I’ve been a Real Foodie since 2011. And as I've written in other postings, it was a struggle at first. But now it’s just how I eat. I’m in my comfort zone and feel incredibly empowered when I eat Real Food 💪🏽👊🏽 But one of my initial barriers to getting on board the Real Food train was the thought that I could NEVER eat at restaurants again. Now as much as I love cooking, it’s just not practical or sustainable to NEVER take a break. Oh No!! That's just not fun 👎🏽
So over the years, I developed a plan that allowed me to find a healthy, happy space for eating Real Food outside my own kitchen. I’ve learned how to enjoy my restaurant experiences without blowing good habits or feeling deprived. And I'd LOVE to share these Real Food Toolbox Tips. So here is the "brain dump" of my plan. I'll meet you at the end to wrap up 🙌🏽😄😘
Set Realistic goals for success. If it’s a special occasion or celebration, you may want to throw caution to the wind and not worry about tomorrow. Or if traveling for an extended period (business or vacation, etc.) your goal may be to stay as compliant as possible to avoid the consequences of daily indulgences. Or you may decide to split the difference and eat a Real Food meal, but indulge with dessert.
The point is to set a Realistic intention for how you want to approach this experience. And make your peace with it. Because you know what? There’s no such thing as the Real Food Police who examines and criticizes your choices. So don’t stress or get freaked out or paranoid or seek anyone else’s approval. Whether eating at home or a restaurant, what you eat is always YOUR decision.
But OWN your decisions. Eat mindfully. And remember that very bite is a decision. So if you’re not enjoying the food or you’ve scratched that itch, or you start feeling those familiar negative effects or your choices, then just stop eating. And for goodness sake, give yourself a pat on the back for recognizing that you’ve had enough and are done with it. Excellent job, my friend
Research, Research, Research
Restaurant Recon. When it comes to preparation, the internet will be your best friend. That proverbial angel on your shoulder to guide you. And help set yourself up for success. So use the internet to research the menus AND the restaurants themselves.
If your goal is to be Real Food compliant, then a good bet is a restaurant that serves meat and produce from nearby farms. And locally-owned restaurants and chains that follow the practice of serving quality ingredients are also usually good about accommodating food sensitivities and special preferences.
Ordinarily I’d say restaurants that advertise “farm to table” or “locally sourced” are indicators of this practice. But sadly, that’s not always the case. The use of these terms aren’t regulated in any way. And it’s up to individual restaurants (and perhaps even reviewers) to define their concept. For instance, “locally sourced” may simply mean food bought from a local distributor, rather than directly from a nearby farm. And what is the geographic scope of “local”? How many menu items made from ingredients at a nearby farm constitute “farm to table”?
If you want to be strict, these terms probably matter to you. So you’ll need some in-depth research. Review the menu online (I discuss menu navigation below). And read reviews on popular review sites (Yelp). It never hurts to call ahead to talk about options. Fine dining and family-owned restaurants, are typically interested in making your experience pleasant. Especially if it means repeat business.
Research menus online. Most restaurants post their menus online. If not, patrons who write review often take photos of menus to post with their comments. You can get valuable insight into the menu and quality of the ingredients used. Review menus in advance to make sure you can find food that fits into your eating goals. And allow you to decide in advance what to order. So online recon can prevent temptation from derailing your good intentions.
I usually choose two dishes in advance just in case. Then I don’t even look at the menu when I get to the restaurant, except to confirm that my first choice is still available. And if I’m not able to review the menu beforehand, I scan it. And mentally X-out the “not for me” areas — like pasta, sandwiches, etc. I don’t even read those sections.
Please be Seated
Goes without saying — skip that bread basket. It’s that devil on your shoulder trying to lure you down a forbidden and dangerous path. Just say a polite “no” when the server attempts to deliver these starters to your table. Or at least ask the server to place the basket further away from you.
Ditto for any pre-meal freebie that is offered. I know it's hard, because free stuff is so great. But if your goal is to be Real or predominantly so, then you really ought to take a pass. This food is made for the generic palate. So will likely be made with suspect ingredients. Though I suppose it doesn't hurt to ask the server to make an informed decision about whether to accept the freebies.
