The New York Times
Most meals at American restaurants aren’t healthy. They’re packed with processed food and enough calories to cover two or three sensible meals.
Yet it’s entirely possible to eat both healthy and tasty restaurant meals. And because eating out is one of life’s great pleasures, we’ve put together this guide to smart restaurant eating. It ranges from undeniably healthy meals — with a rich variety of foods, heavy on fruits and vegetables, light on sugar — to fast-food meals that are at least better than the alternatives if you find yourself eating at McDonald’s.
This article is by Josh Barro, Claire Cain Miller, Darcy Eveleigh, David Leonhardt, Matt Ruby and Rumsey Taylor.
Every lunch or dinner here stays under 750 calories — about one-third the number many adults should eat in a day — and many meals are well under; the breakfasts are under 500 calories. We’ll start with some good news: The restaurant scene has never been better.
Don’t be confused by Chipotle, Five Guys and other hot chains, which serve tastier food than McDonald’s but still don’t focus on health. There’s another, albeit smaller, rising group of restaurants with menus that are both tasty and healthy.
These chains include Chop’t, Lyfe Kitchen, Maoz Vegetarian, Modmarket and Native Foods Cafe. At these, you can often eat a meal that has a reasonable number of calories, and a nice array of nutrients, without thinking too hard. Sweetgreen, which makes the grain bowl you see above, got its start in Washington, from three Georgetown students frustrated by the existing restaurant scene.
We expect these kinds of restaurants will continue spreading, perhaps beyond the largest metro areas, as more Americans look for ways to eat right. Something to watch: Will Middle Eastern food, which is often packed with flavor, fresh ingredients and whole grains, go mainstream?
SWEETGREEN (615 calories):Quinoa and farro bowl, with arugula, chickpeas, feta, broccoli, almonds, cilantro, olive oil and lemon juice.
The selling point of Pret A Manger, which began in London and has 60 American stores in four cities, is the freshness of its ingredients: Sandwich boxes don’t have expiration dates because they’re sold only on the same day they’re made (unsold food is offered to charity at the end of each day). But in terms of health, the great thing about Pret is portion control. Our proposed lunch includes a sandwich and two clementines, and still stays under 600 calories. Sandwiches aren’t exactly health food, but this one comes on whole-grain bread and combines lean protein with healthy fats from olive oil and avocados; it has no cheese or mayonnaise.
The result is not just low in calories, added sugar and saturated fat, but also relatively high in things you need, like fiber and vitamins. The meal has 13 grams of fiber, about half of what nutritionists say people should eat in a day, and just 3 grams of saturated fat. Over all for these meals, we aimed to avoid added sugars where possible and to keep saturated fat well under 8 grams (nutritionists recommend eating fewer than 16 grams daily), with a bonus for meals that provided fiber and nutrients from a variety of foods.
OLIVE GARDEN (745 calories): Chicken Marsala with potatoes (half portion, 455), salad with house dressing (140), red wine (150) Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
If you’re not careful, you can end up eating an entire day’s worth of calories in a single restaurant meal, as we explained last year. So it’s important not to take restaurants’ definition of portion size literally. Consider pizza.
Pizza doesn’t have to be bad for you, especially if you pick one with a thin crust, top it with vegetables instead of meat and stick to two or three slices. Lisa Young, an N.Y.U. nutritionist, says that standard pizzas were 10 inches in diameter in the 1970s, much smaller than many pies today.
Portion inflation isn’t limited to pizzas, which is why splitting entrees is so important. If you’re dining alone, consider setting aside some food as soon as it comes, as we have with the Olive Garden meal here, to avoid what psychologists call “the completion compulsion.” Save the food for later – or, if there is no better option, throw it out, without guilt. Eating food you don’t need is a version of waste.
Portion inflation also means that today’s appetizers are sometimes the size of yesterday’s entrees – and that you can often get a filling meal with two appetizers. The strategy is especially helpful during business meals, when other people at the table are often ordering two courses and joining them is the natural thing to do.
