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. 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 90% of the time. 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 clean and healthy 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, I can be confident that 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 cleaner, lower in calories, lower in fat and 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 grass-fed beef or organic, free-range chicken, 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.
Park Luncheonette is a restaurant near my Brooklyn apartment that we’ve been wanting to try because it’s always packed (good sign).
The website is super attractive and user friendly. Although there is no “about page” that indicates their philosophy on food quality, their menu was enough for me to want to give this place a try. Unique ingredients such as “strawberry-rhubarb puree” and “dill citrus feta” tell me that they’re taking the time to elevate their menu items. A veggie burger option, “house” granola, and a wide variety of plant-based ingredients let me know that this place was clean-eater friendly.
* Park Luncheonette has since closed its doors… new example coming soon
2. Choosing my order.
I knew I wanted to try the veggie burger because it’s made with beets (a fave super food of mine) and quinoa (a whole grain and complete protein). I thought about asking for avocado instead of the feta to make this a vegan meal, but the dill citrus feta sounded too interesting not to try. I did, however, switch out the sesame seed bun for the house-made focaccia bread. And I made the sandwich open-faced by removing the top piece of focaccia. This made my meal lighter and less carby, which is not necessary when clean eating, but definitely more figure friendly. I also ordered their fresh squeezed orange juice to go along with the meal for a boost of vitamins and hydration. And although I opted for the house-made herb fries instead of the salad, I only ate half of them (scout’s honor), and overall felt really great about my meal. Lots of produce? Check. Whole grains? Check. Fresh, homemade bread? Check. Nothing artificial? Check.
I hope this helps with your next restaurant outing. Let me know if you have questions or comments below.
Happy weekend, everyone!