A little preparation and self assertion are all you need to make eating in a restaurant almost as easy as eating at home. Here are some of the tricks I’ve developed so I can enjoy myself in restaurants without worrying about trashing my good habits or feeling deprived.
Scope it out
Your delicious restaurant meal starts at home. With a bit of online recon, you can review menus in advance to make sure you can find food that fits into your eating plan. And by deciding in advance what you’ll order, you can prevent temptation from derailing your good intentions.
Even though I sometimes resent the way computers have insinuated themselves into my life, the internet can be extraordinarily helpful when you’re ready to experiment on a new-to-you restaurant. Both chain restaurants and most locally-owned restaurants usually share their menus online, and by being a little bit of a detective on Yelp, you can get valuable insight into the menu and quality of the food.
Your best bets are restaurants that serve meat and produce from nearby farms. The phrase “farm to table” is usually a reliable indicator that the quality of the ingredients will be first rate, and restaurants that concern themselves with serving quality ingredients are also usually good about accommodating “picky eaters.” You don’t have to totally upscale to eat well; neighborhood joints can be a good choice, too.
If I review a menu online and decide what I’m eating before I get to the restaurant, I don’t even look at the menu when I get there. Why make myself feel bad about the fried macaroni-and-cheese balls I can’t won’t eat? If I’m not able to review the menu before I get there, I scan it to find the “not for me” areas — like pasta, sandwiches, etc. — and I just don’t even read them. Key words to look for when scanning a menu: salads, meat, entrées, vegetable sides. The daily specials are also usually a good choice because they’re often made to order, which means you can be super picky about how they’re prepared for you. More on that below…
Make Friends with the Waitress/Waiter
used to joke that I wanted to be a “raven-haired, tart-tongued detective” and I might sometimes pretend I’m a spy. When I go to a new restaurant, I put those faux detective skills to work. The first task when you arrive at the restaurant is to enlist the server as your partner-in-crime; they can help you understand everything that might end up on your plate. (And this is made easier by the online recon you did to review the menu in advance.)
I’m not gonna lie: It can feel uncomfortable sometimes to ask for what you need, but remember that at the restaurant, you’re paying the tab and you have the right to get exactly what you want on your plate (within reason). Here are some tips and questions to help you team up with your server and get the info you need to make solid choices.
- Call ahead: Especially in fine dining or family-owned restaurants, the staff really wants to make your dining experience being a pleasant one. You can almost always call ahead to ask questions and make special requests — espcially now that so many restaurants are at least aware of food allergies and so many diners’ need to be gluten free. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need; It often makes people feel good to accommodate your needs, especially if it means repeat business.
- Ask about gluten: Restaurants have really needed to become more sensitive to the need for gluten-free options for allergies and conditions like Celiac disease. You still have to be alert for gluten-free choices that involve grains and dairy, but a gluten-free menu is a good starting point for asking questions and finding meals that don’t include problem ingredients.
- Say “no” to the pre-meal freebies: There is absolutely nothing free about a bread basket, a bowl of peanuts, or basket of tortilla chips. They’re like a devil trying to lure you down a forbidden and dangerous path. When the server attempts to deliver these starters to you with your menu, smile and firmly say “no, thank you.” Keep the baskets off the table for your peace of mind.
- Ask about oils: Unless it’s stated otherwise on the menu, most restaurants use canola oil for their griddles, pan frying, deep frying, and salads. If you know you’re sensitive to oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids, avoid deep-fried foods and ask to have your meal cooked in butter or olive oil.
- Make substitutions: Changing up the menu is part of the fun! It’s pretty easy to swap side dishes — request a bowl of fruit instead of toast at breakfast, for example — or ask for double orders of good things like vegetables. Yes, you might be charged a little extra on your bill, but it’s worth the investment to get the food your body needs.
