Date night? Girls night? Celebrating a birthday or holiday? Maybe just hungry?
When following a nutrition regimen and mainly cooking your own whole-food meals, it can be extremely stressful to select a restaurant that accommodates your dietary restrictions and needs, yet, appeals to others. When a friend chooses, often we find ourselves scrutinizing the menu and picking apart dishes to get rid of cheese, bread, creamy sauces and dressings, etc. If the ball is in fact in your court and you get to select, take a deep sigh and consider yourself lucky. I have compiled several steps to successfully pick a (healthy-ish) restaurant that everyone will actually enjoy!
While the meal should be cell phone free other than to snap pics of your delicious plates, your phone will be extremely handy in the planning part. Yelp and Instagram are two of my most-used apps, and with good reason.
Aside from stalking my friends and following inspiring fitness gurus, I use the search places option very frequently. In fact, when I pass a new local spot, I’ll write the name down in my phone and look it up on Instagram later. By utilizing this function, you can get a taste for the visual appeal of their food, peek into the atmosphere, and see what types of people even hang out at this spot. All things that truly matter when trying to plan the perfect night out. In addition to searching places, you can search with hashtags. The more specific the better in order to find exactly what you’re looking for. Typically #[neighborhood][type of food] would do the trick!
On the other, more factual less visual end, Yelp is critical for both reviews and the menu, with images as a sometimes added bonus. Yelp is such an open forum, and customers are eager to be heard. Depending on how long you’ll scroll, you will learn everything you need to know about the restaurant, and you’ll even get exposed to “pro-tips” sharing which menu items you absolutely have to order.
Now that the menu is accessible, what exactly should you look for? First, keep in mind any daily or seasonal specials. Nothing beats the ripeness of seasonal vegetables, and that’s the first good sign that a restaurant keeps things fresh.
Appetizers are the likely the most unhealthy category, and don’t let that deter you just yet. If there is a guacamole dish (just avoid excess chips!) or hummus, charcuterie, or crudite platter, you’re set. Anything with enough variety to only stick to veggies/protein is a win.
Soups and salads are pretenders; they always appear healthy, yet, they can equal as many calories as a big mac. Seriously, chain restaurants with nutrition counts on the menu are EYE OPENING. With that in mind, look for salads that contain healthy greens, veggies and potentially protein. Keep substitutions in mind. For example, avocado instead of cheese. A diverse, good menu should also have healthy salad options that don’t require too many changes. Don’t settle for a salad you don’t like! You’re not cooking, you’re not cleaning, and you should enjoy every last bite.
Moving onto entrees. Look for lean protein options (i.e. salmon, turkey, chicken, shrimp, tilapia or other white fish). Even if these options are coated in butter sauces, the restaurant can easily provide you this dish, baked or grilled to your liking, without extra sauce or cream. Another critical component to an entree are the side options. Likely, your restaurant choices will have potato and/or french fry options, as well as side salad and roasted vegetable options. Whether or not they’re included, ordering sides of roasted vegetables can complete a full meal.
Certain food varieties are easier to order smart than others. Similarly, certain restaurants are more open to food allergies and intolerances than others.
For example, at a sushi place, you can order sashimi, brown or black rice, and even soy paper. At a pizza place, opt for gluten free thin crust and less cheesy, veggie loaded options. At Mexican and burger places, do they offer lettuce as a taco or bun instead? Likely, newer restaurants or restaurants with larger menus will make your less-carby dreams come true. As someone who loves guacamole and sushi, it is important to know which sacrifices to make in order to still enjoy your favorite delicacies. Life is all about balance, and without tacos and pizza, is anyone truly their happiest self? 😉
I am guilty of constantly answering the question “Where should we go to eat?” with an insecure “I don’t know.” Being picky and being healthy are two very different things, yet we get classified the same way: difficult. In order to kick this misjudgment to the curb, we can do our research beforehand and truly select great restaurants. Happy friends, happy you, and most importantly happy (and full) body. Now stop being hangry and go eat!
For added fun, I wanted to share some of my favorite healthy(ish) Chicago restaurants. These are all nice enough to dine-in or take out and enjoy with friends, and offer many options to please everyone’s taste buds. If you test these out, let me know what you think. Feel free to ask me for menu recommendations as well. Also, send some of your favorites my way! I just moved back to the city and am having TOO much fun exploring.
- True Food Kitchen – River North
- Left Coast Food and Juice – Lakeview and River North soon
- Summer House Santa Monica – Lincoln Park
- Goddess and Grocer, or Goddess and Baker – Wicker Park and South Loop
- Fairgrounds – Wicker Park
- Mana Food Bar – Bucktown
- Southport Grocery – Lakeview
- Lyfe Kitchen – Various Locations
- Sweet Green – River North and Gold Coast
- Literally every juice and smoothie place, ha! I especially love Juice Rx in Bucktown, Real Good in Old Town/Lakeview and various Whole Foods and Hi-Vibe in River North