How to Eat Clean when Dining Out

How to Eat Clean when Dining Out

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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!

Best of Basic: Southern-Style White Gravy with Mushrooms

Best of Basic: Southern-Style White Gravy with Mushrooms

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Year 2017. It’s here. And I’m happy to say, so far so good. For me, last year ended and this year began in the best way possible, with the whole family in St. Louis together. It was a beautifully lazy 10 days, highlighted by lots of tasty food, an HBO’s West World marathon and excursions to the St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum and an epic historic mansion on SLU’s campus. This trip was a far cry from the old days, when coming home for the holidays meant going out with friends and painting the town red and green. Confession – I was already asleep when midnight hit on New Years Eve this year. Oops. But honestly, I’m not complaining. I think it says a lot about me and where I am in my life. At 28, my focus and priorities have changed for the better, and I’m starting the New Year off excited, confident and ready.

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It’s crazy that last New Years I was still working in corporate fashion in New York City wondering where exactly my life was going and if that’s even where I wanted it to go. I don’t remember fully, but I imagine that last year’s resolution was to figure out a different career and life path. And although I most likely forgot about the “resolution” within days, finding a new path happened none the less. So here I am, about to graduate from the Natural Gourmet Institute as a certified chef specializing in health-conscious and sustainable cooking and eating. I mean, I have no idea where this path is taking me, and there’s much to do in terms of sorting out this new career and this new dream. All I know at this point is that I’m up for the challenge.

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Resolutions, in my opinion, are a somewhat silly concept. On the one hand, I completely understand the mentality of an annual fresh start to get life on track, in whatever way makes sense to an individual person and their needs. So around this time of year, I can’t help but think of things I could improve on in the New Year. On the other hand, more often than not, my life-changing resolution bites the dust within in the first two weeks of January, and the words “New Years resolution” are not used again until the last two weeks in December, when I choose a new resolution for the next year. I may end up accomplishing my goal by year’s end, or I may accomplish a different goal by year’s end. The point is, by year’s end, I don’t even remember what exactly my resolution was in the first place, so why even make one? Good question. But it still doesn’t change the fact that I will continue to make a New Years resolution every year. Can’t hurt, right?

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So what is my life-changing resolution for the coming year? This wasn’t a hard decision to make. I feel like a lot of my life is under control, at least for the moment, and there’s just a couple things on my mind. First, as I just mentioned, is sorting out my new career path. But honestly, resolution or not, I don’t really have a choice in the matter. So my other resolution option was the clear choice, and that is to get my stress levels under control, naturally. As I get older, I (and those closest to me) have noticed that I tend to over-think and worry…about everything…constantly. I believe that part of this trait comes from my desire to be in control and from my fear of things I can’t control. But no matter where the stress is coming from, stress is extremely hard on the body and mind, and it can be detrimental to short- and long-term health. Additionally, high-stress definitely won’t help as I embark on this new chapter in my career and life. So, it was decided. I must make stress the enemy of 2017 (happy, mom?). There are two keys to naturally controlling my stress levels; daily meditation and consistent yoga practice. I know first-hand that both of these techniques positively benefit me, so making them a consistent part of my daily and weekly routine can do nothing but help this issue (and other issues, whatever they may be). I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress.

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In any case, health seems to be the underlying theme of many resolutions. So you may expect this post to feature a light and healthy meal to appeal to those health-based resolutions. But I’m choosing a different direction for my first post of the New Year. I’m choosing to share my favorite concoction from while I was home for the holidays. Although this isn’t “low cal” or “low fat,” it still fits into my definition of healthy. It’s meat-free, uses organic butter, organic whole milk and organic flour, and gets added nutrients from fresh mushrooms and flavorful garlic. It’s clean, it’s pure, and it fits perfectly into a balanced and health-supportive diet. I made this gravy on Christmas morning and once more later in the trip, and let me tell you, it was a hit. I am always disappointed at restaurants, when I see biscuits and gravy on the menu, because it sounds so delicious, but I know I can’t eat it because it most likely is made with sausage. So when my mom asked what I’d like with the biscuits on Christmas morning, I knew immediately that it was time to create a vegetarian-friendly, southern-style white gravy recipe made with only the highest quality ingredients. Oh man, was that a good decision.

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Now, I’m not saying to eat this rich white gravy on the daily, but on special occasions (like Saturday morning), it’s an indulgent but wholesome recipe that’s sure to please anyone’s taste buds. But it’s all about balance, people! Balance, balance, balance. It’s the only way a satisfy a health-obsessed foodie like myself. So stay tuned for lighter and more detox-friendly recipes, I always have those in the works. But for now, happily realize that richer foods made with more health-supportive and high-quality ingredients should always be a part of a balanced, healthy and delicious lifestyle. That’s good news, right? You’re welcome and Happy New Year!

Vegetarian Southern-Style Mushroom Gravy
Serves: 4-6   Start to Finish: 15-20 minutes

Ingredients
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup roughly chopped portobello mushroom (approx. 1 lg cap)
1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms (remove stems, approx. 5 mushrooms)
1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt, divided (plus more to taste)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (approx. 2 large cloves)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1.5 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1-2 pinches nutmeg

To Make
Heat olive oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook for 5 minutes, until mushrooms are reduced by about half. Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until just starting to turn golden. Whisk in flour, 1 tablespoons at a time, until a smooth paste forms. Continue cooking, whisking frequently, for about 3 minutes.

