Menu Minefield

BY HILARY ACHAUER

From: CrossFit Journal

Which is a healthier restaurant choice, Brussels sprouts or taquitos?

If you’re at the Cheesecake Factory, the answer might not be what you think.

Filed under “small plates and snacks,” the Cheesecake Factory’s crispy Brussels sprouts pack in 69 grams of fat, 45 grams of carbohydrates (22 grams of sugar) and 10 grams of protein—840 calories. By comparison, the chicken taquitos have 22 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrates (5 grams of sugar) and 16 grams of protein, for 390 total calories.

Neither choice is ideal, of course. Eating out in most restaurants in the United States is an exercise in picking the lesser of two evils, even when ordering vegetable dishes.

Chef Nick Massie, founder of Paleo NickIce Age Meals and the CrossFit Workshop: Culinary Ninja, said ideally we’d only eat out at restaurants a few times a year. The only way to be sure of what you’re eating is to cook most of your meals at home.

That’s not realistic for most people. Going out to eat is one of life’s great pleasures, and sometimes it’s unavoidable due to work or social obligations.

Here, Massie shares his advice about what to watch out for when looking at a menu and explains how to make healthy versions of restaurant dishes at home.

ALT TEXTHow much sugar is in that tasty marinade? The only way to know for sure, Nick Massie says, is to cook it yourself. (Courtesy of Paleo Nick)

How to Read a Menu

The first thing to consider when looking at a restaurant’s entrees, Massie said, is the cooking agent.

“That’s the foundation of any meal—the cooking agent—and with 99 percent of restaurants right now, that’s the biggest miss. They are all cooking with cheap vegetable oil,” Massie said.

He said cheap vegetable oil contains more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fats. Too much omega-6 fatty acid is linked to high blood pressure and blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes.

“Look for grilled food,’ Massie said, “and unless a vegetable is steamed, and they can tell you in the kitchen it’s (cooked with) olive oil, then you should stay away from it.”

Other warning signs that a food might not be healthy are the words crispy, pan fried, dipped, scalloped, breaded, cream or Alfredo. All indicate the food is fried, breaded or coated in a high-fat cream sauce. Instead, look for food described as grilled, steamed, baked, roasted, braised, broiled or seared.

Added sugar is another problem with restaurant food. Massie said to look at the food on the plate, “and if (it’s) shiny, there’s sugar in the food.” Ketchup is an example of this, Massie said.

This tip doesn’t help when you’re ordering—once the plate of shiny food is in front of you, it’s too late. To avoid sugary dishes, stay away from menu items with the words glazed, teriyaki, sticky or honey dipped.

If you’re interested in learning more about food preparation, cooking terms and the science of cooking, Massie recommends you read “The Food Lover’s Companion,” which he said is an excellent resource for anyone who cares about food and its relationship to health.

Rather than eating out frequently and obsessively parsing each menu, Massie said a better approach is to eat out less often and at better restaurants. When Massie was younger, he lived in France with family friends, and he said the people he knew there only went out to eat once a year. Once a year might not be realistic for most people, but you can change the way you look at dining out. Instead of eating out several times a week, try reducing that to once a week or even once a month.

ALT TEXTHealthy home cooking doesn’t have to be boring or tasteless—a little education and effort go a long way. (Courtesy of Paleo Nick)

Restaurant Meals at Home

Eating at home doesn’t mean you have to forego your favorite restaurant dishes.

Massie’s site is full of healthy versions of popular restaurant meals. His Paleo Express series features healthy takes on favorites from the fast-food chain Panda Express.

One of Panda Express’ most popular dishes is the orange chicken. It’s not a healthy choice. One 5.7-ounce serving contains 51 grams of carbohydrates (19 grams of sugar), 25 grams of protein and 23 grams of fat (490 total calories).

Massie’s sesame orange-peel chicken replicates the ingredients and flavors of this dish but puts the emphasis on fresh vegetables and lean protein. The recipe can be divided into five four-block Zone meals, and though Massie’s version has 18 grams of sugar to Panda Express’ 19, it has less total carbohydrate and almost double the protein, for a total of 40 grams of carbohydrates, 49 grams of protein and 7 grams of fat (437 total calories) per serving. Total sugar content can be even further reduced by skimping on the sauce.

Massie was inspired to make his honey walnut shrimp with broccoli after seeing the honey walnut shrimp in the hot line on a visit to Panda Express. One serving of the restaurant’s breaded, sugary dish contains 35 grams of carbohydrates (9 grams of sugar), 13 grams of protein and 23 grams of fat, for a total of 360 calories.

Knowing he could do better, Massie went to his kitchen and came up with a dish that ditches the breading and increases the veggies, creating a perfectly balanced four-block meal with 35 grams of carbohydrates (16 grams of sugar), 15 grams of protein and 9 grams of fat, for a total of 287 calories. Massie’s version has more sugar than the Panda Express dish, but the Panda Express serving size is only 3.7 ounces—one serving of Massie’s dish has 6 ounces of shrimp alone. Home chefs can also reduce the amount of honey for fewer total grams of sugar—one of the benefits of cooking at home.

Remember those taquitos from the Cheesecake Factory? Although healthier than the Brussels sprouts, they still weren’t a great option. Massie created his own two-serving version of taquitos using fresh guacamole and thinly sliced and pounded chicken breasts instead of tortillas. Massie’s version contains 6 grams of carbohydrates (3 grams of sugar), 6 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein, for a total of 172 calories per serving (not including the salsa and guacamole on the side).

If you don’t have time to plan and shop for your weeknight meals, online meal-delivery services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh have options that fit almost every diet and nutrition plan. Massie’s Paleo frozen-food delivery service, Ice Age Meals, offers small-batch frozen meals that are Paleo and Zone friendly, and it’s likely you can find a similar service locally.

ALT TEXTLearn to prepare your own delicious food, and when you’re pressed for time, consider healthy food providers rather than the local wing joint. (Dennis Wanbaugh)

Intentional Indulgence

None of us eat perfectly 100 percent of the time. Life is about balance, and that includes occasional indulgences. If you eat out frequently, however, you could be indulging unintentionally.

The best way to know exactly what you’re eating is to be the chef.

“I am a firm believer that we are happiest when we cook for ourselves,” Massie said.

If you’re struggling to make changes to your health and eat out multiple times a week—even at restaurants that claim to be healthy—try to recreate your favorite dishes at home for a few months. It’s likely you’ll improve your health while saving money and learning valuable cooking skills along the way.

About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.

Cover image: iStockphoto.com/Gwengoat

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