We’re taking out food more than ever these days—more than 65 percent of us are regularly ordering meals out, according to the National Restaurant Association. Getting food “to go” can be a bit of a challenge when you’re trying to eat healthy: a recent Tufts study found that 50 percent of meals consumed by Americans from full-service restaurants, and 70 percent from fast-food/quick-serve restaurants, were of poor nutritional quality. But healthier options are possible. You can dial up the nutrition, without compromising on flavor and satisfaction, with just a few simple modifications. Give these tips and tricks a try to help make your next takeout meal healthier.
Go for Plants. Eating more minimally processed plant foods (fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and plant oils) is linked to better health. As an added bonus, the potassium in plant foods may counteract the blood pressure raising effect of sodium.
Try this: Look for plant-forward choices like green salads, bean and veggie dishes, fruit plates, whole-grain bowls, and vegetarian options. Most restaurants will allow you to swap a fruit cup or non-starchy vegetables for less healthy sides like home fries, French fries, rice pilaf, or onion rings. You can order extra veggies (or add some from your fridge or freezer at home), and double up on the lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado, and peppers if you choose to get a sandwich or burger. Don’t overlook dishes from different cuisines, like Asian tofu dishes, Mediterranean falafel platters, and Indian dal (lentils) to boost plant food intake.
Don’t Overdo Starches. High intake of refined grains and starchy vegetables (like white rice, white pasta, skinless white potato products, peas, corn, and many breakfast cereals, breads, rolls, and crackers that are not whole grain) is associated with negative health effects. At least half your grains should be whole grain.
Try this: Request whole grain options and substitutions like brown rice and whole grain pastas and breads. Reduce portions of dishes that are heavy on refined grains and other starches, like mounds of fries, pasta, rice, or white bread. Watch out for common double-carb pairings, like pizza and breadsticks, sandwiches or burgers with fries, or a dinner roll or other bread served alongside rice, pasta, or potatoes.
Skip Processed Meat. Evidence has consistently shown a link between consuming processed meats (like pepperoni, ham, sausage, bacon, and deli turkey) and diabetes, stroke, heart disease, cancer, and premature death. (See page 6.)
Try this: Order seafood, plant-based proteins, or unprocessed poultry or red meat over processed meat. Embrace the abundance of better-for-you fish and seafood options, or give a healthy plant-based option a try—something completely different could become your new favorite. Look for options that are steamed, baked, broiled, grilled, or roasted, rather than breaded and deep fried or served with heavy butter or cream sauces. Be wary of items described on menus as fried, crispy, creamy, smothered, au gratin, rich, scalloped, or alfredo.
Watch the Sodium. High sodium intake is a risk factor for high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and heart disease. Most of the sodium consumed in the U.S. is from salt added during commercial food processing and preparation, and restaurant fare is some of the saltiest. The Tufts study found that a single full-service restaurant meal often had more than the entire daily recommendation of 2,300 milligrams of sodium. In general, a lot of sodium is found in sauces, dressings, condiments, breads, processed meats, and soups.
Try this: For chain restaurants, look for lower-sodium options in nutrition information online. Some menus point out lower-sodium options using an icon or other indicator. Ask for sauces and condiments on the side and use sparingly.
Save Some for Later. Most restaurant offerings will far exceed the calories you need for a single meal. According to Tufts researchers, the calories in some restaurant meals (even without beverages, appetizers, or dessert) were higher than an entire day’s recommended calorie intake for the average adult. Research has shown that when served more food than they need, people will eat what’s on their plate.
Try this: Share your meal with someone or save some for tomorrow. Consider packing away half the food you ordered as soon as it arrives in your home. Take advantage of half-order options at restaurants that have them, or consider ordering a healthy appetizer or side as a meal.
Plan Ahead. We don’t always make the best decisions when we’re hungry. Making healthier choices is easier if you’re prepared, so it can be helpful to have a plan.
Try this: Take charge of your takeout meals by looking at menus before you decide where to order from and what to choose. Larger chains post nutritional information online, and most non-chain restaurants have online access to menus so you can determine whether that restaurant offers the options you’re looking for. Identify the restaurants in your area that have the widest array of delicious-sounding plant-rich, seafood based, whole grain, and lower sodium dishes. Don’t be shy about asking for substitutions to customize your order.
Just Ask. If you don’t see healthier options on the menu, ask. Restaurants are increasingly flexible when it comes to food preferences. Oftentimes, there are so-called “secret” menus for those in the know. If your favorite restaurant doesn’t have healthier options, they may begin to offer them if customers ask.
Try this: Don’t hesitate to request a healthy swap or different preparation method. You may be surprised how willing restaurants are to cater to your requests.