. Moskovitz said it’s important to “avoid going longer than five hours to prevent overeating later in the day.” She suggested keeping snacks like yogurt, fruit, part-skim string cheese, and nuts on hand for healthy snacks.
Since Chinese takeout is a go-to for many guys after a long day, it definitely needs a makeover. Instead of starting the meal with fried egg rolls, Moskovitz said a broth-based soup is a better way to go. The liquid will help fill you up without filling you out. For the main course, it’s best to stay away from sweet and sour chicken, which is loaded with sugar. A serving of this preparation from Panda Express is 380 calories with 15 grams of fat while the beef with broccoli is only 180 calories with 7 grams of fat. You’ll have a meal that’s every bit as flavorful, but a lot healthier.