Eating out is a great way to catch up with friends, go on dates, and not have to do the dishes. The drawback is that restaurants often use a lot more salt and fat than you would at home. If you’ve ever seen a restaurant chef salt something, it looks like he or she is making it rain: Salt descends like it’s coming from the heavens, and there’s no doubt that winter is coming.
Why? Restaurants care more about making dishes taste good than they do about your health. Guests are more likely to write positive online reviews or recommend a restaurant to a friend because the food was delicious rather than because of how great you felt the next morning (unless you get food poisoning, but that’s a different story).
When I was on the road for four years as a restaurant inspector, eating multicourse meals several days a week, I immediately felt the effect of too much salt and fat on my body, no matter how good the meal was or how many Michelin stars the restaurant had. I realized that I needed to order wisely or I was going to feel terrible all the time (now, I find and share some of my favorite restaurants around the world on LokaPack).
I found that understanding what was in the food I was ordering gave me a better idea of what my body could handle, and I could make more informed decisions. I think it’s good to know that unless you are going to a health-focused restaurant, you’re already going to be eating more salt, fat, and overall calories than you probably would at home. And that’s OK. You’re going out to have fun and enjoy yourself, but it would be nice to also do that without feeling terrible the next day.
Here are some tips on how to navigate restaurant menus to order the healthier options.
Butter, salt, and restaurant basics.
Is butter bad?
While the battle over whether butter is good for you or not continues to rage, my main issue with restaurants is that you don’t always know the quality of the butter they are using (Is it grass-fed? Full of hormones?) and the amount. Butter is often used to baste foods, coat noodles, round out sauces, and so on. You can always ask what type of butter the restaurant is using, but in general, assume it's not the good-fat-rich kind you're used to.
Why worry about salt.
A certain amount of salt is necessary for the body, but too much can lead to health issues. Plus, you also don’t know what type and quality of salt restaurants are using when they make your food, which is one reason to be cautious when eating out. (Different types of salts have more nutrients, and you can use less to get more if the quality is high.) To learn more, check out The Meadow, a salt and chocolate store (incredible, right?) in Portland and NYC that offers over 120 kinds of salts, which you can also order online. The owner and salt connoisseur Mark Bitterman will gladly explain the difference in salt quality to you.
Quality of ingredients.
You’ll hear most chefs say it, but it’s really the quality of the ingredients that you start with that will predict the outcome of a meal. Fresher is always better. Start with a great piece of steak that’s been raised and butchered well, and a restaurant doesn’t have to do a ton to make it shine. On the flip side, poor-quality ingredients need to be doctored. And guess what two things will make them great? Fat and salt! Remember MSG? This is one thing it’s great at doing. I was once at a Hot Pot restaurant in Beijing and saw a bowl of shiny, pearly white crystals on the table. My friend told me that it was MSG for us to put on our food—crazy, right?
Salting individual components.
Throughout the cooking process, it is a common tool to salt as you go, tasting along the way to adjust the sauce or whatever you’re making. In restaurants, the components of dishes are seasoned individually, which is helpful so that they are balanced when they come together. The problem is that they are also often finished with salt at the end, which can sometimes be the touch that leaves your mouth parched and your face puffy the next day.
It’s hard to know what on the menu will or will not have a finishing oil, as it’s likely that most dishes get hit with it as well as a final dose of high-quality salt. Pay attention to cookbooks written by chefs, and you’ll see that they often recommend finishing sauces, pastas, soups, etc., with a final drizzle of oil. This is to add flavor by using a high-quality oil, plus, it adds more fat, and fat tastes good on the palate.
So, how do you actually navigate the menu?
While Michelin inspectors refuse to order salads as part of their inspection process, I find them to be a great tell of a restaurant’s attention to quality because it’s hard to hide bad ingredients in a salad. When I have a great salad at a restaurant, I know that the rest of the meal will probably be equally good. With that said, try to avoid cream-based dressings and opt for citrus-based ones instead.
