Never panic over being the indecisive one at a dinner table again.
Sure, there are times when you know you’re practically legally obligated to go all out food-wise. If you’re in Milan or Paris, for example, you’re probably not going to pass on a plate of carbonara or a croissant—unless maybe you’re a sociopath. Similarly, there are nights when you’re just happy to go all out—order an artisanal cocktail with an eye-roll-worthy name, hog the cheese plate and pillage the dessert menu. But then there are times when you don’t feel like throwing caution (and your hour at spin that morning) to the wind. Or times when you’re faced with limited (aka hideously unhealthy) options, like when your flight’s delayed and your choices are Auntie Anne’s or bust.
In an effort to never again leave a restaurant feeling like you just ate the salad equivalent of a Big Mac (which exists), we consulted a handful of nutritional experts (Nikki Ostrower, Marissa Lippert, Nicole Granato, Dana James and Shira Lenchewski) and quizzed them on everything from important words to steer clear of, the healthy-ish dishes you can find on almost any menu and exactly what questions to ask the waiter.
“My favorite kind of restaurant is farm-to-table, which usually means they partner with farms and are completely transparent about where their food is coming from. If the food is coming from quality sources, animals are raised without hormones or antibiotics and veggies are grown without pesticide. If you score a farm-to-table restaurant, then go for any cuisine. It's all about the quality and quantity of what you are choosing to eat.” - Nikki Ostrower
“French and Italian are the easiest, as they offer an array of vegetables and fish options. Indian is the most challenging, as even the vegetables are loaded with oil. Mexican can be healthy if you choose ceviche. If you have a gluten sensitivity, Japanese can be treacherous because many of the dishes are made with soy sauce, which has wheat in it.” - Dana James
“Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants are my go-tos because you really don’t have to sacrifice—the food is delicious and ‘clean.’ I’m a big believer that food is nourishment, but it’s also pleasure, and I refuse to eat flavorless food, period. Give me some well-seasoned, well-marinated meat, veggies and hummus, and I’m a super-happy camper.” - Shira Lenchewski
“If you look at a menu with a strategic eye, you can really pull together a balanced, delicious meal nearly anywhere. I love Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese for their emphasis on big, bold flavors, vegetables and lean proteins.” - Marissa Lippert
“I try to eat as clean as possible at home and when dining out. I have some favorites in Los Angeles, like Gjusta, Cafe Gratitude, The Butcher's Daughter, Dudley Market and Moon Juice. Each of these locations offers a variety of options, whether you are vegan or eat everything. I typically gravitate toward cuisines and menus that offer entrées that have ingredients that are sourced directly from the earth.” - Nicole Granato
What they always scan the menu for first:
“I take a look at the entire menu and start to narrow down my options. I look to see what vegetables and whole grains they have and if they have a sustainable fish on the menu. Then I notice how they prepare it and whether it's cooked in heavy sauces.” - N.O.
“A menu with loads of vegetables. I love going to restaurants that offer a platter of different vegetable as an appetizer. Cafe Clover and Claudette's are two in NYC that do vegetables very well.” - D.J.
“Interesting salads and vegetables first, hands down. It’s a no-brainer. Build your meal around a bomb salad or vegetable dish, and you’ll balance out whatever else looks good. Allow yourself to fill up on veg and greens—there’s then only so much room for everything else! Sneaky trick.” - M.L.
“Vegetables—baked or grilled. My favorites are sweet potatoes, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts and carrots. I also look for fish—baked or grilled—and healthy fats, like avocado. I try to stay away from meat in restaurants since I don’t know where it’s being sourced. You can also look out for grains like quinoa, brown rice and barley; those are typically mixed with root vegetables. My go-to restaurant order is a salad with avocado, grilled fish and a side of vegetables with warm water and lemon.” - N.G.
The deceivingly unhealthy things to stay away from:
“Fresh fish is a fancy term for fish that could be farmed and raised in an unnatural environment, instead of wild-caught. Therefore, they contain a lot of heavy metals that do damage to our body. Crispy usually means fried. And all-natural… .it doesn't mean anything. Look for organic, pasture or grassfed.” - N.O.
“Just because it’s raw vegan doesn’t mean it’s the most savvy option. Raw vegan pizza made with a cashew-nut base can be a 1000-calorie meal. Many vegetable soups are made with coconut milk or a dense nut milk, so ask, don’t just assume they are puréed vegetables. Another one: salt and pepper squid is just fried squid.” - D.J.
“Here are some phrases to look out for: ‘glazed’ (usually suggests added sugar), ‘bisque’ (cream-based soup) and ‘au gratin’ (cooked in butter and topped with breadcrumbs and/or cheese). On the other hand, the following words/phrases usually indicate better options: broiled, grilled, roasted, braised, sautéed and stir-fried.” - S.L.
“‘Battered’ means coated in batter and deep-fried. ‘Confit’ typically means meat was cooked and salted in its own fat. ‘Rémoulade’—a sauce made of mayonnaise, mustard and capers.” - N.G.
What to ask the waiter before you place your order:
“If I see something I want on the menu, I’ll ask to have it prepared in a way that will meet my needs. For example, I may ask to have my chicken or fish baked or grilled plain instead of fried. Additionally, I'll ask if I can have my vegetables cooked in real butter or simply steamed and to not add any additional salt, since I'll be adding my own healthy Celtic sea salt that I keep in my bag.” - N.O.
“If there’s an ingredient you aren’t familiar with, ask what it is. And don’t be afraid to ask for a gluten-free or dairy-free meal if you’re sensitive to gluten and dairy (as many people are).” - D.J.
“Ask how your food is being prepared. I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to do all that much to high-quality ingredients to end up with a great dish. For instance, olive oil, lemon, sea salt, garlic, vinegar, spices and herbs go a long way. Lots of times, restaurants add sugar to salad dressings, sauces and marinades, and it’s completely unnecessary because the food doesn’t need it. Ask if you can hold the added sugar and substitute olive oil for butter. As long as you’re polite, the worst that can happen is that your server says the substitution isn’t possible. The best that can happen, if you order the modified dish enough times, is that they name it after you. Hypothetically speaking, of course.” - S.L.
“Where and how something is sourced (like, is the steak grass-fed, where is the fish from), what’s new or in season on the menu? What would the waiter eat if he or she were dining? That’s always a big clue.” - M.L.
“With fish or meat, it is always important to ask how they are cooked. Baked, steamed, fried, broiled? With salads, always ask what kind of dressing it comes with! If the dressing contains dairy, stay away from it, as those dressings are usually sitting longer and have a greater chance of going stale.” - N.G.
A standby healthy meal you can find almost anywhere:
“If a restaurant doesn't have many healthy options, they will usually have a salad, a cooked vegetable and either a chicken or fish. Enjoy a salad with some fish on top, olive oil and splash of lemon.” - N.O.
“Branzino with a side of broccoli rabe, or order a burger without the bun and replace the fries with a salad.” - D.J.
“An herb roast chicken (yes, it’s fine to have a bit of the crispy skin!) or a fresh whole grilled fish and a side of grilled or sautéed vegetables. Done and done.” - M.L.
“Order a salad and ask for no dressing, as most places have dressings that are super processed and high in fat. Most people will ask for balsamic, but balsamic vinegar is very acidic for the body. I recommend asking for no dressing, olive oil and half a lemon on the side. You can also always ask for grilled vegetables for vegetarian option to meals they may offer.” - N.G.