When you decide to eat healthy and follow a diet plan, you don’t have to be afraid to dine out, and you don’t have to feel deprived by ordering a boring salad with ice tea.
People are under some misunderstanding that just because there’s a menu handed to them, they have to eat everything “the way it comes.” That’s ridiculous. It’s your life, your money and your prerogative to have food prepared the way you like it. I never follow a menu. I look at what a restaurant has to offer, then customize my meal to suit my needs.
Every eating establishment has something to offer a healthy-minded person. You just have to take charge. First decide whether it’s time to eat protein or carbohydrates, then call over the waiter. Let him or her know you’re on a special diet and that you don’t eat any dairy products (at least I don’t). That means no cheese in the salad dressing, no cream or milk in the soup, and no butter on the bread and vegetables. Naturally, be nice, but remember you never have to apologize for not following the masses. If the waiter makes a face, that’s his or her problem. And if you don’t already know, don’t be afraid to ask how the chef prepares whatever it is you’re planning to order.
If the people you’re eating with tease you, remind them that when they’re not around that you’re the one that has to look at the cellulite running rapid on your thighs, and you’re the one that has to deal with the pain of indigestion and potential colon cancer. Contrary to what your mother told you when you were a kid, you don’t have to eat what’s served to you just because it’s there or because there are millions of people somewhere who are starving to death. Take the weight of the world off your shoulders and don’t let anyone intimidate you into eating foods that you’ve made personal choices not to eat. When french fries come with your meal, you can always substitute them with extra vegetables and/or fresh sliced tomatoes. If you want results, take charge!
In the great words of author Vernon Howard, “Having someone tell you how to live your life, is like having the waiter eat your meal.”
I’d like to examine how you can eat a lot of food and enjoy a healthy meal at the same time. First, let’s discuss the food that’s served at what I call American or “standard” restaurants. You know the ones I mean. They tend to serve fish, chicken, red meat, salads, vegetables and some kind of complex carbohydrate such as pasta, potatoes or rice. If you eat meat and it’s time for a protein meal, your choices are fairly simple. Order a large salad with oil and vinegar on the side (a good way to control your oil intake), a large plate of steamed vegetables and your plain broiled chicken or fish.
If you’re a vegetarian, ask the waiter if they have any beans. I doubt it, but you never know. If they don’t, you can always order a dinner salad, sliced tomatoes and a bowl of plain steamed vegetables while there, then follow up with some kind of vegetable protein when you get home. If you’re an oval vegetarian, ask if the chef can either make you an egg-white omelette or add some hard boiled eggs to your salad which you, in turn, can peel and eat without the yolk.
Life’s too short and it’s more important to feel comfortable with an alternative plan than to feel stressed out because you can’t get what you want at the moment. Another option altogether would be to have a carbohydrate meal instead of a protein meal, made up of foods (which you can combine according to what’s available) including salads, steamed vegetables, pasta, baked potatoes, rice, oatmeal, breakfast cereal (without sugar), toast, or believe it or not, perhaps even a couple of hamburger buns with everything on it but the meat…! Be creative and imaginative, but whatever you do, don’t just sit there without a plan. If we were talking about your business, I’d be willing to bet you’d never go into an important meeting without a briefcase filled with alternatives.
Foreign foods are easy to improvise with as well. For example, Chinese food. An animal protein meal might consist of stir fried vegetables with garlic chicken, or steamed fish with sauted vegetables. The key is to first insist on no MSG, and second, to let the waiter know you like your vegetables stir fried in a little water and/or very little oil with no soy sauce. You can always apply it later with control. As an alternative, a tasty vegetable protein meal might consist of the same vegetables along with, for instance, tofu. If you’re in the mood for a carbohydrate meal, there’s always vegetable chow mien (vegetables with Chinese noodles), steamed rice, sauted broccoli and mushrooms, eggplant, string beans, all kinds of vegetables, including the ones the restaurant may not list. Remember, if you don’t see it on the menu, ask if the chef can make something up for you. It’s a pretty simple rule really, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
If it’s Japanese you like, there’s a world of wonderful choices. For animal protein, try loading up on sashimi or terriyaki chicken with a sunomono salad. As for vegetarians, along with your salad, you might want to try vegetable sushi and miso soup with seaweed and tofu.
