Dining out, whether trying a new restaurant or returning to a favorite restaurant, has always been one of my favorite past times. Not only do I love enjoying the culinary creations of others and finding inspiration for my own cooking, but it’s also one of my favorite ways to socialize. Since transitioning to an entirely clean eating lifestyle, I make the majority of my meals myself and I love it. When cooking meals myself I have full control over ingredient quality and I can make each dish exactly the way I like it. However, giving up on restaurants entirely is unrealistic when you love eating out as much as I do. So when I do go out, I follow a few simple rules to ensure that I’m feeding my body nourishing and clean foods while supporting people and businesses with similar values to mine. Some might say this is taking it too far. But a clean eating lifestyle is a commitment, and quite honestly, in order to reap the rewards of clean eating, it’s essential to adhere to it most of the time. There’s still room in there to eat whatever your heart desires, I’m not saying to cut anything out completely. But if you eat out often and also want to eat mostly clean, this is how you do it. So for clean eaters who enjoy the restaurant scene, here is my quick guide to clean eating when dining out.
1. When choosing a restaurant, be choosy.
When it comes to healthy-ish eating at restaurants, the most important decision is the restaurant itself. So do a little research and be picky! When I have a restaurant in mind, my first step is to visit their website to take a look at their homepage, their “about” page, and their menu. A restaurant that highlights their commitment to fresh, seasonal, local, organic and/or house-made food is my first indication that this is a good restaurant for clean eaters. Added bonus? Diet-restriction-friendly restaurants that offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options shows me that this establishment cares about the wants and needs of customers. If a restaurant passes these tests, it’s a restaurant I want to support.
Additionally, the overall professionalism of a restaurant can also be an indication of a quality establishment. I’m not saying that every great restaurant has a great website, and I’m not saying that every restaurant with a good website is good. But if a restaurant uses their time and resources to build an appealing and informative website, it tells me that the restaurant pays attention to detail and understands the needs of customers. It just makes sense that they would put the same amount of thought and attention to detail into their food.
The point is, sometimes the website or menu doesn’t explicitly state a restaurant’s commitment to quality and freshness. But I’ve found that a visually appealing and user friendly website, unique and creative menu items and lots of plant-based ingredients usually mean that you’ll be able to find something clean, high quality and healthy there.
2. Step away from the bread (tortilla, bun, muffin, etc).
Unless a restaurant prides itself on its made-from-scratch bread, or is partnered with a local bakery that provides it, I stay away from menu items that include bread. Why? Because if a bread isn’t fresh, it means that the restaurant is likely using a shelf-stable, mass produced, packaged bread. And if that’s the case, I can only imagine that it would be a highly processed, cheap variety with loads of preservatives and artificial ingredients. And that’s pretty much a clean eater’s nightmare. Now, if you’re a carb junkie, look for pizza restaurants that make their own dough, Mexican restaurants with homemade corn tortillas, Mediterranean restaurants that make their own pita breads or sandwich shops that purchase their bread from a high quality, local bakery. Or look for menu items that utilize whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and millet. If you won’t miss the carbs, many restaurants offer bread-free versions of their menu items, like a lettuce wrap instead of a tortilla or bed of greens in place of a bun. If not, ask for it. I assure you that I am rarely turned down when I make a request like that.
3. Veg out.
I’m a vegetarian, so this isn’t a difficult rule for me to follow. But menu items that include an abundance of produce will likely be naturally higher in nutrients. Because restaurant meals are more often larger and richer than versions you would make at home, choosing a dish at a restaurant with loads of vegetables and legumes evens the scales a bit. Entree salads, vegetable- or bean-based soups, veggie burgers, and items with a vegetable filling/topping option (like in a taco or on a pizza) will fill you up with fiber and antioxidant-rich, nutritious ingredients rather than excessive portions of meat. What’s wrong with meat? If it’s moderate portions of high quality animal products, then not much is wrong with eating it. But if the quality of meat/poultry isn’t emphasized by a restaurant, it most likely means that it’s coming from a factory farm. What’s wrong with a factory farm? Just Google it, it’s not pretty.
4. Ask questions, make changes.
The restaurant staff is there to make you satisfied and a good employee will be happy to help you out. Remember, you are the customer! Within reason and respectfully, of course, asking for adjustments to menu items and asking for more details on certain items is totally fine. Particularly if the adjustments and questions are making you a healthier person, because what’s more important than that?
Side note (it’s the chef in me, sorry!) – A menu that clearly states “no substitutions” means no substitutions, so it’s best to respect that. Also, when making adjustments, always make your requests straightforward and easy, which is another reason to check out the menu beforehand – if the only way you can order something is by changing a million things about it, it’s probably not a good restaurant for you or for clean eating in general.
Wrap Up & Example
To bring this all full circle, I’ll walk you through my most recent restaurant experience…
1. Choosing the restaurant.
BareBurger is a New York City born restaurant “chain” that takes high quality, healthful and clean eating to the next level.
Before even stepping foot in the restaurant, their attractive, engaging website demonstrates their attention to detail. The very first thing a potential customer sees on their site reads “mindful menu, feel good food.” Great start, definitely an establishment I’d feel good about supporting. But I don’t stop there. Check out their “about” page, it tells you everything you need to know. From working with sustainable farmers to choosing organic ingredients when possible, this restaurant makes a point of displaying their eco- and health-driven values.
2. Choosing my order.
Now, what to order? I’ve been here many times over the years and I’ve tried quite a few menu items. They have a vegan section of the menu (score!) and right now the Farmstead is looking very good. Although I’m sure their bread options are of great quality and integrity, I love their collard green wraps instead of bread. It’s stuffed with red pepper hummus, a Santa Fe vinaigrette and their sweet potato & wild rice veggie burger. I’m feeling hungry so I’ll also add their vegan crispy brussel sprouts with tempeh bacon.
At the end of the day, this all goes back to mindful consumption for me. Being aware of what I consume and using my time, energy & resources to throw support behind brands and businesses that align with my values. I value healthful eating and mindful living, it’s important to support those people and businesses who feel the same way.