It’s no secret that restaurant meals can contain copious amounts of oils, fats and salt, and are served up in oversized portions. Here’s the dish on how to navigate through a menu of your favorite cuisine and come up with a healthy meal that won’t weigh you down.
When your taste buds take you South of the Border, your best bet is to order soft tacos, chicken fajitas or a beef enchilada. Go easy on the cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Use antioxidant-rich salsa instead, and you’ll have yourself a healthy meal. Be wary of football-sized burritos, cheesy quesadillas and taco salads, which can easily ring up 800-1,000 calories each!
Healthy bites: At Baja Fresh, the Bare Burrito rocks. You’ll get a tortilla-less burrito served in a bowl, with chicken, rice, grilled veggies and pico de gallo. Qdoba’s Naked Taco Salad, with chicken or shrimp, is a winner, too. Or try the roasted chicken enchilada at Brickell’s upscale Rosa Mexicana.
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Chinese food can deliver loads of calories, thanks in part to oil, greasy noodles and deep-fried breading. It can also load you up with sodium, if you don’t choose carefully. For starters, ditch the crunchy fried noodles that traditionally come with the meal. Go for a bowl of hot and sour soup, which is light and filling, albeit a bit salty. Then dig your chopsticks into sizzling chicken with vegetables, or shrimp with broccoli. Stir-fry dishes, which generally have more veggies and lean protein, make for lighter Chinese fare, but portions can be hefty. Share a dish to keep fat and calories in check. Steer clear of lo mein, mu shu dishes and deep-fried entrees like honey chicken. Also go easy on the hoisin, black bean and brown sauces, as this is where the salt and oil can really add up. And, of course, steamed rice beats the fried stuff.
Healthy bites: At P.F. Chang’s, try the ginger chicken with broccoli, or the Cantonese scallops, both of which can be paired with brown rice for a calorie-conscious meal. The Wok of Seven Seas, a mix of shellfish cooked in a red wine marinade, will keep you lean over at Tony Chan’s Water Club — or try the Seafood Sizzling Wa Ba, or the Moo Goo Gai Pan, at New Chinatown.
Japanese cuisine is easily one of the healthiest, with its focus on seafood, rice and vegetables. Healthy starters here include the edamame, miso soup, tuna tataki and the salad with ginger dressing (avoid the higher-fat miso dressing). Follow with a meal of assorted sashimi and a side of brown rice, or try a California roll wrapped in fresh fish (rainbow roll), and you’ll have a meal that’s really nutritious. Chicken yakitori skewers, and soba or udon noodle bowls are healthy choices for non-sushi-eaters. Watch out for hand rolls made with cream cheese or spicy mayo, as well as fried tempura and katsu entrées, as these can really pack calories.
Healthy bites: Try Matsuri for their vegetable salad appetizer, and the top choice: chirashi bowl with brown rice. At Sushi Siam, the Yakisoba noodle and vegetable bowl with chicken, or the Beauty and the Beast roll (half eel, half tuna) are good eats.
Many Thai dishes are prepared using light ingredients and less oil, with aromatic spices and seasonings to add flavor without heaviness. It’s easy to get a healthy meal here. For appetizers, skip the higher-fat Pad Thai and fried spring rolls and opt for papaya salad or Tom Yum Koong soup instead. Go for sweet and sour chicken, beef basil, garlic shrimp or squid; or try a whole steamed fish for a light and healthy entree. Beware of curry dishes, which are laden with highly saturated coconut milk, and loads of calories. Always ask for whole-grain brown rice instead of white rice, and aim for a tennis-ball sized portion of it.
Healthy bites: Head over to Moon Thai for squid in garlic sauce or the delicious dancing shrimp salad. Or stop in for the ginger scallops or the basil beef and vegetable stir fry at World Resources Café on Lincoln Road. Both places serve brown rice to complement your meal.
