Let’s face it. There will always be days when cooking isn’t going to happen. A lot of healthful eating depends on having the right plan in place and that means having a backup in place when plan A (cooking) falls to pieces. Here are my tips for finding healthy takeout options that you can enjoy and feel good while doing so.
Look for lean options. I know this sounds obvious, but if you want to make sure your takeout is healthy, order from places that have lean offerings. Lean options are usually veggie-centric (whether salads or mixed dishes, such as stir-fries or veggie-grain bowls) and include quality protein, such as grilled chicken or salmon, poached or boiled eggs, tuna, tofu, and others.
One of my best tips for ordering healthy takeout options is to make sure that your grain-containing dishes have more veggies than grains. Popular grain bowls often contain multiple servings of grains, which aren’t just out of balance for the meal, but may be excessive for your needs. For example, at Chipotle, consider ordering the salad bowl with a base of greens instead of a base of rice. Then ask for a scoop of rice, along with other fixings, like any of the protein choices, fajita veggies, salsa, and guac. Most of my clients find this swap leaves them pleasantly satisfied instead of overstuffed and it’s a strategy you can apply elsewhere.
When consuming grainy side dishes and bowls, see if you have a whole grain option, such as quinoa or brown rice. These are going to be healthier than the white (read: processed) alternative. (For more on processed foods, read my blog about processed foods to avoid and what to eat instead.)
Add extras. In my experience, takeout and delivery food can become a lot healthier with a few hacks. When your meal is really saucy and light on veggies, a base of frozen riced cauliflower or broccoli (which are easy to keep on hand) can soak up the extra sauce without many extra carbs or calories. Not a fan of riced veggies? You can heat up some frozen veggies and toss them into your saucy meal.
Pre-washed baby spinach (also easy to keep on hand at home or portioned in smaller containers in an office fridge), can be used to right-size portions of grain bowls, which as I mentioned, are often heavier on the whole grains than they are on the veggies. To make these takeout options healthier, simply scoop out a more reasonable portion over the spinach base, saving the rest for another meal.
Another way to go is to use veggie spirals, which are also available frozen or pre-spiraled, as the base for takeout food. Carrot noodles pair well with Asian meals (think: Thai food in peanut sauces or Chinese food in soy sauce) whereas Italian and American food can get a healthy boost from zucchini noodles.
Be prepared. At the end of a tiring day, when your decision-making skills feel depleted and you’re already feeling hunger pangs, it might be hard to select a healthy takeout option. That’s why it helps to have some go-tos handy.
For example, if you live near Chipotle, the bowl I mentioned earlier is a great backup for busy days and nights. That can be one of your options, but pick a few others before you need them. It’s much easier to eat healthfully when you're picking from three meals rather than the endless menu pages on Seamless or Grub hub. Your brain wants to make an easy choice and the best way to do this is to know some healthy takeout options ahead of time.
I find that Mediterranean food, like Greek food, works well for these situations. An order of kebabs is a great lean protein choice and if you layer in some veggies and a scoop of rice, it can be an easy way to keep things healthy. Plus, you can steal my pro tip: The dips, such as hummus and Tzatziki, can stand in for salad dressing! Many Middle Eastern restaurants offer similar choices.
If these types of foods aren’t enticing to you, check out restaurant menus in your area ahead of when you need them. Remember, your task (should you choose to accept it) is to have a few ideas ready—and then use them when your plan to cook fell through. I should mention that there’s no shame in NOT having a plan to cook. Sometimes I just slot in a takeout meal, knowing that I won’t WANT to cook. Maybe you have a mid-week meeting that will run until 6:30 or you want to take a night off. That’s what this exercise is all about—having a reasonable selection of meals to choose from for any of these scenarios.
Embrace balance. A healthy takeout option offers some balance—or at least the ability to create balance with a few hacks (discussed above). Ideally, about half of your plate or bowl is taken up with non-starchy veggies, with about a quarter devoted to your protein choice and the remaining quarter devoted to your whole grain option. Don’t forget about your plant-based fats, like avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. They add a lot of flavor and meal satisfaction.
Sometimes it’s hard to envision how a mixed dish or sandwich forms a balanced meal, but it’s worth spending a moment to think through. When you’re ordering takeout, take the extra step to customize your meal so it has a better balance and it supports your goals. Maybe you’d be better off with an open-faced sandwich or burger, or even a bunless burger, instead of the full bun. Perhaps your burrito bowl could use a little less brown rice and more onions and peppers to boost your veggie intake. Maybe your sushi order could include a side of edamame instead of another roll, which will add another element to your meal and also amp up the protein and fiber, which are a hunger-busting duo. And if pizza is your takeout of choice, look for ways to balance out your slice to make your meal healthier. Usually a side salad works, but if you have leftover veggies from another meal or frozen veggies handy, that’s another easy option. If your pizza place has grilled chicken or salmon, you might want to include some as a way to balance your pizza plate.
Have breakfast for dinner. Omelets, scrambles, and frittatas are very healthy takeout options so if you live near a diner or restaurant that offers around-the-clock breakfast, add this to your repertoire. Make sure to include veggies in your order (such as broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, onions, asparagus, zucchini, or your veg of choice), and keep your carb portions balanced by choosing either the roasted potatoes or a side of whole grain toast (or choose another quality carbohydrate option, such as black beans in Mexican-inspired egg dishes or a fruit salad). Avocado is a great accessory to this meal.
Remember rotisserie chicken. Just about every grocery store offers a half or whole rotisserie chicken, making it one of the easiest healthy takeout options I can think of! When I buy a rotisserie chicken, I usually pull the meat off and use it it to top salads or to create another quick and easy lunch or dinner. For some insanely easy ideas, pick up my free booklet featuring 5 healthy recipes to make with a rotisserie chicken. There's one for each night of the work week!
Don’t forget the freezer. Though I turn to takeout and delivery options just like anyone else, I also recommend healthier frozen entrees as a great, last-minute meal, especially if you’re dining solo. With options available to match many takeout cuisines (including Asian, Italian, comfort food, and more), these meals can put healthy food in front of you fast. The main drawback: These meals can be ultra-light. Here are some of the best frozen entrees, as well as some healthy hacks to boost satisfaction.
It's also a good idea to have some 10-minute meal ideas that you can whip up if you have the ingredients on hand. Meals like this might be even easier and better for you than your healthy take out options. To help you out, I've got a free recipe booklet that has 10 meals and snacks you can make in 10 minutes tops! Grab your copy here.