Navigating the Menu
Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask about substitutions. I have an onion sensitivity. Which makes restaurant eating very difficult because onions are in so many dishes. So asking questions and suggesting substitutions is second-nature to me.
But if you are hesitant or self-conscious. Remember that you’re paying the tab and you have the right (within reason) to get exactly what you want on your plate. And your online recon can help make the process easier by fostering a positive rapport with your server. One where you're viewed not a “picky eater”. But an informed eater who is trying to find food that will be enjoyable. Smiles go a long way to ease any tensions too, btw 😃
Changing the menu can be fun for everyone. There is no doubt that the chefs and servers are the experts with their food. But may not be well-versed in Real Food ideology. So don’t be afraid to flex your Real Food muscles 💪🏽😉 (always with a smile, though) 😃 Even if you’re just starting your Real Food journey, chances are you’ll know more than they do. Unless they are Real Foodies too.
Swapping sides (e.g., a bowl of fruit instead of toast at breakfast, double orders of good things like vegetables) is pretty easy to do 🌱🍐 Yes, you might be charged a little extra. But if affordable, it’s worth the investment to get the food you want!! 🙌🏽👏🏽👌🏽
And who knows, you may give the chef some “food for thought” by mixing and matching items on the menu to create new combos the s/he never considered 🤔😍 Ask for veggies with sauce instead of pasta. Or for breadless sandwich fillings on a bed of lettuce. Even a pizza shop should be able to concoct a “salad” from pizza toppings. All it takes is your imagination and smiles 🤓😄😉
Know Real Food menu headings. Salads, Meat, Seafood, Vegetable Sides, Gluten-Free – The food under these headings may be safe bets for Real Food. Daily specials are usually a good choice too. These are often made to order. So it may be possible to have more say with how the meal is prepared for you.
More and more restaurants are accommodating food sensitivities and allergies. Particularly for the gluten-free crowd. Gluten-free may still be highly processed, though. But in general, this is a good starting point for asking questions and finding meals that don’t include problem ingredients.
Know typical Real Food cooking methods to help guide towards better decisions. Remember to verify ingredients. Because while the methods may be Real Food compliant, seasonings or fats are often added before or after cooking. And some of these may not part of your plan. And if so, ask about substitutions or adjustments. Here are the recommended cooking methods, noting any potential issues:
- Broiled: The meat may basted with suspect ingredients before, during, or after cooking.
- Steamed: Ideal way to cook vegetables. Confirm any post-cooking seasonings or fats.
- Poached: Food poached in water or broth is flavorful, tender, and Real Food-approved. Sometimes wine is used in the poaching broth for the added flavor.
- Braised: Wine or soy could be in the braising liquid.
- Roasted: Dry rubs or marinade may contain suspect ingredients.
- Grilled: Again, beware of dry rub or marinade ingredients. The meat may be finished with a sauce or oil when it comes off the grill.
- Sous vide: Very popular method in better restaurants. Meat or seafood is cooked in a hot water bath. Then finished with a high heat source to brown. Dry rubs, marinades, seasonings, fats, or sauces may be an issue.
- Sautéed: This can go either way. If food is sautéed in a quality fat without added sugar, soy, or grains, then GO. If drenched in un-Real Food ingredients, then NO.
- Smoked: Sugar is often included in the rubs used on meat. But may only be a tiny amount. So verify that the amounts used are not worth worrying about.
You Can Bet on These
Eggs: Whether scrambled, omelets, poached, fried, or hard-boiled -- Eggs are a protein-packed choice that can be found just about everywhere. And nowadays eating breakfast for dinner is a thing 👊🏽🙌🏽👏🏽 So don’t be afraid to ask if you prefer this option. Sometimes dairy, wheat, or soy can be included in scrambled eggs and omelets. The oils or fats used may not be part of your plan either. Most places will honor your request to make eggs without these added ingredients and use your preferred fats. When in doubt, order poached eggs because the only ingredients are eggs and water 🍳🍽
Protein and vegetables: When in doubt, a protein & veggie and/or salad is a safe choice. Good protein options are steaks, salmon, grilled or roasted chicken, roasted turkey, grilled or broiled pork chops, pot roast, or any variety of fish or seafood. Ask about the preparation ingredients. Consider sauces/gravy on the side (or not at all).