If you’re going to a steak house with your beef-eating man, keep it lean by choosing the filet mignon. Aim for a portion about the size of the palm of your hand. Add a side of grilled vegetables and a sweet potato or baked potato to fill you up without filling you out. Heavyweight items you’d definitely want to avoid in these establishments include steak fries, hush puppies, blue cheese dressing, creamed spinach and anything with hollandaise sauce on it.
Healthy bites: For lean cuts, order the tri-tip beef bottom sirloin at Morton’s Steakhouse or the 4-ounce rib eye steak at Outback Steakhouse.
Low-carb dieters may not agree, but pasta can be part of a healthy meal. You just have to manage the hefty portions that most places serve. Order an appetizer portion as a meal, or share a pasta entrée, to keep your carbs and calories in check. Healthy eats here include pastas with tomato-based sauces, like red clam sauce, and primavera style with sautéed veggies, or just keep it simple, with olive oil and some fresh Parmesan. To punch up the nutritional value, ask for whole-wheat pasta. It’s showing up on more menus these days and provides extra protein, fiber and nutrients. Avoid anything Alfredo, parmigiana, carbonara or creamy, as well as lasagna, manicotti and any stuffed pastas if you’re watching your waistline.
Healthy bites: Olive Garden serves up a healthy meal with their linguine a la marinara or shrimp primavera dishes. Over at Macaroni Grill, try the “create-your-own-pasta” option and pair whole-wheat pasta with chicken or shrimp, plus veggies, and either tomato-basil or arrabiata sauce. The Pasta Factory Company serves whole-wheat pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, or with a touch of oil and Parmesan.
South Florida is swimming with seafood establishments, and fish is a healthy catch — low in fat and cholesterol, and rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Start with ceviche or a shrimp cocktail to keep calories light. Make a meal of grilled or blackened fish, or stick with grilled scallops, steamed mussels or stone crabs, if you prefer shellfish. Choose cocktail sauce or fresh lemon, and go easy on the butter and the mayo-based mustard sauce when it comes to dipping.
Best catch-of-the-day: Try Alta Mar’s roasted black sea bass or lobster linguine with fresh tomatoes. At Tarpon Bend, the grilled shrimp and arugula salad, or the sizzling seafood kettle (a combo of fish and shellfish in a light tomato sauce with grilled veggies), will make a healthy meal. At Red Lobster, go for the wood-fire grilled jumbo shrimp with wild rice or the live Maine lobster dipped in lemon.
Good-for-you grains, fresh vegetables, lean proteins — and the use of heart-healthy, monounsaturated olive oil — make these cuisines a healthy bet. Couscous, bulgur pilaf and lentils boost fiber and protein and, when paired with chicken Kafta skewers or shish tawook, add up to light and nourishing fare. Hummus and baba ghanoush are made with tahini, which is high in fat, but it’s the good kind. Nonetheless, you still need to watch your portions. Salads may seem healthy, but high-fat ingredients like anchovies, kalamata olives and feta cheese can send calories soaring. The tabbouleh and fatoush salads are best bets here. To be avoided: lamb dishes/gyros, fried kibbie and falafel balls, spinach pies and mousakka.
Healthy bites: Head over to The Daily Bread for the shish tawook platter or the turkey shawarma salad. Or try Pasha’s chicken gyro wrap or filet mignon shish kebab platter. Ariston has a very lean pork loin skewer, with rice and a side of healthy greens.
Many Indian dishes are high in fat and calories, so beware. Healthy and filling starters include lentil or mulligatawny vegetable soup. Add a piece of whole-grain naan, chapati or roti flatbread, but steer clear of the puri and stuffed breads, which are loaded with calories and fat. Chicken tikka, or tandoori fish or shrimp made in the clay oven are your healthiest bets, along with a fist-sized portion of basmati rice. House specialty dishes, often made with lots of butter and/or cream, as well as curry dishes, are best avoided.
Healthy bites: The House of India’s chicken Kadhai, cooked in an Indian wok with awesome spices, is a real winner. Over at Mint Leaf Indian Brasserie, the tandoori salmon is divine, as is the chicken in lentil stew.
— Lisa Schachter, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian in private practice in South Miami, Florida. She can be reached at 305-669-1026.