Our guide to placing healthier takeout orders

When the coronavirus hit, in-restaurant dining evaporated. And many of us are still leaning on takeout to keep our distance. Here’s a quick guide.

Thai

  • Garden rolls beat spring rolls. Most entrées have enough calories to let you skip the appetizer, but if you get one, go unfried with salads, lettuce wraps, or garden rolls.
  • Head for the veggie stir-fries. Try pad pak (mixed vegetables), pad king (ginger, mushrooms, onions), or pad prik king (green beans) with sautéed chicken, seafood, or tofu. They can shave hundreds of calories off the pile of white-rice noodles you get in pad see ew, pad Thai, or pad kee mao (drunken noodles).
  • Creamy curries are swimming in saturated fat. Blame their coconut milk. Just half a cup has 15 to 20 grams of sat fat (a full day’s worth), so that red, green, yellow, panang, or massaman curry could rack up more than a day’s supply.

What’s a curry fan to do? You can sidestep some sat fat if you spoon the vegetables and meat over your rice and leave most of the sauce behind. Like it hot? Spicy, brothy kaeng pa (aka jungle curry) is free of coconut milk.

Middle Eastern or Greek

  • Dip wisely. Getting a starter or side of hummus, baba ganoush, or tzatziki? Scoop it up with veggies, not pita, to save hundreds of calories. Goodbye, white flour.
  • Go grilled. Best bets: chicken, salmon, or shrimp kebabs, or chicken souvlaki. Second best: falafel (more calories, less protein). All beat fatty lamb or beef gyros.
  • Be choosy with salads. Cucumber-tomato salads don’t have the salty feta, olives, or pepperoncini of Greek salads.
  • Look for whole grains. Whole wheat pitas can be hard to come by. On the upside, tabbouleh (bulgur, tomatoes, herbs) offers whole grains that a side of rice (typically white) doesn’t.

Pizza

  • Flatten out. Order a thin or flatbread crust instead of deep-dish, pan, or hand-tossed to save on refined carbs (and calories) per slice. Whole-grain crust available? Try it.
  • Bypass pepperoni, sausage, etc. That’s a no-brainer.
  • Halve a personal pie. At customizable spots like Pieology, MOD, and Blaze Pizza, typical pizzas have 800 to 1,000 calories because the crust alone has 350 to 600. Cauliflower crusts may be no lower (thanks to rice flour and cheese).
  • Stick to one type of cheese. It takes about 200 calories’ worth of mozzarella to cover an 11-inch crust.
  • Salad, anyone? Round out your plate with a cheeseless salad to fill up. Toss leftover pizza slices in the freezer.

Mexican

  • Opt for a la carte. Instead of a starch-heavy combo meal or fajita platter, order a few chicken, bean, or fish tacos plus a side fish salad. Like crispy (fried) taco shells? Good news: they have slightly fewer calories than flour tortillas.
  • Choose cheese or sour cream (or neither). Every quarter cup of cheese or sour cream adds about 100 calories and at least a quarter of a day’s saturated fat. Guac beats sour cream because it slashes the sat fat. Salsa or pico de gallo cuts calories and can double as salad dressing.
  • Skip the burrito tortilla at fast-casual spots like Chipotle. It’s roughly 300 calories, largely from refined flour. A bowl has 200 calories of rice. A salad has 15 calories of lettuce.

Salads or Bowls

  • Start with darker greens. Spinach and kale pack more nutrients per serving than romaine or iceberg.
  • Get mostly veggies (or fruit). They lower the calories per bite. Bumping up the cals: grains, cheese, dressing, avocado.
  • Lose the refined flour. Get some crunch from nuts or seeds rather than fried wontons, pita crisps, or croutons.
  • Get the dressing on the side. It’s good fat but probably more tablespoons than you need. Try half to start.
  • Hold back on salty toppings like olives, cheese, and pickled veggies. Pick just one to shave sodium. Avocado beats cheese because it’s sodium-free and healthy-fat-rich.
  • Split your “grain bowl” or “warm bowl.” Half grains, half greens saves room for toppings. Some chains will swap grains for lentils (Cava) or cauliflower “rice” (Sweetgreen).

Chinese

  • Veg out. Chinese takeout menus are flush with items that feature more vegetables than meat (or noodles). Bravo! We’re talking dishes like Szechuan string beans, Buddha’s delight, moo goo gai pan, home style tofu, or chicken with broccoli. Without rice, expect 500 to 900 calories, rather than the usual 1,000 to 1,500 in other dishes on the menu.
  • Leave some rice behind (or save it for later). Every cup adds 200 calories. A typical takeout carton holds two cups.
  • Play sodium defense. Use a fork or chopsticks to transfer your takeout to a plate so you leave some sauce (and its sodium) behind. Or mix in a side of steamed broccoli, snow peas, or mixed veg to stretch the sauce into more servings.
  • Don’t coat your protein. Order chicken, tofu, or seafood stir-fried rather than breaded, battered, or deep-fried.

Takeout 101

  • Stick to one starch (or none). The default is often double refined carbs. Think burger buns & fries, rice & naan, pasta & bread, or tortillas & chips or rice. Solution: Go with your favorite one…and try to make it a whole grain.
  • Replace red meat. Get beans, tofu, poultry, or seafood.
  • Pump up the veggies. Most dishes could use extras from the menu’s sides…or from your fridge. Sauté some broccoli, spinach, etc., while you wait for the delivery.
  • Mind the sodium. Nearly all restaurant food is too salty. More veggies bump up the potassium (to help counter sodium’s blood-pressure boost) and stretch your portions.
  • Save half for later. When researchers analyzed takeout from non-chain restaurants in Boston, the average entrée with sides had roughly 1,300 calories. It wasn’t just burgers & fries, but popular dishes from Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Thai, Indian, Greek, and other restaurants.
  • Watch out for delivery-app fees. Take UberEats. They display a “delivery fee” when you choose a restaurant but also tack on up to a 15 percent “service fee” when you check out. (And that doesn’t include a tip for the driver.) Uber also charges the restaurant fees. So call or check the restaurant’s website first, to see if it now delivers.
Photos: stock.adobe.com: Colorlife (chef), gomolach (place setting), hurricanehank (pizza), irinagoleva (fish tacos), zefirchik06 (kebabs), kravtzov (curry), Ezume Images (Chinese food), Sweetgreen (bowl).

The information in this post first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.


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