My name is Matthew Madeiro, and I am not a perfect Paleo.
Call it an inevitably in the modern world: try as we might to keep our diets in check, there’s always going to be circumstances that require adaptive thinking and (sometimes reluctant) willingness to stray from Paleo norms. Nearly a year into Paleo/Primal, I’ve grown pretty comfortable with my routine, but I still remember those early weeks pretty well — and all the questions, concerns, and indecision that came with them.
Should I eat this thing? What’s the least terrible choice in the airport? The answer is rarely clear-cut, unfortunately, which is why I’m hoping the first part of this guide will offer some guidance for anyone unsure what to shell out for the next time they’re miles away from the comfort of their own kitchen.
The key, I think, is to stay practical. Hit the jump to see why you’ll be repeating that word like a mantra whenever you’re eating outside the home.
The Practical Perspective
You’re not going to be perfect.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for some, but it’s a fact you’re better off accepting sooner rather than later. You should strive to do your best, sure, and land as close as possible, but your body — and mind — will fare far better if you don’t slap yourself around every time you sneak a honey-roasted peanut or two on the long flight home.
Again, try and stick to the Paleo principles, but realize, too, that a single slip-up every so often is not going to wreak your health forever. It’s a line I’ve used before, but it’s a line worth using again: one bad meal in a hundred healthy ones does not spell the end of your journey to excellent health. That’s not an excuse to go crazy with cupcakes, of course, but it is a reminder that there’s no point in beating yourself up every time you cakenap at your child’s birthday party.
Right. Got that part down? Let’s establish a few basic ideas you’ll want to keep in mind for whenever you’re staring down the menu at your local restaurant.
Things to Remember
Meat and vegetables. Henceforth, this is your mantra, and by far the easiest way to survive that trendy new cafe that just opened up on the corner.
Again: meat and vegetables.
The nature of the food industry, mind you, muddles the situation a bit. You don’t know what oil they use in cooking (99% of the time it’ll be a cheap vegetable oil), you don’t know what additives they use in their dishes, and you would likely be horrified to see every single place where wheat manages to sneak in.
For the most part, you can’t control this. You’re welcome to try, of course, but don’t go in expecting the kitchen to cater to your (honestly quite reasonable) demands.
Your goal, accordingly, is to stay practical, and work with the above realizations the best way you can:
- Order some kind of protein with a side or two of vegetables.
- Fill your glass with water, tea or coffee (black is best!).
- Skip dessert.
That last point is flexible, admittedly. I rarely get dessert, but I’ll choose to indulge on special occasions, as the banana beignets from a week back can attest. Make this an exception, of course, and very much not the norm, and you’ll be fine.
Ready for the real punchline? Chowing down at a restaurant is rarely this easy. Blame it on the nature of the American food industry, I guess, and the individual flavors — and complexities — that different ethnic cuisines bring to the table.
But don’t fret! Let’s tackle some of the most common styles in turn and see if we can’t puzzle out the most Paleo-friendly options on the menu.
(I’m in America, currently, so the advice below mainly applies to the different American styles of cuisine. If anyone outside the States has tips to offer for their respective country, please do so in the comments below. Thanks!)
(And another thing! True ethnic cuisine — the kind you would find in cities with a dense population of the ethnicity in question — doesn’t play by quite the same rules. What follows, then, is a general guide for the restaurants that serve more of an American take on each cuisine.)
Chinese food comes in a variety of flavors across America, so forgive my attempts to generalize for the sake of this guide. The majority of Chinese restaurants I’ve visited, at least, use vegetable oil to cook with and load their sauces with excess sugar, not exactly ideal for anyone trying to keep their food as clean as possible.
Most Chinese restaurants do offer, however, a pretty safe choice: steamed protein and vegetables, no sauce or gravy attached. Steamed shrimp/chicken/beef, with similarly steamed broccoli and a pretty plain assortment of veggies, is the usual option, the combination of which just might be the most boring and flavorless meal I’ve ever forced myself to eat.
That’s the sad truth of it. You can eat strict Paleo at a typical Chinese restaurant, but I’d argue that it’s barely worth it, especially when you consider the (presumably?) freaky ingredients that come in all of the sauces brought to the table. A steamed plate is only salvageable, in my opinion, with the addition of hot mustard, which leaves you with two choices:
- Order the steamed plate and cry quietly during the meal.
- Don’t make Chinese food a weekly thing so that you can indulge a little when you go and enjoy something with flavor.
The latter option is the more practical one, but can be risky for anyone with a gluten allergy. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. I usually opt for choice two, especially since my body doesn’t seem to react too badly to the possible wheat and weird oils, but that might not work as well for you. Experiment!