Even the lightest tempura coating or quick-fry is likely to make you feel less-than-great, since most restaurants are reaching for inflammatory, Omega-6-rich oils rather than coconut, ghee, or avocado. Go for the whole steamed or grilled artichoke instead of the fried one topped with breadcrumbs.
You can always ask your server if the soup has dairy in it and whether or not it’s just used to finish the dish for flavor. A good server will know how it’s prepared (was a vegetable or beef stock used?) and can always find out if not. For example, a lobster bisque will be richer based on its ingredients than a minestrone soup. The salt content can be difficult to gauge, though, and there’s not much you can do except find out the hard way.
A grilled whole fish is always a good bet, especially if it’s in a more Mediterranean-style restaurant and finished with lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs. Plus, it’s always fun to have a whole fish filleted in front of you—make sure not to skip the tender meat in the fish cheeks; they are the hidden gem of the fish. As always, pay attention to how it's prepared, and try to avoid heavy cream sauces.
Watching a sizzling piece of meat pass you by may tempt you to share a porterhouse or rib-eye for two, but keep in mind that restaurants tend to opt for fattier cuts of meat. Fat equals flavor, and the more the better. Off the bat, you’re already picking a heavier meal than seafood. You also want to ask about the quality of meat you're getting: is it grass-fed? Grass-finished? If the chef and server don't know, you might be better off ordering a vegetable-based main.
Ragu or meat-based sauces:
Sauces that contain any type of cured meat that has been salted before or a braised meat like pork shoulder will inherently include a high amount of salt before it’s even placed in a dish with other ingredients and later salted.
Watch out for rubs:
Anything with a spice rub or mixture, be it a Cajun-style fish or spiced pork loin, will most likely contain a lot of salt as they are used to penetrate the meat and infuse it with flavor. Salt is great at doing that. It is a wonderful tool for cooking; unfortunately, your body might disagree the next day.
Eat your greens:
We all know that eating a large portion of vegetables is good for you, and it also helps fill you up and stops you from eating other foods. At restaurants, it’s good to ask how they are cooked and what they are cooked in so you have an idea of what you’re getting into. I try to always order a side of greens with anything I’m getting. By the end of a two-week stint in Paris, I was over heavy French food, and all I wanted was simply cooked fish and steamed broccoli from room service. After making it clear that I wanted both plain and lemon on the side, they were both served swimming in a pool of butter. I couldn’t catch a break!
Do you get the fries?
Unless they are going to blow your mind with their perfect level of crispiness and the exact cut and thickness that you love (to each their own on this one), then I would say no. Odds are that it will be salty and greasy—they are fried, after all.
The cheese plate:
If you’ve ever been at a restaurant where a cheese cart is wheeled in front of you, full of amber-hued Goudas, crumbly blue cheeses, and soft, milky white cheeses, then you realize it takes an almost superhuman power to resist. Here’s what I do: If the offerings include raw, unpasteurized cheeses, then try to get those, as they have the most good bacteria for your gut and hopefully won’t have you running to the bathroom. Alternatively, choose goat cheese, as it contains less lactose and is easier to digest for a lot of people.
Let's just look at the dessert menu.
You’re out having a great time and don’t want the meal to end, so why not take a look at the menu? At that point, it’s hard to skip the delicious-sounding hazelnut torte with hand-picked raspberries, chocolate sauce, and salted caramel ice cream. Anything with a crust or dough is not going to be your friend, as butter is abundant. Sorbet is obviously the easy, albeit sometimes boring option, but try to opt for desserts that have more fruits or other components to them so that you’re not just eating straight-up crust. If you’re craving chocolate but want to keep sugar down, chocolate mousse is actually a decent choice. It’s typically made with heavy cream, egg yolks, and unsweetened chocolate with minimal sugar added.
All of this aside—remember that eating out is something meant to be enjoyed and, if you go in informed and make good decisions, then that’s all that matters.