Ordering in Tonight? Dietitians Share Their Go-to Takeout Order

By Aly Walansky
|
August 5, 2022
Restaurant foods
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

Some nights, we just do not feel like putting dinner on the table. We’re too busy, too tired, or we just don’t feel like cooking. Those are great nights for a takeout order, but although ordering a meal for pick-up or delivery is usually delicious, it’s not always the healthiest choice. Aside from being awfully expensive, takeout meals are often packed with lots of less-healthy oils, like corn oil, that are high in omega-6, which may contribute to chronic inflammation. Restaurant food notoriously uses more saturated fat, more sugar, more salt, and more fillers like corn starch than home cooking typically does. 

Read next: The Best Items to Buy from Trader Joe’s for Really Fast, Low-Lift Lunches, According to Nutritionists

But there are some better options available that contain more of the good stuff and less of the bad. We spoke with registered dietitians to get the scoop on the best, healthiest take-out orders they love — and order themselves. But first, they shared a few general guidelines to consider when placing a take-out order: 

1. Think about portion size before you order

“Whether you’re buying a greasy, deep-fried meal or a salad-filled wrap, the portion size is more than likely going to be a lot bigger than you would make at home for yourself,” says Wendy Lord, RD, and consultant for Sensible Digs. Lord recommends choosing meals you can share or save half for the next day. Some choices like pizza, Chinese food, wraps, and curries are ideal for splitting between people and dividing up into multiple meals.

2. Think about how the food is prepared

Sometimes, you just absolutely have to enjoy a hot plate of salty fries — it’s good for the soul. But we’re not telling you anything new here: deep fried foods are bad for you. “Meals that leave a greasy layer on your lips have been prepared with too much fat,” says Lord. “Not only does the cooking oil add a significant number of calories to your daily tally, but when it is heated to high temperatures, the chemical structure changes, which is bad for your cardiovascular health and weight.” So if you’re ordering a burger, skip the fries (they’re better when they’re fresh anyway, and don’t travel well). If chicken is your go-to, then choose grilled chicken instead of fried to avoid having your meal drenched in oil.

3. Consider carbs

“If you order a larger burger and a side of fries, you are probably eating two to three times more carbohydrates than you ideally should be at a single meal,” says Lord. “Even more of a concern is that your bun is going to be made from white flour and contains very little fiber. This type of meal will push your blood sugar and insulin levels up, which contributes to the development of obesity and diabetes.” Some ways to balance this out: think about choosing a certain number of fries to enjoy, cut your burger in half, or remove the top bun and replace it with an extra-big slice of lettuce. 

Now, without further ado, the healthiest takeout orders that registered dietitians order:

Thai

Thai food is delicious, with its rich layers of sweet, savory, and spicy flavors blending together. But while the noodle dishes are tempting, a better bet for your health is to go for the red curry with chicken. At American Thai take-out restaurants, red curries tend to have more vegetables than green curries, says Nicole Swingle, RD. “I also opt for brown steamed rice on the side and sometimes ask for them to please swap more vegetables into the curry. I also get the chicken satay for extra protein, and sometimes I’ll also order the green papaya salad to share as an appetizer, too.”

Another good choice is the cashew chicken stir fry with brown rice. This is a great option because it’s a very balanced meal, and the sauce is generally pretty light. “It is high in lean protein from the chicken, offers some healthy fats from the cashews, and lots of high fiber and nutrient rice veggies are added to the stir fry. I like it with brown rice for extra fiber,” says Kelsey Butler, RD.

Pizza

For pizza lovers, it can be difficult to enjoy your favorite food while also maintaining your health goals. But with some simple modifications, you can still enjoy your pizza take out without sacrificing flavor or nutrition. “We start by modifying the crust — either opt for a thin crust or a gluten free crust. Thin crust cuts down on calories, while a gluten free crust cuts down on inflammatory ingredients,” says Trista Best, RD. “Next, consider the toppings. Choose vegetables over fatty meats.”