Whisk in whole milk in 1/2 cup increments. Once all milk is added, stir in cooked mushrooms, 3/4 tsp salt, pepper and nutmeg. Continue to stir frequently until gravy has reached a thick and rich texture, 3-5 minutes. Add more salt to taste, then remove from heat.

Serve gravy over biscuits (obviously), over chicken (if that’s your thing), or a pan-fried cauliflower steak (genius). I served this batch over Immaculate brand organic ready-to-bake biscuits with some steamed baby spinach.

If gravy gets too think, add a bit more milk until desired consistency is reached.

Mediterranean Chickpea Salad Sandwiches with Feta & Peppers

Mediterranean Chickpea Salad Sandwiches with Feta & Peppers

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Greetings from Florida! I can’t even begin to express how nice it is to be totally checked out of reality for the week. No work, no hustle and bustle, no mass transit. It’s just sun, sand, and relaxation here in Boca Grande, Florida. I’ve been coming to Boca Grande since I was a tot. It’s so nice to be somewhere so familiar, yet so far from my normal day to day life. Continue reading “Mediterranean Chickpea Salad Sandwiches with Feta & Peppers”

Everything Bagel Sausage Rolls with Bloody Mary Ketchup (Vegan Optional!)

Everything Bagel Sausage Rolls with Bloody Mary Ketchup (Vegan Optional!)

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Cooking together is an almost daily ritual for my boyfriend, Matt, and me. Although Matt didn’t grow up addicted to Food Network and spending hours cooking like I did, he’s actually quite skilled in the kitchen. He often says that I critique too much and that I don’t fully trust him the kitchen, but that’s just because I’m a perfectionist who likes to have control, especially when it comes to food. In any event, Matt deserves all the credit for this genius breakfast/brunch dish, which is a delicious twist on classic Pigs in a Blanket. Continue reading “Everything Bagel Sausage Rolls with Bloody Mary Ketchup (Vegan Optional!)”

Classic Homemade Biscuits

Classic Homemade Biscuits

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Biscuits. A family favorite in my house, and in most other households, if I had to guess. Every holiday in my family includes biscuits; always has and always will. But not all biscuits are created equal. Homemade biscuits are not only simple to make, but include very few ingredients. All of which you probably have stocked in the kitchen already. On the other hand, the store-bought, pre-made brand biscuits that come out of a tube often include transfats, preservatives, and other unnatural additives. I guess using the store bought brand shaves off a few minutes, but for me, it’s not nearly enough of a time saver to convince me to use them. So homemade biscuits is it. Fresh, hot, buttery biscuits, ready to be drizzled with honey and jam, stuffed with eggs and cheese, or smothered with rich gravy. Take your pick. Continue reading “Classic Homemade Biscuits”

Creamy Tarragon Chickpea Salad

Creamy Tarragon Chickpea Salad

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I was lucky enough to spend this past Labor Day weekend at home in St. Louis. My whole family, just like me, is totally food-obsessed, so whenever I go home, the trip is all about the food. Since becoming a vegetarian, my STL restaurant picks have changed a bit. Despite this, there are certain foods that I associate with my hometown and still get the taste for, one of them being the creamy chicken salad from a gourmet market near my house, piled high on soft wheat bread with fresh lettuce and tomato. I grew up eating this delicious salad all the time, and I absolutely loved it. Well, I obviously don’t eat meat, let alone chicken, anymore, but I was determined to make a vegetarian version of my favorite St. Louis chicken salad. So I decided to make a creamy chickpea salad for my family’s Labor Day brunch on Monday. This is a very easy recipe, flavored simply with fresh tarragon and made creamy by a mix of classic mayo and low-fat, plain Greek yogurt. My chickpea salad has the texture of the chicken salad I grew up eating, as well as the same flavor, but instead of chicken, I use partially mashed, protein-packed chickpeas. My meat-eating family loved my veggie friendly rendition, so I obviously had to share. This is a quick, no-cook, and absolutely delish recipe, great on its own, on a salad, on a sandwich, or in a wrap. I would even serve it on mini slider rolls at a casual, day-time party.

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Creamy Tarragon Chick[pea] Salad
Serves: 4   Calories per Serving: 315
    Start to Finish: 10 minutes

Ingredients
2 cans Chickpeas, drained and rinsed*
1/2 cup diced Celery (2 stalks)
3 tablespoons Mayonnaise
3 tablespoons 2% Plain Greek Yogurt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Tarragon Leaves
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt, fine-grain
1/4 teaspoon White Pepper (black pepper works too)

To Make
Add half of the chickpeas to a medium bowl. Using a fork, mash the chickpeas until
none of the chickpeas are whole. Add the second half of the chickpeas 
to the bowl, and partially mash, leaving some of these whole. Add the 
rest of the ingredients to the chickpeas, toss to combine.

You can eat the salad immediately, or refrigerate to allow flavors to meld. 
My favorite way to eat this salad is piled onto whole-wheat bread with lettuce 
and tomato. You can also top fresh lettuce and veggies with the salad for a 
lower carb, gluten-free dish.
DSC_1072*I used a "no-salt-added" variety of chickpeas, reduce the amount of salt 
to 1/4 tsp if using already-salted chickpeas
**To make this dish even healthier, reduce the mayo by 1 TBS and add 
an additional tablespoon yogurt (reduces the fat by 2 grams and
reduces calories by about 20)