- Get creative: Play your own game of “You Know How You Could Do That?” Mix and match from the items on the menu to create new combos the chef never considered. Request veggies with sauce instead of pasta, for example, or ask for sandwich fillings on a bed of lettuce instead of between slices of bread. Even a pizza shop should be able to accommodate you with a “salad” made from pizza toppings. All it takes is your imagination and a pleasant request.
- Is it homemade? Did you know that the majority of restaurants in the U.S. are serviced by one food supply company for everything from frozen foods to produce and everything in between? That means the salad dressing could be made in a factory and probably includes junk like high-fructose corn syrup, soy, and corn. Ask your server about the ingredients in salad dressings, and if it’s commercially-made, opt instead for vinegar or lemon juice and olive oil for your salad. Ditto for soups, pasta sauces, salsa, and potatoes. Always ask if these things are made in-house.
Nobody is Perfect, Not Even the Chef
When you cook in your home kitchen, you know exactly what’s going into your meals, and you probably pay equal attention to how good it tastes and how healthy it is. In most restaurants, the numero uno priority is to serve food that tastes awesome. That’s it. “Make it taste good” is usually the chef’s primary driver (followed by, “as economically as possible”). That philosophy means that restaurant chefs add pesky ingredients lik sugars, questionable fats, soy, and wheat to their food in ways that you probably wouldn’t at home.
It’s totally your call on how much “wiggle room” you can accept in restaurant food. During a Whole30, for example, you would say not to brown-sugar crusted ribs at your favorite barbecue joint — but if you’re merely trying to feed yourself as a paleo person, it’s up to you to decide if a little added sugar, a splash of soy sauce, or even canola oil is acceptable to you. For me, I eat Whole30 compliant at home so that when I eat in restaurants, I don’t have to stress about some sneaky sugar, soy, or crappy oils.
However, if you know you have a negative reaction to a certain food — I love corn but 24 hours after eating it, I feel murderous — it should be a no-brainer to avoid that food. Do you grow a painful cannon ball in your stomach after eating cheese or gluten? You probably don’t want to indulge in those foods, even if you want to have a treat. If extra sugar interrupts the quality of your sleep for one night, is it worth it to you? Only you can answer those questions, and your answer might change under different timing and circumstances. The goal is not to be perfect, but to find the guidelines that work for you.
Also, while I’m being a downer. Most restaurants use commercial mayonnaise, even in their homemade salad dressing. Commercial mayo is almost always made from inflammatory, industrial seed oils like canola, safflower, sunflower, or a blend. Avoid restaurant mayo unless you’re choosing it as a “treat.”
Paleo-Friendly Cooking Methods
Instinct probably tells you that deep-fried foods aren’t the healthiest choice, but it can be confusing to know what a good cooking method might be. Look for these methods and descriptions to find the most paleo-friendly choices on the menu, and remember to ask your server questions to verify ingredients.
- Broiled: Broiled fish, seafood, steak, chicken, and all kinds of chops are a great choice. Be sure to ask if the meat is basted with anything before, during, or after broiling.
- Steamed: Steaming is just about the ideal way to cook vegetables. Again, ask if the vegetables are topped with seasoning or fat after cooking. You might need to request that they’re served to you plain (ask for olive oil on the side).
- Poached: Fish and chicken poached in water or broth is flavorful, tender, and paleo-approved. Ask the server if wine was included in the poaching broth so you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to make an exception to your rules for the added flavor.
- Braised: This is another great paleo-friendly cooking method that should make you feel confident about the food. There may be wine or soy involved in the braising liquid, so clarify with the server.
- Roasted: Roasted meats and vegetables are almost always a good choice; get details about dry rubs or marinades to verify the ingredients.
- Grilled: Remember to double-check on marinade and dry rub ingredients — and ask if the grilled meat is finished with a sauce or oil when it comes off the grill. (Our local BBQ place is gluten free except for the BBQ sauce, so I always have to remember to request my meat dry.)
- Sous vide: Sous vide is really popular in better restaurants, and it’s a great choice for paleo people. The meat or seafood is cooked in a hot water bath, then finished over or under a high heat source to brown the meat. Again, ask your server if anything is added to the meat when it’s served.