And when a menu or waiter pushes you to order several “small-plate” entrees, push back. At Panda Express, a standard combination meal comes with two different entrees. The meal you see is made up of one entree (the beef) and two sides (brown rice and veggies.)
At certain types of restaurants, like those that serve Chinese food or pizza, these tricks help with shaving calories but not necessarily sodium. Yet sodium is not necessarily the villain many people make it out to be, especially for those with healthy blood pressure.
Finally, be wary of accompanying sauces, which are common with appetizers. That small ramekin of tartar sauce on the plate with the lobster and crab cakes at Capital Grille has 330 additional calories. Stick with the lemon.
PANDA EXPRESS (440 calories): Beef with broccoli (150), mixed vegetables (80), brown rice (half portion, 210), Diet Pepsi (0)
We don’t realize how many calories we’re consuming when we drink. It’s not just soda that is caloric: A glass of orange juice can have 170 calories and 37 grams (or about nine teaspoons) of sugar. Even though natural sugar in some juices may not bring the same health risks that seem in some studies to be associated with added sugars, you don’t want too much of any kind of sugar. Beverage calories are also often empty calories, providing few or no nutrients and still leaving you hungry later. If you drink water or club soda, you can eat more calories. And if you do order a juice with breakfast, consider drinking only half of it unless it’s six ounces or less.
Umami is the mysterious fifth taste, hard to pinpoint but easy to recognize as the deep, meaty, addictive taste in food like Parmesan, soy sauce, mushrooms, anchovies, seaweed and miso (and, less appetizingly, MSG.) It was discovered by a Japanese chemist and named for the word “delicious.”
Umami Burger, started in Los Angeles and now in four states, aims to make burgers more flavorful. The beef burgers and fries are not particularly healthy. (The same is true at Five Guys, where burgers have many more calories than traditional fast-food burgers.) But you can eat a flavor-packed and still healthy meal at Umami Burger by choosing Ahi tuna and a side of pickled vegetables.
The lesson applies to other restaurants and other flavors: Choose mustard instead of mayo on a sandwich, or olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice instead of creamy salad dressing. It’s easy to undercut a salad or sandwich with dollops of ranch or Caesar dressing.
Eggs are often the key: They’re healthier than many people have long feared. They’re also a delicious source of protein when cooked right, and they’re available all over the place. Outside of major metropolitan areas, where restaurant choices are more limited, egg-based lunches and dinners are a good way to eat well.
Another encouraging part of breakfast: The addition of oatmeal to the Starbucks menu makes a truly healthful breakfast far easier to find on the road. We prefer the plain over the blueberry-flavored, and don’t automatically add an entire packet of brown sugar. The dried fruit that comes with the oatmeal already supplies sugar.
DENNY’S (390 calories): Fit Slam: egg whites with spinach, turkey bacon, an English muffin and fruit (390), black coffee (0)
The next time you’re in a chain restaurant, look around the room and notice the dominant colors of the food. They’re probably a combination of browns and yellows. By comparison, scroll up this page and notice all the green, red and orange. Besides calories, nothing matters as much as eating a lot of fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, an epidemiologist at the RAND Corporation, notes that it recently convened a group of experts to create performance standards for restaurant meals. The focus was on two measures above all: a limit of 700 calories and a minimum of a cup and a half of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are a reminder of the importance of fiber, which is filling in a way that simple carbohydrates are not. In addition to plants, look for whole grains – oatmeal, brown rice, truly whole-grain bread and the like – and don’t think something is whole grain simply because it has “wheat” in the name.
Good bread is delicious, and for all the faddishness of gluten-free, Paleo and Atkins diets, it’s entirely possible for bread to be part of a healthy diet. But in a restaurant, bread is also one of the easiest ways to consume hundreds of calories almost unthinkingly.
When you’re served a bread basket, make a conscious choice about how much of it you’ll eat – and consider asking the server to take the rest away. And before you order, ask yourself how much you really want the bread product that comes with the meal. It’s no accident that both President Obama and Hillary Clinton ordered burrito bowls during their recent visits to Chipotle: Skipping the tortilla is one of the few ways to keep a meal within a healthy calorie range.
