How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Neighborhood Convenience

by | Jul 13, 2009
Neighborhood Restaurants

Neighborhood Restaurants

I spent a lot of time last week bashing fast food and all other convenience foods in general. And I stand by every word of it. But today I would like to clarify that I have nothing against quick, affordable restaurants. By this I mean your local taco joint or phở spot, which can be the perfect place for a quick bite before the game or to meet up with friends.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food). Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

The distinction between convenient, local mom-and-pop restaurants and multinational fast food chains is huge. For one thing, smaller operations have better access to fresh food and are more likely to use real ingredients. For this reason, the food can taste a hundred times better than anything you could find at Burger King. Of course the food is not guaranteed to be good, but it is certainly possible.

For me, the biggest difference between places like this and fast food is that what you get is actually tasty. A BigMac doesn’t tempt me in the slightest, but a carne asada burrito is pretty hard to resist. These burritos can be large enough to feed a small village for a week though, so how do we know where to draw the line?

I never let food rules interfere with my ability to have a good time (okay, I do occasionally), but there are a few things I try to keep in mind when I’m going to one of my favorite local restaurants to make sure too much damage isn’t done.

Things to remember when eating at neighborhood restaurants

  • Don’t go nuts By its very nature this food is not particularly special. Sure it can be delicious, but we have just defined it as being convenient and affordable, so the fact is you can get it whenever you want. Show a little restraint with your eating and don’t act as if this is your last meal on earth. If it’s that good you can come back and have it again next week.
  • Ordering is half the battle The first minefield you encounter in these places is the menu. In my experience neighborhood restaurants tend to have expansive menus with a zillion options. In many of these places, most of the stuff on the menu tastes pretty good so ordering something a little smaller or a bit healthier is not a big sacrifice. A good decision can save you hundreds of calories and an hour on the treadmill. Keep that in mind when perusing your choices.
  • Seek out extra vegetables Personally I just don’t feel right without having something green on my plate, and I always try to make sure there is a pile of at least something healthy. At some of my favorite Mexican places this can sometimes just mean a side of guacamole, but at least I know I’m doing something good for me. The nice thing about vegetables (and healthy fats) is they contribute to your feeling full and can help your self-control when attempting the next point….
  • Watch the carbs Carbs are usually the biggest problem at places like this. Most small restaurants assume that Americans are expecting giant portions and so they fulfill that expectation by piling on cheap and unimpressive refined grains. Rice, noodles, bread and chips are the biggest offenders. I avoid these by either ordering something vegetable or meat based, asking for substitutions or just not eating this portion of my meal.
  • Remember to substitute I don’t know why this is so easy to forget, but try to remember! Substitutions and special requests can mean the difference between a healthy meal and an “oops” meal. Swap out fries for a salad, lose your white rice for brown (or beans or vegetables) and trade in iceberg lettuce for the spring greens. People often look at my plate with envy when we’ve ordered the same thing but mine shows up filled with vibrant salad instead of a pile of soggy potatoes. Don’t be the one who thinks, “I should have thought of that.”
  • Learn to share Like the idea of having a salad but want to try a couple fries too? How about make a deal with your dining partner to share the two, so you can each enjoy a little salad and a few fries. Another easy way to cut down on calories is to share an appetizer and entrée between two people. This is always more than enough food for me and friend and allows for a small indulgence without completely throwing your health out the window.
  • Don’t clean your plate Again, no matter how it tastes this food is not particularly special. Do not feel obligated to eat it all at one sitting. You can take the rest home or just leave it for the wait staff to haul away. It’s cheap, remember? Eat slow, drink your water, eat what you like and then stop. I know this is different from everything we’ve been taught about the value of food, but your health is far more important than 25 cents worth of rice. It can be a little easier if you take your leftovers to go and offer them to a homeless person. I do this all the time and they seem to really appreciate it.

What are your healthy tips for eating in neighborhood restaurants?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
Tags: , , , ,
You deserve to feel great, look great and LOVE your body
Let me show you how with my FREE starter kit for getting healthy
and losing weight without dieting.

Where should I send your free information?
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

6 Responses to “How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Neighborhood Convenience”

  1. Hanlie says:

    Great post! You’re so right!

  2. I wish we had better “neighborhood” affordable restaurants here. We don’t so I usually cook. One place we like to get a good meal is at the grill in the back of Whole Foods. The chef is great, the food is made right in front of us and we usually order seafood, which is selected right behind us. Cost is about $15. It’s our little secret for eating out. We can ask for whatever veg or fish we want.

    In other places, sharing or being committed to bringing half home and not eating the bread is one way to stay healthy. We also look for items like seared tuna, sushi, things we’re not as apt to cook at home.

    NEVER pasta or pizza, I can do that at home.

  3. Your tips ring so true. I make an effort to do pretty much all of these things – especially when it comes to ordering vegetables. Such an easy way to make your meal out healthier without feeling like you’re missing out. I also try to leave leftovers for lunch or something the next day. Saving it for another meal helps me from eating more than I usually want anyway.

  4. Hi Darya,

    Your post reminded me of a tiny little place we have in Cape Girardeau, MO called “Muy Bueno”. I have been a big fan of mexican food my entire life, but this place is on a whole ‘nother level, and it’s for the reasons you mentioned about… it’s REAL food.

    I think that your advice about not cleaning your plate is a good one, and it’s advice that we all need to remember. You can ALWAYS take food home, and it usually tastes awesome the next day heated up. So if you have stuff like fries that don’t microwave well, finish those first! But never eat more than you want just because you have some weird need to eat everything on your plate. This is just bad. Bad for your health, bad for your disposition, and bad for your wallet, because that’s food you could have had the next day for lunch.

  5. Great article, thanks for sharing! I also cut out drinks like sodas and alcohol when I eat out, and just go for water instead.

Leave a Reply to Allison Lemons

Want a picture next to your comment? Click here to register your email address for a Gravatar you can use on most websites.


Please be respectful. Thoughtful critiques are welcome, but rudeness is not. Please help keep this community awesome.