Your Best (and Worst) Nutrition Bets, by Cuisine

In the January 2017 issue, Contributing Editor Kelsey Casselbury offered suggestions to help School Nutrition readers make healthier menu selection decisions when eating away from home, and she continues with additional advice in this exclusive bonus content.

Some cuisines are naturally healthier than others—Mediterranean options tend to be considered good ones because of the prevalence of olive oil, legumes and vegetables. On the other hand, Chinese food—or, at least, the Americanized version of it—is generally an unhealthy choice because of fried items, high-sugar sauces and lack of veggies. But if you or your dining companions are set on a particular type of cuisine, you can usually find something on the menu that won’t completely derail your diet. Let’s take a look at six different categories for the best options and the ones best avoided.


Chicken must be healthy, right? Surprise! The half-chicken option at barbecue restaurants is usually dark meat and skin, plus the fat used to baste while cooking, so the fat and calorie content is much higher than you would think. An open-faced pulled pork sandwich (with only half of the bun), featuring a vinegar-based sauce, plus a side salad, is the smartest choice.


Sugar, salt, fat—there are dangers lurking in every corner of a Chinese takeout menu. America’s beloved dish, General Tso’s chicken, might be one of the worst offenders—or perhaps that honor goes to fried rice? Because the sauce is typically the source of most nutrition-related problems, request that any dish with a sauce be served with it on the side. Buddha’s Delight, a medley of vegetables and tofu, is a decent no-modifications-necessary option.


One good thing about Indian food: It spotlights lentils and garbanzo beans and offers more plant-based options than possibly any other type of cuisine. But not all the news is good, though—Indian food tends to fature plenty of creamy sauces (see: curry!) and foods cooked in ghee, which is a clarified butter. You also should skip the naan—it’s not fiber-rich and it’s been brushed with oil. Avoid samosas, as well, since they have been deep fried. Instead, order a tandoori dish, which means the proteins have been grilled inside a scalding-hot clay pot.


Fettucine Alfredo, shrimp scampi, spaghetti Bolognese—such comfort food, but not so comfortable for your waistline. Instead, start with a bowl of minestrone, rich with beans and vegetables. Or consider the grilled calamari—not the fried version! Next, go for a chicken-based dish, such as Chicken di Fravola. If you must have pasta, the Primavera is probably the best option.


When you think Japanese food, you probably think sushi—and when you think sushi, you think healthy. That’s not always the case, though. Sashimi, which is the raw fish minus the white rice of sushi rolls, is a good pick, and miso soup helps fill you up without packing in too many calories. Noodle dishes, as delicious as they are, tend to be made with refined flour—unless you discover that the restaurant uses whole-grain udon or soba instead.


You know as well as we do what the biggest diet-buster is at Mexican restaurants: the chips and salsa that come before you even open the menu! And, yet, we keep on dipping and crunching! Stop the madness before it starts by asking the waiter to forgo this freebie appetizer. Order the fajitas for your dinner, and ask if you can have corn tortillas instead of flour (which decreases both calories and carbs) and sub out the rice and beans for vegetables. Guacamole is good (it has healthy fats!), as is pico de gallo (fresh tomato salsa), while sour cream and refried beans are not your best bets.

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