- Sautéed: The word “sauté” can go either way. If food is sautéed in a quality form of fat without added sugar, soy, or grains, it gets a green light. If it’s drenched in non-paleo ingredients, it’s a definite stop sign.
- Smoked: Like grilling, smoking is a very paleo-friendly cooking method. Sugar is often included in the rubs used on meat, so verify with the server, but the amounts used are usually minimal and not worth worrying about.
- Warning: Approach soups and stews with caution. They can be a satisfying one-stop source of quality protein and vegetables, unless the chef thickens them with a flour-based roux or adds cream for a smooth texture. Ask lots of questions about soups and stews, including whether or not they contain soy, flour, grains, or dairy.
Code For “Not Paleo Friendly”
Words like “crispy” and “battered” make food sound very (very, very, very) appetizing, but those words should also sound a warning siren. Anything battered and crispy is most likely rolled in flour and deep-fried in canola oil. Boo.
When you see the following adjectives on the menu, ask lots of questions and be prepared to take a pass on foods that don’t meet your standards.
- Deep fried
- Meatballs/Meatloaf/Croquettes (probably include breadcrumbs)
So… What Are You Gonna Have?
I know. I know! That might seem like a lot of bad news about restaurants, but really, if you’re diligent and ask lots of questions, eating in a restaurant can be no big deal. Remember: you’re not aiming for perfection. Just do your best, then relax and savor your food. Here are some suggestions for good choices in just about any type of restaurant.
American Restaurants, Diners & Cafes
Diners and cafés are probably the easiest restaurants to find paleo-friendly stuff to eat because their menus usually include fresh salads, burgers, and stick-to-your-ribs goodies like roast poultry or meat, steaks, chops, and vegetables. Here are the paleo-friendly options you can usually find on the menu.
- Eggs: Scrambled, omelets, poached, fried, or hard-boiled, eggs are a protein-packed choice that can be found just about everywhere. Be sure to ask if the chef includes dairy, wheat, or soy in the scrambled eggs and omelets. Most kitchens will honor your request to make eggs without added ingredients. When in doubt, order poached eggs because the only ingredients are eggs and water.
- Bunless burgers: With a salad and a side of vegetables, a burger sans bun makes a great meal. Some restaurants have gotten hip to the trend and offer burgers wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves instead of buns.
- Protein and vegetables: When in doubt, a steak and a salad is a pretty safe bet. Other good options are salmon, grilled or roasted chicken, roasted turkey, grilled or broiled pork chops, pot roast, or any variety of fish or seafood. Ask questions about the preparation, request sauces/gravy on the side, and dig in!
- Barbecue: Smoked beef, pork, chicken, and turkey are all good choices at your favorite barbecue joint. Although most barbecue rubs contain sugar, it’s a trace amount, so probably not worth too much concern. Beware barbecue sauce, though; it usually includes a lot of sugar as an ingredient and may also pack some soy sauce, too. Order meat dry if you’re really concerned. For side dishes, look for braised greens and tossed salad, but avoid the mayo-based cole slaw and potato salad unless you’re OK with canola oil mayo.
- Salads: A big salad is another reliable choice: lots of fresh veggies topped with protein and drizzled with quality fat. Be on the look out for sneaky ingredients like croutons or cheese, and verify the ingredients in the dressing to be sure it complies with your eating standards. This is another place you can get creative by combining toppings from different menu items into your own combos.
Salads can quickly turn from a great choice to a problematic one with the addition of a few unhealthy ingredients. Always request dressings on the side so you can control the amount that’s added to your vegetables, or discretely bring a small container of homemade dressing with you. (What?! Doesn’t everyone carry a plastic container of dressing in their purse?) Don’t forget to ask your server if the salad includes grated cheese and/or croutons and request yours be served without them.
You know I love my international food! Here are the things I usually order to eat well and enjoy myself, without feeling deprived or getting a bad food hangover.