Oh, and be especially careful with bagels, which are extravaganzas of dough. With 75 to 80 calories an ounce and a gradual increase in size over the years, some exceed 500 calories before you add any cream cheese or lox.
A meal doesn’t need any meat (or even pasta) to be indulgent. Only 5 percent of Americans are vegetarians, according to a 2012 Gallup survey. But being a meat eater doesn’t mean you need meat at every meal, as many people are coming to realize. Replacing meat with vegetarian entrees allows you to eat bigger portions with fewer calories and add nutrients and variety.
Way back in 1979, Greens Restaurant, in San Francisco, “signaled the entry of vegetarianism into the mainstream,” as Marian Burros has written, and it’s still going strong. Its chef, Annie Somerville, uses whole grains like farro and meaty vegetables and mushrooms to provide texture and richness, and uses olive oil and citrus juice for flavor bursts. “I don’t think so much nutritionally,” she told us. “I just think about what’s in season and what works really well together, and oftentimes that ends up being something that’s really nutritious.”
Most people who visit the restaurant are not vegetarians, she said, and that is also probably true at other places with hearty vegetarian choices, like Maoz Vegetarian and Sweetgreen.
GREENS RESTAURANT (735 calories): Farro risotto with morel mushrooms and asparagus (350), butter lettuce salad (170), chickpea soup (95), white wine (120)
When you’re at a steakhouse, you’re going to want to eat a steak. Your healthiest option will usually be the filet mignon: It’s one of the leanest cuts of beef, and it tends to come in smaller portions because it’s so expensive. This filet-based meal is under 750 calories, even with a glass of wine. But you have to prioritize: If you’re going to eat the filet with shrimp, stay away from the bread and don’t order calorie-dense sides like mashed potatoes or creamed spinach.
If you prefer a fattier cut, try splitting a steak with a friend. Or eat light in the morning so you can splurge on a high-calorie steak dinner. “I would take more of the tack, if I’m going to Ruth’s Chris, it’s going to be a thousand calories,” says Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, an Upshot contributor. “And I’d try to budget for that.”
At cheaper restaurants, don’t assume the beef is always the least healthy option. A serving of roast beef on a Subway sandwich has fewer calories and less saturated fat than a serving of tuna salad, the cold-cut combo or the “seafood sensation.”
CHEESECAKE FACTORY (740 calories): Tuscan chicken (590), red wine (150) Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
Cheesecake Factory provided a lot of fodder for our “What 2,000 Calories Looks Like” article, because some individual items on its menu blow right past a full day’s caloric intake. At the same time, Cheesecake’s “SkinnyLicious” menu includes more than 50 options under 590 calories, which means it’s longer than the entire menu at many restaurants.
The Tuscan chicken, like most entrees there, is huge. But it’s not packed with calories. By putting mostly lean protein and fresh vegetables on the plate, Cheesecake is able to provide a vast quantity of food that adds up to only 590 calories.
And volume can be your ally. “One of the things you want to think about when you to go a restaurant is calories, but you also want to make sure you get enough volume of food so you feel satisfied when you leave,” says Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. Eating a large volume of food will make you less likely to binge later.
McDONALD’s (530 calories): McWrap Chicken & Ranch (460), apple slices (two orders, 30), clementine (40) Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
We should tell you that avoiding McDonald’s and Burger King altogether will probably be good for your health. They serve highly processed food, and many meals there soar above 1,000 calories. But if you eat classic fast food occasionally, keep in mind that there is a wide variety in the healthfulness, or lack thereof, of different fast-food meals.
First, remember portion inflation: The original McDonald’s burger patty weighed 1.6 ounces, Dr. Young, the N.Y.U. nutritionist, says, less than half as large as a current Quarter Pounder. Stick with a basic burger or chicken sandwich, and you can remain under 750 calories. Second, make choices: Don’t do fries, a soda and a dessert. Finally, search for the few vegetables and fruits on the menu. Wendy’s, responding to the salad boom, has started emphasizing its salads in an ad campaign. If you order one, you can have a dessert and still eat many fewer calories than is in a typical fast-food meal.
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