Lastly, let’s talk rice. Mark Sisson already has a great, informative post on why white rice is a superior choice to brown, so I won’t regurgitate that here. If you’re concerned about the starch load, it’s easy enough to ask for no rice, though again that depends on what your body likes and how concerned you are about weird ingredients in your food. If you do decide to forgo the starch, it’s worth asking for an extra portion of vegetables, as some restaurants don’t mind the substitute.
Thai food is delicious. The typical American take on it, however, comes with a few pitfalls that are worth keeping in mind.
Pad Thai, a perennial favorite, usually involves peanut sauce (let alone actual peanut crumbs), so you’ll need to decide for yourself if it’s worth eating. I absolutely love the stuff over a bed of rice noodles, so I’ll normally opt to indulge, though anyone with a true peanut allergy might want to keep clear.
A good Thai restaurant should offer coconut milk curries, however, which are a fantastic way to get in some healthy saturated fat. Pair them with white rice, if you like, or just extra vegetables, and you should be able to make it out of the restaurant with a smile.
Eggs noodles, by the way, contain flour, so don’t make the mistake that I did and assume they’re a Paleo-friendly option.
I’m not too familiar with a ‘proper’ Vietnamese joint, so I’ll only speak briefly about my (limited) expertise: pho.
Pho, if you’ve never tried it, is one of the most satisfying meals imaginable. Picture a huge bowl of warm, well-seasoned broth, filled with rice noodles and — depending on how authentic the restaurant is — a wide variety of animal parts. I’ve been known to get the bowls with tripe and all sorts of strange ingredients, partially for the nutrition and partially to weird out my eating companions.
It’s hard to go wrong with pho. Add a few squeezes of hot sauce, lime juice, etc., and you’ll exit the restaurant quite happy indeed.
(Note: there might be bad things involved in the broth, but I don’t want to know. Don’t spoil this for me.)
Pasta is out. Likewise for the bread and olive oil combination that the waiters sometimes bring out as an appetizer. This destroys the whole appeal of an Italian restaurant for most, admittedly, but it’s not impossible to eat fairly well even as you’re trading suggestive glances with the pizza at the next table over.
You can opt for a salad with some kind of protein and ask specifically for olive oil and balsamic as the dressing. You can also order an entree with fish/chicken/whatever as the mainliner, though remember too that the accompanying sauce might be thickened with a starch that you’re not comfortable with. Cream-based sauces, likewise, are questionable for anyone with a strong dairy sensitivity, and anyone concerned about gluten is better off avoiding the breaded choices altogether.
Again, you’ll have to stay practical. Aim for meat and vegetables, but do so knowing that you can’t fully control what goes into their preparation. Tomato-based sauces can work in a pinch, and there’s no harm in asking that your dish be prepared with olive oil where possible, though I don’t know off the top of my head how that usually works out. It’s been a few years since I stepped into an Olive Garden, y’see.
Not to keep repeating myself, but the same rules apply here as well as anywhere else: meat and vegetables. The diversity of an American restaurant’s menu might help, but you’ll still see vegetable oils, gluten, and other oddities in abundance, even on dishes that seem otherwise pretty mundane.
Consider ordering a steak, but it’s worth asking if the accompany butter is actually butter instead of margarine or some strange substitute. Consider ordering a salad, but skip the croutons and try and opt for an olive oil and balsamic dressing. Rest assured, too, that certain restaurants (the one named after a pepper comes to mind) will somehow manage to screw up even this most basic of requests.
BBQ options are a popular choice, but not always ideal given the sugar and weird oils that can go into the sauces. I’m still more likely to opt for BBQ over the alternatives, as I’m not too concerned about excess sugar, though you can also try and order smoked meat for a delicious and ‘safer’ meal.
Don’t be afraid to request a burger without the bun or a sandwich laid atop a salad instead of the usual wheat vehicle. Anything breaded or fried won’t contain Paleo-happy ingredients, and even grilled dishes can be deceiving, though they’re generally a superior choice to the alternative.
Chips and salsa, which are provided at no additional expense (at least in the southern part of the US), aren’t going to do much for anyone trying to go easy on wheat. This won’t make them any less tempting, of course, when the basket is steaming and hot right in front of you, but do try to hold out for as long as possible.
Tortillas, whether corn or flour, are better off avoided. This takes out a lot of the romance and appeal of a Mexican restaurant, but anyone willing to dig into the menu should be able to come up with some pretty tasty alternatives: a carne asada (steak), perhaps, or some kind of grilled fish. I’ve been known to go for a chile relleno, too, with full knowledge that there’s probably something in there that’s bad for me.