- Greek/Mediterranean: Grilled fish, Greek salad (minus the feta cheese), gyro meat (as long as it doesn’t contain grains as fillers), roasted chicken, shish kebabs, and olives are all paleo-friendly choices. Take a pass on pita bread, as well as casseroles like moussaka, which will include dairy and flour.
- Middle Eastern: Look for beef, lamb, pork, and chicken shawarma, baba ghanoush, and shish kebabs made from lamb, beef, chicken, and vegetables. Tahini dressing — made from lemon juice, sesame seed paste, and olive oil — is a great choice for dipping or drizzling over salads.
- Mexican: Focus on meat, salsa, and guacamole. Take a pass on the chip basket and avoid tortillas, gorditas, enchiladas, and other dishes that may be wrapped in tortillas or buried under cheese. In place of rice and beans, request a side of vegetables or grilled jalapeños, if you like it hot. Looks for dishes like steak, shrimp, or chicken fajitas; carnitas; carne asada; barbacoa; and rotisserie-roasted chicken. You can even enjoy tacos, burritos, etc.; just eat the middles and leave the rest (or have the insides piled on a bed of lettuce to make a kickass salad).
- Italian: You’re not eating pasta or garlic bread, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Italian food. Really! Look for roasted chicken, veal piccata, grilled fish, and beef dishes like pot roast. Remember to ask questions about preparation because pan-sautéed meats are often dusted in flour before cooking; your order can probably be made without flour, so ask nicely. A big antipasto platter with olives, peppers, and Italian meats is a good choice, along with side salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar. As a side, order grilled vegetables or a green vegetable, like broccoli or spinach, topped with marinara sauce.
- Thai: Thai stir-fries often contain soy, and rice noodle dishes (even though they’re gluten free) can include a lot of added sugar. Go for curries made with coconut milk, protein, and vegetables, instead—and request that the cook double the vegetables in your dish. If you’re sensitive to peanuts, skip the peanut sauce, but you can still enjoy satay; request that green papaya and other salads be made without the chopped peanuts on top.
- Indian: Grilled and roasted meats and vegetables — especially tandoori — are usually a safe bet. Avoid curries in rich sauces because they’re based on yogurt and may also include flour. Avert your eyes from the naan.
- Japanese & sushi: Sushi restaurants can be a great place to eat paleo with a little preparation and by making special requests. Bring a bottle of coconut aminos with you and use them instead of soy sauce. When ordering maki or hand rolls, ask that they made without rice; sashimi is always an excellent option. Avoid tempura rolls and ask about sauces that might be included in rolls or drizzled over the top, as they most likely include soy and/or sugar. Appetizers like dumplings and edamame are not paleo options, but seaweed salad can be a good choice.
- Chinese: Unless you have a relationship with the chef of your local Chinese restaurant, eating Chinese food in a restaurant can be really tough. Most Chinese recipes include soy, cornstarch, rice and rice flour, and added sugars. If you find yourself in a Chinese restaurant and have no other options, the “cleanest” choices are steamed vegetables and roasted meats—like barbecued spareribs or chicken wings—but even those meats will probably include a small amount of soy sauce. If you’re particularly sensitive to gluten and/or soy, you should probably avoid Chinese restaurants and reserve stir-fries for home cooking.
A Loving Reminder
Part of the fun of eating out is enjoying foods you don’t usually eat at home — and luxuriating in the experience of someone else doing the cooking and serving. If you stick to your guns when you cook at home 80 to 90 percent of the time, it’s totally OK to loosen up your standards a little to enjoy a restaurant, provided that you don’t knowingly over-do it and hurt yourself.
You are not required to be perfect to be healthy. The paleo guidelines are meant to encourage you to make intentional food choices that help you feel good both physically and emotionally. The tips listed above are meant to help you eat well and enjoy yourself, while respecting your paleo habits. When you decide to indulge in special occasion foods at restaurants or at home, choose only the most delicious options, and savor every single bite.
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