How to Eat Healthy When Dining Out
Do you travel often with your team for games or tournaments? Have you ever woken up from a nice little nap on your bus only to find that your team will be eating at a greasy fast-food restaurant? Maybe that was the only option in sight or maybe it was more of a budget issue.
To eat healthy when dining out can be very, very difficult.
I think it’s safe to say most of us athletes have been there and we feel your pain. I had a D1 softball player crying in my office a few months ago because she was trying so hard to eat organic, whole foods and her coaching staff insisted that nothing was wrong with fried mozzarella sticks and french fries before a game!!!
Newsflash: We now know in the world of science that a calorie does not equal a calorie and each macronutrient digests differently.
That means athletes can no longer compete with the old school mentality of “I can eat whatever I want because I’ll just burn it off during training.” NOT TRUE. Ever heard of the term “skinny fat”?
As I’ve said before, in a dream world, we would have access to fresh organic produce, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and farm fresh eggs all-day every-day but, that is not real life (even for me), and it is especially not real life when you are traveling for sport.
So, what’s an athlete to do? Well, you have to make the most of what you have in front of you. Most dining situations will not be in your favor but there are better options you can choose at virtually every restaurant.
Now let’s get one thing straight, I am not promoting these restaurants. I am simply guiding you to make better choices at these establishments because I came to find very early in my career that eating healthy when dining out seemed to be the biggest obstacle my athletes face on the road. After working with hundreds and hundreds of athletes over the years, I have put together a list of the most common restaurant stops (particularly in the Midwest), that you will encounter and specific recommendations on how to eat healthy when dining out (especially with fast food).
One last thing before we begin: it is extremely important that you understand basic nutrition guidelines for pre and post game fueling. These guidelines will change a bit depending on your sport and the position that you play, but in general, the recommendations below will work for just about any active individual.
Here is a quick cheat sheet:
I typically do not limit fiber after a competition for my athletes. If you want to dive-bomb into a pile of chia-seed pudding, have an extra cup of bean-filled chili, and eat raw vegetables until your heart is content, go for it! Fiber is amazing for human health. Just remember the golden rule, whoever smelt it, dealt it.
Here are the best menu items at the most popular restaurant stops for the traveling athlete:
Bowl of steel-cut oatmeal + side of apple bites
Chili + Baked Potato+ add broccoli for all-star status
Cedar Grilled Lemon Chicken: Cedar-seasoned grilled chicken, Granny Smith apple relish, rice, cranberries, honey-glazed pecans, and quinoa.
Pepper Crusted Sirloin & Whole Grains: Pepper-crusted sirloin on a bed of hearty whole grains with sauteed spinach, fire-roasted grape tomatoes, and portobellos, finished with a light broth.
Burrito Bowl: Request brown rice, grilled chicken or sofritas, fajita veggies, and salsa (any).
Taco Salad: In addition to the bed of lettuce, request any protein of your choice, rice, beans, fajita veggies, salsa (any), dairy in moderation if tolerated, and of course extra guacamole!
Egg Drop Soup + Chicken Pad Thai: Rice noodles, Thai spices, green onion, crushed peanuts
Hokkien Street Noodles: Thin rice noodles, light curry sauce, chicken, shrimp, egg, onion, julienned vegetables
Ginger Beef & Broccoli + side of brown rice: Flank steak, ginger-garlic aromatics, green onion, steamed broccoli
Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps+ side of Coconut-Curry Vegetables: Yellow curry sauce, crispy silken tofu, mushrooms, peanuts
Greek Yogurt Parfait + Bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup + Side of Fruit: (Chik-Fil A grilled chicken nuggets are also a great option if soup is not your thing)
Caribbean Salad with Seared Shrimp + request a side of rice or roasted potatoes: Pineapple, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, red bell peppers, green onions, cilantro, sesame seeds with honey-lime dressing.
Ancho Salmon: Seared chile-rubbed Atlantic salmon, spicy citrus-chile sauce, cilantro. Served with Mexican rice & steamed broccoli. Consider saying “no thanks” to the queso fresco for an even healthier meal!
Autumn Squash Soup + Salad of your choice (I recommend Ancient Grain & Arugula, Fuji Apple, or Modern Greek with Quinoa)
Southwest Chicken Tortilla Bowl: Smoked, pulled chicken raised without antibiotics, quinoa tomato sofrito blend, brown rice, spinach, napa cabbage blend, fresh lime, pickled red onions, roasted red peppers, adobo corn and chili lime rojo vinaigrette topped with fresh cilantro and masa crisps in chicken broth.
Before we end this lesson, I want to leave you with 3 key pointers as you attempt to eat healthy when dining out:
If you are looking for a specific item or meal and you do not see it on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! As long as you are respectful with your tone of voice and you show appreciation for the individual(s) who have gone out of their way to serve you, it will be fine.
Think of it this way: Just about every restaurant in America serves protein, vegetables, and quality starch (potato, rice, quinoa etc.). The restaurant’s menu may not have these items listed together as a meal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for that grilled chicken, broccoli, and brown rice to be thrown together on a plate.
Think About the Process of Processing
When you are unsure about what the best options might be on a menu, ask yourself how many steps did it take for this particular food to get to my plate? For example, when you are staring at a menu and you see grilled chicken breast vs. chicken nuggets, you probably realize that grilled chicken is the better option. Sure, it typically has less fat because it is not deep fried but more importantly, it was essentially cut off the chicken and grilled! (Sorry for that visual). As for the chicken nuggets, what did the manufacturer have to do to get that chicken into such small chunks? What is in that breading?
OK, now let’s use starch as an example. Baked potato vs. bread: the potato was essentially harvested from the earth, dusted off a bit, cooked in its natural state and thrown onto your plate. Bread from a restaurant, on the other hand, is usually highly processed. In order to serve bread at such high volumes and to keep it fresh for an extended period time, sugar, chemicals, artificial coloring etc. is typically added for freshness.
Although there could be worse options, bread is usually not the best. Make sense? As athletes, we are often pushed towards pasta and sandwiches but there is a whole different world of food out there for you to explore.
Spend a Few Extra Bucks
Sometimes when you’re in the moment, it can be really hard to justify spending more for higher quality food.
Restaurants often charge extra for replacing menu items or doubling the portion of a specific food item. Trust me, in the long run, it is worth it. In fact, most times in the short run, it is worth it! Spending an extra $2.00-$5.00 is a small price to pay in order to not feel like a slug after a meal, especially if you are an athlete.
The majority of the human immune system is located in the gut and food can actually alter the expression of our DNA. Therefore, the earlier in life you start to take your food choices seriously, the longer you will be able to postpone illness and the negative effects of aging. Always think big picture. Spending more on your food today will allow you to spend less on medications, surgeries, and hospital visits down the road.
Alright, there we have it (athletic) folks, your guide to eating healthy when dining out! Are there any major restaurants that we missed? What is your favorite go-to meal when traveling? Leave a comment, we would love to hear from you!