A taco salad is also an option, though you might find yourself staring down at a bowl full of iceberg lettuce. There are few things more depressing than realizing how much you just spent for what amounts to a bowl of crunchy water, so make sure you enquire about the kind of lettuce that the salad comes with. As far as dressing goes, taking salsa or even regular hot sauce and using it liberally is always a great idea, especially if the restaurant refills your salsa bowls as often as the ones in the south tend to.
Fajitas, lastly, are a great choice. Decline the tortillas, dump on liberal amounts of salsa and guacamole, and go to town. You can ask about how they’re cooked, if you like, but you might not like the answer.
Keeping in mind that white rice can be your friend (provided you partake in starch), a Japanese-style restaurant can make for a pretty satisfying meal.
Sushi is a big draw, though you may want to keep tabs on the ingredients. If you go for straight sashimi, you shouldn’t need to fret, though sushi rolls require a slightly longer thought process. American rolls, at least, like to toss in mayonnaise (soybean oil), fake crab (I still don’t know what the hell it actually is), tempura (delicious, but a form of bread crumbs), and plenty of soy-based sauces (wheat and soy!), all of which are generally worth avoiding.
The best choice? Get raw fish in your roll, a healthy mix of veggies, and realize that the sauce probably isn’t Paleo-approved. Sushi, for me, ranks pretty highly on the “Eat the Damn Dish” (EDD) scale, meaning I find it worth consuming even if the sauce doesn’t contain an ideal list of ingredients.
If you’re concerned about the rice, by the way, some restaurants offer a ‘low-carb’ option, meaning they’ll use half the rice. You can also ask that the roll be delivered in a cucumber instead of the seaweed and rice blanket, though that might require some familiarity with the chef.
Wasabi, by the way, occupies murky territory. I loved the stuff (the bright green ‘paste’ that can set your mouth on fire, if you’re not familiar with it), but my amorous feelings faded upon learning that it’s not even the real deal. Even high-end Japanese restaurants provide a fake wasabi made of horseradish, cornstarch, and added color, meaning that funny green paste isn’t quite what I always imagined it to be. I’ve heard you can ask for the real thing, but can’t confirm this myself. Anyone tried it?
Stir-frys, likewise, can be pretty satisfying, though as I understand they’re usually made with soy sauce. There’s no harm in asking if the cooks can use wheat-free tamari instead, though here again I don’t know if (and honestly don’t expect them to) restaurants stock that sort of thing. If you do get one and try to include a starch, aim for rice noodles or a bed of white rice. Skipping the starch? Ask for a bed of vegetables, and definitely try and get an extra serving of the good stuff.
Eggs and bacon. Omelettes are safe choices, generally, though anyone with a penchant for IHOP will be devastated to learn that they mix their (wheat-based) pancake batter into their egg mixes. Still, it’s easier to eat well at a breakfast joint than most other places, and while you can’t control the cooking method nor the quality of the ingredients, no one around will judge you for ordering another side of bacon.
If you’re concerned about how your eggs are cooked, there’s no harm in asking whether the kitchen uses butter. Many of them might even do so upon request! The majority also shouldn’t have any issue taking the contents of a breakfast burrito and laying it all out on a plate. Add in a few dashes of hot sauce, some salt and pepper, and you’ll have a pretty satisfying meal on your hands.
It’s been some time since I’ve stepped into a seafood restaurant, but your options here are better than most: salads and fish dishes by the dozen, with several cooking choices available for the latter. I’ve seen restaurants offer oven-broiled, steamed, grilled, fried, and blackened as options, which offers endless variety — and additional complexity — on an otherwise simple dish.
Grilled is a popular choice, especially if they offer butter that you can drizzle over top. I highly doubt that butter is real, however, so be sure to ask about it. Blackened is universally delicious, and the traditional preparation method involves lots of butter, but given the state of the food industry I wouldn’t be surprised if a butter substitute was used instead. Be sure to ask.
You’re better off skipping the fried options, tasty though they may be.
For the sake of my sanity, I won’t cover every single one of the mainstay fast food restaurants here in the States. Given the dubious quality of the ingredients, you’re better off skipping fast food entirely, though time constraints and the price point can still make them an appealing choice.
Here again, opt for meat and vegetables. Take the bun off a burger (lettuce wraps work too!), go for salads where possible, and choose grilled over fried. And hey, if you’re planning on grabbing something quick, why not choose a popular Paleo option: Chipotle?
I’m more of a Qdoba fan myself, but any make-your-own burrito joint can usually provide a decent meal on the quick. Skip the tortilla, of course, and the beans, but there’s usually no real need to hold back on anything else. Chipotle, for example, lets you put any burrito in a bowl, so I’ll grab a fajita burrito bowl (which swaps the rice for grilled peppers), steak, salsa, guacamole, etc. Again, the cooking oil is rarely ideal (Chipotle uses soybean oil, sadly), but a burrito bowl is still an infinitely better choice than most of the alternatives, so pick your ingredients wisely and dig in with gusto.