Barbecue: Smoked beef, pork, chicken, and turkey are all good choices at your favorite barbecue joint. BBQ rubs usually contain sugar. But in trace amounts. So probably not too bad. Sauces usually contain lots of added sugar and possibly soy sauce. Skip the sauce if you’re really concerned. For side, opt for braised greens and tossed salad. Avoid mayo-based slaw and potato salad unless you’re OK with canola oil mayo. I discuss possible mayo issues below.
Salads: There's always the big salad. Adding a grilled or roasted protein is a typical option these days. Croutons, cheese and commercial dressings (I discuss this below) may not comply with your eating goals.
And dressings, in general, can be ordered on the side. So you can control how much is added. Or discretely bring a small container of homemade dressing with you. Yaaassss!! 👊🏽✌🏽😋
But Don't Bet on These
“Crispy” and “battered” foods are tempting because they sound so amazingly delish. And are comfort foods. But these terms should set off alarm bells 🔔🔊📢 Anything battered and crispy is most likely rolled in flour and deep-fried in canola oil. OH NO!! Definitely enjoy -- if you're throwing caution to the wind. But if not, then run away. Just do it!
Here are some other terms on the menu that may not comply with your goals: Deep fried, Coated, Breaded, Sauced, Meatballs/Meatloaf/Croquettes (probably include breadcrumbs), Sausage (may contain suspect fillers), Fritter, and Dumpling. 👎🏽😒
Choose soups, stews, and sauces with caution. These are often thickened with a flour-based roux. Or added cream for a smooth texture. Suspect ingredients include soy, flour, grains, or dairy.
Beware of oils and fats. Most restaurants use canola oil for griddles, pan frying, deep frying, and salads. If you’re sensitive to oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids, avoid deep-fried foods. And ask if your meal can be cooked in butter, olive oil, or another healthy fat.
Commercial brand flavorings vs. made from scratch. Commercial brand salad dressings -- particularly the lo-cal/lo-fat brands -- likely include junk like high-fructose corn syrup, soy, and corn and other unhealthy ingredients. Ask if dressings are commercially-made – even if hand-mixed using a flavor packet. If so, ask about the ingredients. And if you don’t want to take chances, ask for vinegar or lemon juice and olive oil for your salad.
Same goes for condiments (ketchup, mayo, salsa). Ones made in-house and from scratch are safer bets.
Believe it or not, potatoes may be a problem, particularly if fried. Many times, these will be lightly coated with a flour or gluten-based starch for added flavor. So again – ask questions!
Split the Dessert
Honestly, we are always tempted to each order dessert. But afterwards there's regret. As you progress on this journey, your desire for sugar does subside. I know this statement may feel like I just tried to take away your woobie. Trust me though . . . you can and will enjoy desserts and other delectable treats. You won't feel deprived. Nor will you feel ill. So try the splitting thing. You can always order another 😉
Some restaurants import commercially made desserts too. So how special can that be?? If it's not made in-house, we just say NO.
So there you have it. A comprehensive brain dump of my plan of attack for keeping it real at restaurants. But believe it or not, there's still more postings to come. Because I haven't even address how to adjust this plan for international cuisine. And there's more details within the research component. This is a great blueprint though. The essential utensils to set the table for keeping it Real while dining at your favorite neighborhood eatery 💯🤗😘🙌🏽
Please give this a go the next time you dine out. And let me know how it works for you. Remember to practice patience though. New things always take time.
Cheers & Enjoy!! 😋🤗😘😍❤️
Kick Sugar To The Curb!
If you take the challenge, please let me know. I have received so much support and positive energy from you all. That I would like to return the favor 😉