Mexican food can also be fun, especially if you find a healthy-minded Mexican restaurant. If it’s animal protein you’re after, try a chicken tostada without the tortilla and beans which, if you think about it, is basically a chicken salad with salsa. As for vegetable protein, there’s a variety of meals. Just let the waiter know you don’t want any cheese or meat, and be sure to ask how they make their beans. Although most Mexican restaurants today cook their beans in vegetable oil and not lard like they used to, it never hurts to double-check. One of my personal favorites is a dish called “frijoes de oya” — fresh baked beans (not refried) seasoned with cilantro and sometimes garlic which I like to eat with plain corn tortillas and a large salad. Bean burritos and tostadas are also great without cheese or meat, and if you’re in a festive mood, you can always dress them up with a side of salsa and a frosted mug of non-alcoholic beer.
Needless to say, Israeli and Middle Eastern foods are invariably a vegetarian’s dream come true, thanks to the likes of humus, falafals, eggplant with tahina, tabuli salad and chipati bread. The big drawback is that much of it is deep fried in oil, so be careful and don’t over do it.
Italian food can either be fattening or healthy, the choice is yours. It just depends on how creative you and your chef can be. I was in Beverly Hills recently, and when I consulted with Prago’s world-renowned chef, Andrea Rogantini, I learned that today’s chefs try very hard to accommodate the customer, rather than the old myth that if you ask for something different, the kitchen help will spit in your food before they serve it. He informed me of some of the healthier meals he’s created and feels that any Italian restaurant would be willing to do the same. When it comes to animal protein, there’s a wide variety in an Italian restaurant. Fish, chicken, veal, beef and lamb. Of course, in my book, the latter three are very unhealthy.
At Prago’s, herbs go a long way. “Pollo all’Aglio e Rosmarino” is simply a boneless double chicken breast with garlic and rosemary. Add steamed broccoli and “Insalata Prego” (organically grown baby lettuce, carrots, celery, bell pepper and mushrooms with vinaigrette) and you’re home free. There’s also “Insalata di Pollo,” a chicken salad made up of grilled chicken breast, mixed baby lettuce, carrots and mushrooms. If it’s fish you’re after, no matter where you dine, ask the waiter for their fresh catch of the day and have them grill and top it with roasted peppers. Sliced seared tuna served over mixed baby lettuce with olive oil and lemon is also great. And definitely ask for extra virgin olive oil. I’d be very surprised if there’s an Italian restaurant anywhere in the country that doesn’t have a bottle somewhere in their kitchen. As for vegetarians, vine-ripe tomatoes, hearts of palm, cannellini beans, mushrooms and beets make a great entree, and if you’re a lacto-vegetarian, a dish made up of radicchio, arugula, hearts of palm, fresh mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and olive oil is beyond belief.
When it comes to carbohydrates, you just can’t beat the pasta dishes. There’s nothing like angel hair pasta sprinkled with chopped tomato, basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, not to mention a non-cheese pizza with fresh tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, garlic and basil. Or how about quill-shaped pasta with black olives, capers, garlic oregano and tomato sauce? Every now and then you’ll get lucky with fresh homemade bread, but don’t get your hopes up until you ask what it’s made with.
The bottom line is, every restaurant has what you need, and a chef with a great imagination just waiting for a chance to help you with your special, healthy diet. Dining out can be just as festive as before, only now you’re making healthy choices and taking your power back. Don’t forget the most important ingredient of your meal is the company you’ll be sharing it with. If you concentrate on ordering a good healthy meal, then you’ll find you’ll enjoy your conversation even more and you won’t miss pigging out one bit.
Until next time, here’s a couple of recipes for dining “in.”