How to Eat Healthy at Chain Restaurants
A couple of weeks ago I had to travel to Tyler, TX and was worried I wouldn’t be able to find anything healthy to eat! I ended up eating most of my meals at chain restaurants just because I wasn’t familiar with any of their local eateries and didn’t have much time to research. The only problem is that most chain restaurants are NOT healthy! Some do claim to have “healthy” menus or low-cal options – but even those are still high in calories, fat and sodium and are not the type of meals I normally eat. I’ve been trying to eat super healthy lately to get in shape for some video and photo shoots, so my diet basically consists of lean protein (fish, eggs, dairy, soy, Gardein, etc), veggies, some fruit and complex carbs. My diet is low in sugar (except for occasional dark chocolate) and low in fat.
So, when traveling to Tyler – I knew I would have to get creative. One of the first things I did was stop by Fuel Kitchen in Houston and pick up some of their protein muffins and waffles because they are part of my regular diet and I knew they would be easy to pack. I also packed some protein powder and a small cooler (see below for details). So, at my hotel- each day I filled up a small ziplock with ice so that I could bring my cooler with me and have my snacks ready. But, what about all my other meals? Well, read below for the chains that I visited and what I ordered.
Make sure you look at the restaurant’s nutrition info before you go! Many chains can print it out for you and bring it to your table if you ask! If you are lucky to live in a city that has nutrition content listed on the menu – make sure you use it!
Courtyard by Marriott – I stayed at a new Courtyard by Marriott and was impressed by the design and comfort of the rooms. But, one of my favorite things was their “healthy start” breakfast sandwich (I got it without sausage) that I got at their Bistro. Overall, their Bistro menu was healthy and at least they had the nutrition info posted so I could make smart choices.
TGI Fridays– This was a hard one. They don’t have ANYTHING healthy on the menu! I even pulled up the nutritional info on my phone before I ordered and I was shocked! If you regularly dine here – you are setting yourself up for obesity and an early death. Sorry, but it’s true. Plus, all their promotions include huge portions like “pick 2” or they entice you to get an appetizer, entree AND dessert setting you up for a 2,000-5,000 calorie meal! So, what did I order? I split the “spinach Florentine flatbread” appetizer because it was listed as only 380 calories and 11g of fat, but only had a couple of pieces. Then, for my entree I ordered the “Dragonfire Salmon” but ordered it without oil (dry) and steamed broccoli (only 50 calories). The salmon actually came very greasy, so I used paper napkins to blot off the oil and it was much better. Shockingly – most of their entrees have over 1,000 calories (even grilled chicken!) and 20g of fat! One of the worst is the potato skins appetizer with 2040 calories and 58g of fat!
Olive Garden I ate here my first night because they do offer a “Lighter Italian Fare” menu with the calories listed. I went with the pasta with marinara sauce (always a better option than cream-based sauce!) with added grilled shrimp. Of course, they offered breadsticks and salad to start – but I got the salad without dressing and only had 1/2 breadstick…especially since I was having wine. I left not feeling too bad.
Panera Bread – I ate here for lunch one day. They did have some healthy options and the calories were listed on the menu. Since I’m pescetarian ( no meat – only fish) – I went with a cup of minestrone soup, which was great and did have a few bites of the bread that it came with. Just avoid all the cookies and pastries on display and you’ll be ok.
McDonald’s – I usually pick McDonald’s if my only option is fast food. Here are my favorites to pick: egg McMuffin without ham, fruit and walnut salad and fruit and yogurt parfait. They are all low-fat and lower in calories.
In my cooler bag: Protein Muffins, Protein waffles, apples, protein powder (to add to water), ziplock with ice. I just refilled my ice at the hotel each day so that I could have my snacks with me in the car. The Courtyard also had a mini fridge, which was great – but if your hotel doesn’t you can just use your cooler.
General Tips: Choose grilled veggies and proteins vs. “sautéed”, “stir fried”, “pan seared or anything that is “glazed”. Baked is sometimes a good option, but usually the restaurants use more oil or butter than when they grill it. Ask to have your food cooked without oil or butter and if the server still doesn’t get it – tell them you want it “plain” or “dry”. Steamed veggies are great and also a simple salad with dressing on the side will always work. When all else fails – just go for the smaller portions or only eat half. Restaurant portions have increased so much in size that an average meal could probably serve 3-4 people!