Make Takeout Food as Healthy as Home Cooking

Save time on dinner without compromising your diet.

The food choices you make help determine your health. Here’s how to choose wisely, be it at a grocery store or your neighborhood hoagie shop, pizzeria, or Chinese take-out restaurant.

1. If you buy take-out food to save time, only buy those things you don’t have time to make. “The less you buy pre-made, the more control you have over what you’re eating,” says Joan Salge Blake, R.D., clinical assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University’s Sargent College. So pick up that rotisserie chicken, but also go to the produce department for a potato to microwave and some baby carrots instead of buying the twice-baked potatoes and candied carrots in the take-out case.

2. Always think vegetables. How are you going to get veggies into the meal? If you don’t want to cook, then fill a salad bar container with raw veggies, says Blake, but stay away from too many marinated veggies. And, of course, those pre-washed mixed greens in the produce aisle make salad preparation about as complicated as finding a bowl!

3. Hit the seafood section. Many upscale grocers will steam or broil your fish selection for free or for just a small charge. That way, you’re getting the unadulterated fish without the hassle of cooking it. Try some steamed shrimp, clams, or lobster. The price alone will keep your portions healthy!

4. Get two meals at a time. Again, you’re trying to save time. So that whole roasted chicken you got for tonight can double as a chicken Caesar salad tomorrow night. If you’re making a bowl of couscous to go with your take-out dinner tonight, double the amount and pick up some extra veggies and feta cheese at the salad bar for a Mediterranean salad the following night. Or perhaps for lunch tomorrow.

5. Grab a can of low-sodium beans before you pay for your food. Then add the beans to the salad bar salad you just purchased. You will save a ton of money (because beans are so heavy) while still adding valuable fiber and other nutrients to the salad.

6. Have an indoor picnic for dinner. For a fresh take on healthy eating, buy a loaf of wheaty bread, a pint of strawberries, a favorite low-fat cheese, some thinly sliced roast beef or turkey, a small tub of olives, pre-cooked shrimp, cherry tomatoes, pre-sliced green or red peppers, and bite-size carrots. When you get home, throw it all on the table and — after properly cleaning the produce — declare dinner served. This type of “grazing” dinner is fun, easy and a pleasant surprise. Make it a bimonthly ritual.

7. Skip the buffets. Those by-the-pound Chinese, noodle, and chicken wing buffets at large grocery stores can be a health nightmare. First, the containers are large, so you tend to buy too much. Second, many of the foods are fried, and many more are packed with oil, salt, and sugar to boost the flavor.

8. Order by the serving size, not the pound. When ordering prepared foods from behind the counter, ask the server to give you enough for as many people as will be eating, for example, “I need enough to serve three people, and I’m serving a salad and brown rice along with it.” If the server is no help, then go by the palm of your hand. You want a serving size of meat or protein about the size of your hand. The rest of the meal you can round out with vegetables and whole grains.

9. Order grocery-store hoagies and subs with turkey or chicken, lots of vegetable fillings like tomato, lettuce, peppers, and cucumber, with the spread on the side. Ask for whole grain bread.

10. Go for sushi. Low in fat, high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, sushi is one of your best bets when running into your local grocer for dinner. Can’t stand the thought of raw fish? Most groceries stock a selection of cooked fish sushi or even veggie-only sushi.

11. Order twice as much of the prepared vegetables as you do of the main entrée.

12. If you can see mayonnaise pooling around the chicken, tuna, seafood, or pasta salads, skip them. Mayonnaise is a combination of eggs and oil — primarily fat.

13. Start a conversation with your server. Among the talking points: How was that fish prepared? How much salt does the chef use? Can I see the recipe for the meat loaf?

14. Pick up a rotisserie chicken… Add a salad-in-a-bag, a box of instant brown rice, and some sliced tomatoes and you’ve got a healthy, easy, barely-have-to-cook meal.

15. …But remove the skin. Much of the internal fat from a rotisserie chicken drips out in the cooking, but the skin still holds lots of the stuff.

16. Choose prepared soups made with veggies in place of meat, like black bean soup, lentil soup, or minestrone. Little fat is added to these soups. However, avoid creamy or cheesy soups like broccoli-and-cheese or cream of asparagus. If you’re not sure, ask about the composition of the soup stock. The best is vegetable broth, followed by chicken broth, then beef, and finally cream.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest