Here are tips for sensible eating at some of the most popular ethnic restaurant types.
Healthy Thai Dining
Start with a broth-based soup, not one made with coconut milk.
Go light on any dishes made with coconut milk. Coconut milk is loaded with saturated fat — 45 grams in 1 cup.
Choose dishes that have been stir-fried, grilled, or steamed.
Here’s a good way to get your soy: steamed or baked tofu (make sure it’s not fried) and vegetables.
Healthy Italian Dining
Split and share. One order of pasta is usually enough for two people, especially if you also have a salad.
Dine on pasta rather than pizza. Pizza dough is dense with calories — about 1,250 per pound (without the cheese, sausage, and pepperoni). When you’re dining Italian, a much better choice is pasta. A linguini puttanesca (olives, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and fresh basil), arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce), or vongole (clams with marinara sauce) takes you down
to 600 or 700 calories per pound, says Novick. You can further decrease the calorie density of a meal by ordering a side of fresh veggies or spinach and mixing it in with your pasta dish. Thus you eat more fiber, less fat.
Pick tomato-based sauces — marinara, Bolognese, red clam, or puttanesca. Avoid cream-based sauces: Alfredo and primavera are two of the worst.
Skip the garlic bread or breadsticks, often slathered in butter. Instead, ask for a dish of olive oil and plain bread, and dip.
Go with fagioli — Italian for “beans.”
Skip the side of pasta. If you’ve ordered veal piccata, you don’t need the heaping dish of pasta that often comes with it. Get a vegetable instead.
Go all-you-can-eat on salad and soup — not pasta.
Steer clear of the following words on the menu: Alfredo, carbonara, saltimbocca, parmigiana, lasagna, manicotti, stuffed. All mean heavy amounts of cream and cheese. Another dangerous word: frito (fried). Instead, look for “griglia,” which means grill.
Order the appetizer-size portion of pasta. With a salad, it will be enough.
Order antipasto with extra chickpeas, olives, kidney beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables, and fewer cheeses and meats.
Order one entrée and two sides of pasta. Then split the entrée between you and a friend and eat it mixed with the pasta. You’ve just reduced your overall calories and the caloric density of the meal.
Healthy Mexican Dining
Keep your hands away from the fried tortilla chips. Instead, ask for a short stack of soft tortillas to scoop up the healthy salsa and get a couple of vegetable servings under your belt even before the main meal arrives.
Ask for your salads on a plate, not in a fried bowl.
Pick beans to fill your burritos instead of beef or cheese.
Choose fajitas. Not only can you load up on the vegetables, but you can pick and choose how much cheese, to add.
Ask for black beans or pinto beans, not refried.
Nix the sour cream.
Go for soft tacos, not hard tacos. Hard taco shells are fried; soft taco shells are baked.
Avoid dishes with the following words in their names: chimichanga (fried burrito), relleno (deep-fried pepper), chalupa (deep-fried tortilla), charra or charro beans (refried), con queso (with cheese), crispy.
Substitute a side salad for the rice on platters. Spanish-rice recipes usually call for the raw rice to be fried in oil before it gets steamed (often using high-sodium chicken broth).
Healthy Indian Dining
Skip the appetizers (most are fried).
Avoid the chapati, naan, kulcha, or roti breads. They’ve all been fried or soaked in fat. A better bet: pappadam, made from lentils. It’s usually baked, but check first.
Order side dishes with vegetables, beans, or peas, such as dal or chutney.
Look for the healthy dishes: chicken masala, shrimp bhuna, fish vindaloo, and tandoori (baked). Avoid dishes made with ghee (clarified butter) or malai (a thick cream).
Ask what kind of oil is used in cooking. Most often, it’s coconut — nearly all saturated fat. If that’s what they use, ask if they can switch to canola oil for you.
Avoid dishes made with coconut, which is another hidden source of fat and calories.
Choose a vegetable dish for your main course.
Healthy Chinese Dining
Avoid the fried noodles. If the waiter plops them down on the table, ask him to take them away. If you get a packet with your soup, hand them back. Each half-cup serving adds about 150 calories.
Order fewer dishes than there are people at the table. Chinese entrées are designed for sharing, not for one person.
Start with soup to fill you up.
Avoid fried appetizers. This means no egg rolls or pupu platters. Get your dumplings steamed, not fried.
Opt for steamed rice, not fried. If the restaurant serves brown rice, ask for it.
Use the 2:1 ratio. Two times as much rice as main dish.
Avoid menu items described as crispy, golden brown, or sweet-and-sour. They’re all deep-fried.
Choose dishes rich in vegetables and order at least one vegetarian entrée.
Ask for the sauce on the side. Chinese restaurant chefs often stir-fry the main ingredients, then mix them together and ladle on the sauce. Get the sauce on the side and you’ll use less.
Eat with chopsticks. You’ll get less of the high-calorie, high-sodium sauce that way.
Healthy Diner Dining
Choose Canadian bacon instead of regular bacon.
Skip the fries. Ask for a side salad or order of vegetables instead.
Forgo tuna and chicken salads; they’re likely loaded with mayo. Instead, order a turkey, roast beef, or even ham sandwich — plain or with mustard or horseradish — and remove some of the meat if it’s piled too high.
If you order a salad, ask for no croutons and get the dressing on the side.