Our tried-and-true tips for ordering healthier restaurant takeout during the pandemic (or anytime)
So far, we don’t have evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted by eating contaminated food. But you can lower your risk by minimizing close contact with restaurant or delivery workers.
The risk of transferring the coronavirus from the packaging is very low, based on what we know so far. But to play it safe, wash your hands after handling food deliveries and before eating.
- Check the menu for calories. Calories are on the menu at restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide. That means you should also see calories on the chain’s own app or ordering webpage, if it has one. If calories aren’t listed on third-party delivery apps (like UberEats or Caviar), check the chain’s website.
- Halve it. Save some for tomorrow. Most restaurants deliver oversized portions. When researchers analyzed main dishes at independent and small-chain restaurants in Boston, the average entree (with sides) had roughly 1,300 calories. And they looked at a variety of cuisines, including Greek, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian.
- Fill up. Rule of thumb: try to fill half your plate with fruit or vegetables (potatoes don’t count). That’s easier at some restaurants (think Thai pad pak or other stir-fried vegetable dishes) than at others. But if you’re at home, you can also add your own salad, fruit, or other vegetables on the side.
- Tack fruit and veggies onto your order, if you’re running low. Many chain and local restaurants now offer a “pantry” or “grocery” section of their takeout and delivery menus that can help replenish your at-home produce stockpile in a pinch. (For example, Panera is selling tomatoes, avocados, blueberries, grapes, and apples. Ditto for California Pizza Kitchen, which also offers cucumbers, oranges, spinach, pineapple, strawberries, and limes in its “CPK Market.”)
- Stick to one starch (or none). At many restaurants, the default is a double dose of refined carbs. Some examples: Indian (rice and naan), Italian (pasta and bread), Mexican (tortillas and rice or chips), breakfast spots (pancakes and hash browns or toast), burger joints (buns and fries), and delis (sandwich bread and chips). Pick your favorite one. Ta-dah! More room for veggies.
- Look for whole grains. White rice or brown? Many Thai, Chinese, and fast-casual restaurants offer (whole-grain) brown rice. It’s healthier than white rice, but don’t overdo it. Each cup of any rice has about 200 calories.
- Skip soup to shave sodium. Just a cup (not a bowl) of soup at Panera, for example, has roughly 600 to 1,000 milligrams of sodium. (A better bet: our Healthy Cook’s simple recipes for homemade white bean soup or lentil stew.)
- Your goal: dishes that feature vegetables, not meat or noodles. Order extra broccoli, snow peas, or other veggies. They can pile on the potassium, which may help counter the supply of sodium in the rest of your dish.
- Order chicken, tofu, or seafood lightly stir-fried, not breaded, battered, or deep-fried.
- Save on sodium with a side of (non-fried) brown rice instead of the noodles that are often a choice at fast-casual restaurants like Panda Express.
- Seek out stir-fries. A vegetable stir-fry like pad pak (mixed vegetables), pad king (ginger, mushrooms, onions), or pad prik king (green beans, curry paste) beats pad Thai (rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg, tofu, and crushed peanuts).
- Add sautéed chicken, shrimp, or tofu to your stir-fry.
- Stir-fries also beat curries. The coconut milk in creamy curries can easily supply a day’s saturated fat.
- Go a la carte. Instead of a starch-heavy combo meal or fajita platter, order one or two chicken or fish tacos plus a side salad.
- Get cheese or sour cream (or neither). Every quarter cup of cheese or sour cream adds about 100 calories and a quarter of a day’s saturated fat. Guacamole beats sour cream because it slashes the sat fat. (Salsa or pico de gallo also slashes the calories…and can double as a taco-salad dressing.)
- Grilled chicken or fish (or beans) beats beef or pork.
- Skip the burrito tortilla at fast-casual joints like Chipotle. Who needs 300 calories of white flour, when you can have the same ingredients in a bowl or salad?
- Downsize. Many Italian restaurants offer lunch-size or half-size portions of pasta. Or save half for later.
- Avoid alfredo or carbonara. Carbonara means that the pasta comes coated with bacon or pancetta, cheese, and egg yolks or cream. Alfredo (minus the meat) is similar.
- Sauce your pasta with marinara or pomodoro. They’re largely tomatoes and olive oil, so you can kiss goodbye nearly all of the artery-clogging saturated fat in alfredo or carbonara .
- Try linguine di mare. It’s a mix of seafood like shrimp, mussels, scallops, and clams in a tomato sauce without all the butter in shrimp scampi or the cheese in almost any other Italian dish.
- Upgrade your pasta. Does the restaurant offer zoodles (spiralized zucchini) instead of noodles? Try it. Next best: whole-grain pasta.
- Which protein? Seafood or chicken beats meat sauce, meatballs, or sausage.
- Sub a side of veggies for potatoes or pasta.
- Order a thin crust or flatbread pizza instead of deep-dish, pan, or hand-tossed to save calories (and refined carbs). Whole-grain crust available? Try it.
- Ask for less cheese and get veggie, chicken, or seafood toppings instead of sausage, beef, bacon, salami, or pepperoni.
- Round out your plate with salad. (Order a side or make your own.) You can freeze leftover pizza slices.
- Gyro or falafel? Go with the falafel to replace red meat with plant-based protein (chickpeas).
- A salad or a pita sandwich with grilled chicken, seafood, or vegetables trumps both the falafel and the gyro.
- Salads are always a good start. Make yours even better:
- Choose darker greens. Any greens are good greens, but darker ones like spinach pack more nutrients per serving than romaine or iceberg.
- Pick a good protein. Among the options: grilled tofu, beans, egg, chicken, or seafood.
- Pour on veggies and fresh fruit. Go for nutrient-dense toppings like broccoli, carrots, chickpeas, black beans, edamame, roasted peppers, blueberries, mango, or strawberries.
- Hold the crispy wontons or croutons. They’re oily refined flour.
- Get your dressing on the side. Many restaurants serve 3 or 4 tablespoons. That’s healthy fats, but it’s probably more than you need.
- Avocado, nuts, or seeds beat cheese or bacon.
- Start with greens, or at least split your bowl. At fast-casual places like Cava, you can order the base of your bowl with greens—or at least half greens, half grains—to rack up more veg and save room for toppings.
- Go half and half. Fast-casual chains like Panera let “You Pick Two.” Pair your half-salad with a half-sandwich that’s mostly tuna, turkey, chicken, or hummus and veggies (instead of cheese, steak, bacon, or ham) on whole-grain bread. You can usually make up your own sandwich if it’s not on the menu.
- Bypass the beef. Try a grilled chicken, turkey, or veggie burger.
- Skip the cheese. Switch to a schmear of avocado for a healthier fat.
- Try bunless. Many chains will wrap your burger or sub in fresh lettuce if you ask. No luck? Look for a whole-grain bun or bread or “thin” roll. (Just keep in mind that “multigrain” may mean more white flour than whole grain.)
- Turn your sub into a salad. That usually saves calories from refined white flour and adds potassium from the veggies. Top it off with a vinaigrette or oil-and-vinegar dressing.
- Stick to the right side. Sides like apples or carrots (rather than bread or chips) add produce and fiber, not white-flour carbs.
Photos (top to bottom): F8studio/stock.adobe.com, Joshua Resnick/stock.adobe.com, narin_nonthamand/fotolia.com, ehaurylik/fotolia.com, fkruger/fotolia.com, Jag_cz/fotolia.com, Elenathewise/stock.adobe.com, Sweetgreen, Leah Ettman/CSPI.
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