It’s a good idea to keep serving size in mind, too. “Cut yourself smaller pieces,” says Best. “The most important thing when eating any food is to honor your true fullness. This means that when you start to feel yourself getting full, stop eating and just enjoy the company you’re in.” Remember also that pizza can be part of a meal instead of the whole meal. Most local pizza places will also deliver a large Greek salad (ask for the dressing on the side so you can add only as much as you want), as well as healthy sides like sautéed broccoli rabe. 

Indian food spread on the table — a delicious feast

Indian

There’s so much to love about Indian takeout, from naan to raita. But like a lot of restaurant food, it can have a lot of hidden fat and sodium. One of the best orders at an Indian take-out restaurant: the chicken jalfrezi curry. “This dish is made with bell peppers and onion, so it’s well balanced with protein-rich chicken,” says Butler. “The sauce is also broth-based, so there isn’t as much saturated fat, unlike some of the creamier sauces. I pair this curry with brown rice to balance the meal with carbs and add more fiber.”

Sushi

Sushi always feels like a healthy option, and it absolutely can be. But what you order really does matter. Instead of opting for a deep-fried roll (think anything with the words “crunch” or “tempura” in the description), or Americanized rolls drizzled in spicy mayo, consider simpler dishes. One great meal, according to Mia Syn, MS, RDN, is a salmon avocado roll, sashimi, a side of steamed brown rice, and edamame. 

“Salmon is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain and heart health, while avocado is a source of plant-based fats that can help enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E,” Syn says. “Brown rice is a whole grain filled with fiber, which is important for digestive health and also helps you feel full longer. And edamame is a source of complete plant-based protein.”

Chinese

Americanized Chinese takeout is simply delicious, but if you’re ordering classics like sesame chicken and egg rolls, it can also be filled with sodium, sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils. “Start your meal with steamed dumplings, hot and sour soup, or egg drop soup instead of egg rolls,” says Wilson. “Avoid battered and deep fried entrees such as General Tso’s chicken and instead choose stir fried dishes such as shrimp or beef and broccoli, moo goo gai pan, or skewered proteins.” Opt for sides of vegetable dishes, like eggplant with garlic sauce and garlic green beans. If you want a really healthy option, choose from the steamed menu, which is usually served with a side of your preferred dipping sauce. You can opt for a protein like tofu, chicken, or shrimp steamed with mixed vegetables, and then just dip each bite into the sauce on the side.

Mexican

If you’re looking for a healthy, plant-based option with fewer refined carbs, opt for a burrito bowl instead of a burrito.

“Choose a base of brown rice and beans for protein, and top it with fajita vegetables, salsa, pico de gallo, lettuce, and guacamole,” says vegan dietitian Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, ACSM-CPT. Some restaurants have started offering additional plant-based protein options made with tofu or pea protein, for example, which can be a great addition if you need a high-protein meal and don’t eat meat. “I love ordering this type of meal because it is quick, convenient, and balanced with all of the food groups important for a vegan or plant-based diet,” says Wells.

It’s the customization option that makes burrito bowls such a great option, but that works for fajitas, too. “Both bowls and fajitas are customizable options, which means you can control the protein, veggies, and starches added,” says Butler. “For both, I go with a lean protein like chicken, fish, shrimp, or black beans. I then choose a fiber-rich carb like brown rice, black rice, or corn tortillas.”

Burgers 

There’s nothing like a big, juicy burger with all the toppings. “To enhance the flavor and avoid processed flour, high fructose corn syrup, and additives, try ordering a burger without the bun,” says Alyssa Wilson, RD. 

Most restaurants now have the option of choosing to turn your burger into a lettuce wrap instead. “Try topping the burger with extra vegetables like mushrooms, tomatoes, and pickles. Instead of having chips or fries on the side, try the vegetable of the day or a side salad,” says Wilson.

Read next: The Healthiest Fast Food Orders for When You’re on a Road Trip, According to Dietitians

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