There’s a plate of cookies about three feet from my table. One of them (not that I’ve been looking, of course) is peanut butter chocolate pretzel, while the other is strawberry white chocolate macadamia. I am not tempted by these treats. My inquiry about the price was purely for research reasons, and my insistence on bringing my face as close as possible to sniff them was clearly in the interest of making sure they hadn’t gone stale for the other patrons of this coffee shop.
The majority of that previous paragraph, by the way, is a lie.
Blame it on Starbucks, but coffee shops have quickly become known for two things: steaming cups of coffee and delicious treats to pair with them. It goes without saying, of course, that these sweets are very rarely Paleo-approved, even if you’re about as sure as I am that our Paleolithic ancestors would have opted for biscotti over bugs any day of the week.
What to do?
Drink your coffee. Enjoy it with heavy whipping cream, if the coffee shop offers it (and you’re fine with dairy), or maybe opt for tea instead. Avoid skim milk, half and half, and soy milk as much as possible, which admittedly might be difficult if you’re not too keen on the flavor of black coffee.
If that’s where you find yourself, take heart, as I’m about to get controversial.
You can add sugar. Seriously. Maybe don’t dump in two or three packets, but a little sugar in your coffee (provided, of course, that you’re not suffering any long-standing problems with insulin) won’t cause the universe to crumble around you, and nor will the Paleo Police drag you off for questioning. It’s better to drink it black, sure, but working with small amounts of sugar can be a great way to build up to that point, so don’t be afraid to use some (you can also try Stevia!) whenever you’re passing over the creamers.
But what about the treats? You know what I’m going to say, I’m afraid. Skip them. If you insist on eating something, see if you can sneak a piece of fruit, but keep in mind too that coffee can act as a pretty effective appetite suppressant. I use a few cups to curb the appetite when fasting, though you don’t need to be skipping meals to see similar benefits.
The Sodium Thing
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned sodium much here, though it comes up pretty often as a big concern for nearly every restaurant imaginable. Is it an issue? It could very well be, though I haven’t seen (for lack of looking, admittedly) anything especially compelling about the dangers of high sodium intake. Be aware, in any case, that the sodium content of most dishes is pretty freaking outrageous, though I’d argue that’s a secondary concern to the excess sugar, vegetable oils, etc.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
You’re paying for your food, here, and are well within your rights to enquire about what goes into it: the ingredients, the preparation method, etc. The knowledge might very well determine what you order, or it might make your meal that much better: extra veggies on the side, sweet potato fries instead of regular russet, etc.
What do you have to lose besides a few minutes of time?
Don’t be Afraid to Lie(!)
Seriously concerned about gluten/soy?
Tell the restaurant you have a gluten/soy allergy, and don’t be afraid to describe in detail what that means. This falls into morally questionable territory, sure, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing you can do. Don’t pitch a fit if the restaurant can’t try and cater to your (possibly fake, but probably existent) allergy, but don’t be surprised, either, if they at least make an attempt to help you out.
If nothing else, you’ll get a better feel for the gluten-free/soy-free options that the restaurant offers, which can make your life a lot easier when you’re staring down at a menu that’s six pages long.
The Big Takeaway
I’d hoped, when I first sat down to write this, that I could offer cheerier news. The truth of the matter, though, is that the modern food industry offers very little in the way of Paleo-friendly dishes, a woefully unsurprising fact when you consider the cheap expense of vegetable oils and the flavor-enhancing properties of both sugar and salt.
What can you do, then, whenever you’re paying someone else to prepare your food?
Do the best you can. Realize that very few dishes are perfectly Paleo, and then remember (whew!) that you’re trying to be practical instead. Opt for meat and veggies where possible, natural oils when they’re available, and just remember that one ‘bad’ meal isn’t going to completely derail your progress forever.
Eating out, accordingly, is something best minimized. You and I both know it’s going to happen, though, so there’s no sense in guilt-tripping yourself when it does. Order the most Paleo dish you can find, enjoy it as much as possible, and don’t stress. If you’re eating out in the first place, you might as well enjoy it, and there’s no reason you can’t skip a meal or eat as Paleo as possible over the next week to try and compensate.
Stay practical, folks. That’s the only way you’ll survive, and I’d argue until I’m blue in the fact that you can eat the occasional unhealthy meal and still thrive better than ever.
Look for part two of this guide (covering airports and a few other topics) to come next week. Thanks for reading this! If you enjoyed it, please feel free to retweet it for others to see. Thanks!
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