When you find yourself without enough time to cook dinner on days that are busy with work, school and extra-curricular activities, you know how a local restaurant can save the day. Many restaurants have made takeout a part of their regular offerings. Ordering from them can make your day a little easier, while also helping you feel good about supporting a small business.
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If this has become a go-to solution for you, learn how you can keep treating yourself to these cooking breaks without sacrificing healthy meals.
Better takeout choices to make mealtime easier
Takeout doesn’t have to mean unhealthy, says dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD. Even foods you’d typically consider “off-limits” can be tweaked to up their nutritional value. Consider these ideas when you’re ordering food to go.
1. Go for whole grains
For Asian or Mexican cuisine:
- Ask if you can get brown rice instead of white.
- See if noodle-heavy dishes (looking at you, lo mein) can be made with brown rice instead. Brown rice is a high-fiber whole grain, whereas noodles are made with processed white flour. Some restaurants are now even starting to offer shirataki noodles instead of white rice noodles, Kippen says. These are very low in calories, so it’s OK if you overindulge a bit.
If you’re craving Italian:
- Ask if they can substitute whole wheat pasta or zoodles (zucchini noodles) for the usual pasta.
- Opt for whole-wheat pizza crust. If that’s not an option, choose thin-crust pizza — even though it’s made from refined flour, a thinner crust will lighten the calorie load.
2. Pick your protein wisely
Regardless of the restaurant, try to lower the calorie intake by choosing:
- Chicken or seafood instead of beef, lamb or pork.
- Legumes (beans) instead of chicken. They’re high in fiber, filling and healthy.
- A veggie option, like a veggie burger, which can also help you achieve your goal of 25 grams of daily fiber.
3. Prioritize veggies
Takeout doesn’t mean you have to skimp on veggies. Try:
- Double veggies in your dish, instead of unhealthy starchy options.
- Some baby carrots as an appetizer, to keep you from overeating.
- A side of broccoli instead of fries.
- Cauliflower pizza crust instead of regular crust (it’s an option in many places since it’s gluten-free).
- Double lettuce and tomato on your burger.
- A side salad and a broth-based vegetable soup.
- A side of salsa to use in place of ketchup or another sodium-heavy condiment.
- A bag of plain steamed veggies added to a starchy dish to bulk up the nutrition and increase your fullness. “Most dishes come with so much sauce that you can easily mix it in,” Kippen says.
4. Dodge the dairy
Dairy has nutritional value, but a takeout meal loaded with dairy can do more harm than good. To get the deliciousness with fewer calories, ask the restaurant to prepare the dish:
- With half the cheese or a lower-fat cheese, such as American or provolone. (Or — even better — ask for the cheese on the side.)
- Using avocado instead of dairy — the avocado has a great creamy texture.
- Without condiments like sour cream (or ask for them on the side).
- With a vinaigrette instead of ranch dressing. But make sure it’s a balsamic. “Some vinaigrettes can be worse than a ranch if they are very high in sugar as well as fat,” Kippen says.
5. Forget anything fried
Baked, steamed, roasted or grilled are healthier ways to prepare foods. Try these:
- Steamed summer roll instead of a deep-fried spring roll.
- Grilled, not fried, chicken parmesan.
- Steamed vegetable dumplings instead of fried wontons.
- Soft-shell taco rather than a fried hard-shell taco (or even better — a taco salad with lettuce).
- Baked potato instead of fries.
6. Skimp on the sauces
Many dishes are slathered in sauce, so ask for:
- Less sauce.
- Sauce on the side.
- A veggie-based sauce (like marinara) instead of a cream-based sauce (saving you hundreds of calories and several grams of saturated fat).
7. Binge on beans
Beans are high in fiber — they help you feel full and even have heart benefits like lowering cholesterol. Some easy ways to get more beans? Try to:
- Opt for a bean burrito instead of an enchilada.
- Choose vegetarian refried beans to save on fat (though whole beans are better than refried beans).
- Order legume-loaded soups like minestrone, lentil soup or vegetarian chili. But don’t forget to account for these healthy soups when thinking through the rest of your meal. “A bowl of chili can be a wonderful entrée, but it’s not always the best option as an appetizer before an entire meal if it’s loaded with cheese and sour cream,” Kippen says.