How To Choose Healthy Food At A Restaurant?

Author: Chef George Krumov

Healthy foods

People have different reasons to go out and eat at a restaurant, but sooner or later everyone does it. For those who really care about healthy food, choosing something healthy from the menus might be a serious issue to think about. To choose healthy food menu items in a restaurant you might have to think of several important considerations in order to be able to get the healthiest food that you want.

But, first, let me introduce myself. I have been a chef for over 18 years, and at one point even owned a sushi restaurant. Unlike the majority of chefs, whose biggest care is for the food to be tasty, I first care for the food to be healthy and safe, and then tasty. I believe that natural food has its own wonderful taste, and only need proper cooking in order to bring it out. If you read the food section of any national newspaper, you might have noticed that when they review a restaurant, it is always about taste and service, never about whether the food is healthy. I sometimes find it comical the language food writers use to describe restaurant food, for example: "ridiculously tender", "divine", "out of this world", "incredible", "private ecstasies", "massively delicious", "terrific, gloriously chewy in a messy, steaming, dopamine-priming pile", and so on, but I should stop here with the retarded quotes. A food description like that shows to me that the food writer was high on MSG.

I find that the advice of so called "experts", regarding how to order healthy food at a restaurant, is quite often ridiculous. Their usual advice is always predictable and mediocre. According to those wonna-be experts if you take the following advice, you are assured a good healthy meal: "mind your calories", "ask for less salt on your food", "don't eat the veggies if they are shiny (you know, they might've been cooked in butter and sugar) and so it goes, a bunch a baloney that makes me laugh. If you were so mindful about every bite, why go out at all? Unless you have spent some time working in kitchens, you cannot say what food on the menu is healthy, and even then it is only an educated guess. If there is one gram of sugar in your tomato sauce, or on your veggies, it is there to counter the tartness of some ingredients. You should not worry about small details like that. The same people that worry about little, probably drink diet cola or some other crap loaded with neuro-toxins. Similarly, salt is not bad; it is the table salt that you should worry about. If you ask for sea salt, your meal will be one notch healthier.

One way to figure out if something on the menu is healthy is to ask some very specific questions about the products and how they have been cooked. However, in this case you would be asking the server, and servers are often not prepared to answer intelligently those questions. Also, you would run the risk to make for yourself a name as a "pain-in-the-butt" customer, if you torture the staff with too many questions.

When you eat out, especially if you are not doing it very often, you are allowed to cut yourself some slack, but if you still worry about the food, here is my advice to you:

- Franchises are not the best place to look for healthy food, but it doesn't mean it is impossible. I just know that the corporate way to look after a business is to ensure profitability over all other considerations, and it often include wide use of food additives such as MSG.

- Salad is not necessarily a healthy food if the dressing is unhealthy. The best option for you is to ask for plain salad, and dress it yourself on the table, using some balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

- A restaurant that brands itself as "organic", but serves you tap water on the table, is probably not worth trying.

- Chicken is not a healthy food. Forget about calories, the chicken with the chicken breasts so gigantic has been raised on antibiotics and steroids. Also, the processing companies often "pump" the chicken breasts with soy protein isolate, which is just another form of MSG.

- The butter that some restaurants serve with the bread is not necessarily butter. Some places just whip some margarine with garlic for that purpose.

- Soups that start with "cream of" are usually best avoided. Some examples of healthier soups are minestrone, pasta fagiolli, chicken noodle soup (if made with real chicken stock), spinach and egg-drop soup called "straciatella", butternut squash and ginger, spicy black bean soup, etc.

- All-you-can-eat restaurants are not necessarily a bad place for healthy food followers, however, you must exercise self-control and stick to the lighter fare. I don't go to buffets often, but when I do I can never over-eat. I just don't find over-eating too comfortable or fun. I do like, though, the opportunity to try many foods for just one price.

- The same thing applies for appetizers. It is true that deep fried appetizers have a lot of calories, but it is not the calories that you should be worried about. I'd be more worried about the kind and quality of the oil in the deep-fryer. If a restaurant uses sunflower oil for deep frying, as opposed to canola oil or beef shortening, this place is good in my book. I enjoy having calamari sometimes, and as long as it is occasionally, I can cut myself some slack. How many times people cook calamari at home?

- Healthy dinner ideas may be baked salmon without creamy sauces on top, seafood risotto that is not too heavy on the cheese, some Mediterranean-style pasta in tomato sauce, lamb dishes (although lamb can be quite expensive), beef fajitas, paella Valencia, whole wheat pizza with less cheese, or how about this scallops curry.

- For lunch it is a little bit harder to choose healthy food, but here are some ideas from me: The perfect lunch can consist of whole wheat focaccia, grilled portobello mushroom, caprese salad, Italian prosciutto, grilled fresh vegetables, feta cheese, sushi, smoked salmon, avocado and so on. I don't know the menu of every restaurant that you might happen to visit, so I can't tell you what to order, but usually if it features one of the said ingredients, there is a good chance to be healthy. Although, I have been in a restaurant where I couldn't order anything for lunch that I would voluntarily eat. It didn't seem that the other customers thought the same as me, though.

- Restaurant daily specials are not always the best and the healthiest choice. People buy them because they are being spoken by a real person, so they don't have to read the menu. My advice as a chef is to order specials during the weekend, and to stick to the regular menu during the beginning of the week.

- Restaurant desserts are not a healthy food; diet soda is not a healthy drink, and sorry to break your bubble, but Subway doesn't cut it in my book as far as healthy food is concerned. Some things in their menu might be ok, but healthy is not a word that applies to them.

- Drink green tea with your meal, or some other healthy drink that speeds up your metabolism. Pasteurized fruit juices are hardly a healthy drink, though.

And finally, eating out is supposed to be about fun. If you are too strict with yourself, you will end up being one of those pain-in-the-butt customers who ask for every single item of a meal to be cooked differently. What's the use to go out, then? Allow yourself some indulgence once in a while, but only as long as you lead otherwise a healthy life. I believe that a healthy body with good metabolism can take care of the occasional diviation from your healthy eating regime.

Chef George Krumov
About the author: George Krumov is a Red Seal certified chef with many years of culinary experience working around the world in Europe, the Middle East, the cruise line industry and North America. In the last two decades he has headed the kitchens of several restaurants in Canada, and ran his own restaurant.

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