How to Eat Clean at Restaurants
Know the Ingredients
Here’s the reality: eating clean while dining out can be difficult and confusing. Here's our advice on how to eat clean and how we define a "processed" food. Even the healthiest-sounding meals are loaded with sodium, refined sugars, and preservatives. Before you step foot inside a restaurant, check the restaurant’s website for an ingredient list beforehand. If you aren’t able to find that, basic nutrition information should be available for most chain restaurants. In fact, in 2014 the FDA released new labeling requirements for chain restaurants giving them until the end of 2015 to make all nutrition information available to consumers. To help you make the smartest choices, we’ve looked at practically every type of restaurant out there, from fast-casual to steak houses, and offered our best tips on making wholesome choices.
Lighter choices—salads, soups, sandwiches, and more—abound in fast-casual restaurants. When ordering salads, avoid creamy dressings such as ranch, Caesar, and bleu cheese. Also, be wary of “light” salad dressings—sodium or sugar is often increased to make up for lost fat and flavor. Instead, go for oil-based dressings, such as balsamic vinaigrette or even a simple combination of oil and vinegar, and always request it on the side. Be wary of soups, because most are high in sodium.
A half order of Panera Bread's Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa (without dressing) (Cal: 135, Fat: 7g, Sat Fat: 1.5g, Sodium: 275mg) is a smart, choice full of veggies and whole grains. Serve with the Reduced Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette (Cal: 60, Fat: 5g, Sat Fat: 1g, Sodium: 60mg) on the side; don’t use the entire portion.
When ordering a burger, stick to the basics—bun, patty, lettuce, and tomato—and avoid fatty ingredients such as bacon. Condiments add flavor, but ketchup, barbecue sauce, and honey mustard are often loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Try a packet of yellow or Dijon mustard—they pack plenty of flavor! Consider skipping the bun, as many fast-food varieties tote lengthy ingredient lists full of preservatives, or ask if you can have your burger wrapped with lettuce leaves.
The lettuce-wrapped “Protein-style” Hamburger with Onion (Cal: 240, Fat: 17g, Sat Fat: 4g, Sodium: 370mg) from In-N-Out Burger cuts fat and sodium and is a great choice for gluten-sensitive diners.
Fast-Food Chicken Joint
As long as you avoid fried chicken and stick to grilled, it’s relatively easy to keep calories, fat, and sodium in check. However, here’s something you probably didn’t know, many fast-food chicken restaurants use MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their chicken, especially the fried variety. MSG is a flavor-enhancer that may cause nausea and migraines in some, but the FDA categorizes it as “generally recognized as safe.”
Chick-fil-A’s Eight Piece Grilled Nuggets (Cal: 140, Fat: 3.5g, Sat Fat: 1g, Sodium: 440mg) are a satisfying bite-size main dish that won't over-do your daily sodium or sat fat intake. Avoid fries and pair it with a Fruit Cup (Cal: 45, Fat: 0g, Sat Fat: 0g, Sodium: 0mg) for a wholesome meal.
Approach blended coffee drinks and other flavored varieties from coffee shops with caution (especially that wildly popular pumpkin and spice-infused latte). The ingredients often contain high-fructose corn syrup and caramel color, a widely controversial ingredient. Stick to the basics, and perk up with a cup of brewed coffee, a shot of espresso, or an Americano. They’re filled with antioxidants and will set you back a mere 1 calorie.
Starbucks’ Blonde Roast Freshly Brewed Coffee (Cal: 5, Fat: 0g, Sat Fat: 0g, Sodium: 10mg) is smooth and light-bodied—add a tablespoon of half-and-half for just 20 more calories.
When ordering a deli sandwich, consider each component—bread, protein, veggies, and condiments. Choose heart-healthy whole-grain bread, whole-grain or Dijon mustard, and minimally-processed proteins such as chicken breast or thinly-sliced roast beef. Sliced, cold-cut deli meat such as ham or turkey is high in sodium and many brands contain preservatives. If there is a salad bar, load up your plate with mixed greens and veggies. Lightly drizzle with olive oil and vinegar.
Jason’s Deli’s salad bar offers fresh veggies, lean proteins, and endless ways to customize. Try a salad with mixed greens, grilled chicken, sliced cucumber, grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and diced almonds with red wine vinegar (Cal: 290, Fat: 12g, Sat Fat: 0.5g, Sodium: 610mg).
When it comes to tacos, fajitas, or quesadillas, choose corn tortillas whenever possible. Flour tortillas, (even whole wheat varieties) are higher in calories, fat, and sodium. Be careful with cheese, as the shedded variety can contain preservatives and artificial ingredients. Instead of cheese, look for health-conscious ways to add flavor. Top your meal with a small dollop of guacamole or salsas such as pico de gallo, black bean and corn, or tomatillo. Just make sure to watch the sodium.
Chipotle makes healthy eating easy—try 3 Chicken Tacos on corn tortillas with black beans, roasted corn salsa, and chopped romaine lettuce (Cal: 600, Fat: 9.5g, Sat Fat: 3g, Sodium: 900mg).
Most casual dining restaurants offer a diverse menu with plenty of options, but finding a nutritionally balanced dish can be difficult. More than likely, the culprit is portion size—burgers, sizzling fajita platters, and pasta dishes are far too much food for one person. Our advice? Order as basic as possible, but keep an eye on the sodium. A simple grilled sirloin steak or chicken breast are good choices. Most restaurants offer sides such as steamed veggies or a plain baked potato.
Ruby Tuesday has a solid offering of basic, grilled entrées. Try the Plain Grilled Chicken with a plain baked potato and steamed broccoli (Cal: 492, Fat: 10g, Sodium: 661mg).
Simple, nutritious options are usually available at steak houses, but they’re often overshadowed by unhealthy favorites such as creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, and prime rib. Order the leanest cuts of beef—sirloin, filet, and New York strip—and avoid heavy sauces such as bearnaise or peppercorn cream. When it comes to sides, choose steamed veggies such as spinach and broccoli. If you don’t see them on the menu, just ask.
Known for its calorie-dense appetizers and mains, Outback Steakhouse doesn’t seem like it would have any clean eating options, but actually, it does. A 6 oz. Special Sirloin with a sweet potato and asparagus (Cal: 603, Fat: 19g, Sat Fat: 5g, Sodium: 620mg) is a complete, nutritionally-balanced meal that won’t make you feel like you’re restricting yourself either.