Look for healthier options on takeout menus

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Pam Stuppy
 |  Special to Portsmouth Herald

Homemade meals eaten as a family put us in more control over the quality and quantity of the foods we eat. That being said, there may be times when life gets in the way of our best intentions. This can send us scrambling to feed ourselves and/or our family, leaving a takeout meal as our most likely alternative.

Relative to health, takeout meals can send us over an obstacle course of potential health negatives. Many are high in sodium, some are high in saturated fat, a large number include one or more processed or refined ingredients, many are calorie-dense, and most include more than what is recommended as a single serving.

Another issue is that few takeout meals mimic the image of the public health “plate” that suggests half the meal is vegetables/fruit, a quarter is a protein source, and a quarter is a complex starch (like a whole grain, beans, or starchy vegetable).

The good news is that with a little forethought, you can still include the occasional takeout meal without guilt. A first step might be to go online to look at the menu items available at your local takeout establishments. Many also have nutritional information for guidance. You can then identify those that align with your health and weight goals.

When cruising the menu, look for foods that fit into one or more of the healthy food groups. Zero in on those lower in saturated fat (poultry, lean/unprocessed meat, fish, other seafood, beans, tofu, tempeh, minimal amounts of cheese or coconut oil, etc.). Poultry that includes the skin and meats with obvious fat, or very tender cuts of beef/lamb are higher in saturated fat and calories. 

To save calories, you can choose items that are broiled, baked, grilled, or stir fried rather than deep fried. Foods with a batter coating can soak up a lot of unwanted fat calories. Be aware of how foods have been prepared – sides as well as entrees.

Caloric “extras” can come in the form of high calorie sauces as well. You can ask for salad dressings on the side so you are in more control over the quantity consumed. Appetizers are notorious for being high in calories (usually from fat), often made from more processed ingredients, and low in fiber. Choose the toppings for pizza thoughtfully – consider asking them to go light on the cheese, opt out for meat toppings, and up the veggies.

Although becoming more available, whole grains and more complex starches should be on your radar. These can provide important fiber – a food component limited in many American diets but incredibly important for health. This might be brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, bulgur, barley, whole grain breads/crackers, corn, sweet potato, etc.

Watch for multiple servings of starches at a meal, including any appetizers. This is not uncommon with “combo meals”. These also tend to be much higher in calories than individual options. Another tip is to go with a flat bread pizza crust rather than a thick crust or deep dish. You can also consider sharing a personal pizza rather than eating it all yourself. 

Beans and lentils are the star players when it comes to fiber. Consider choosing foods containing these when possible. Note that baked beans are high in added sugar, sodium, and calories. For example, a meal with brown rice and black beans would be a much better choice.   

Steer clear of or limit intake of the higher sodium foods, especially if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other cardiac risk factors. Sodium is high in many Asian meals, some sauces (steak sauce, soy sauce, tomato sauce, etc.), some salad dressings, processed meats, and most soups.

If you are headed home with your takeout meal, consider what might need to be added so that it fits that image of the healthy plate. Most often the weak link is vegetables. Having frozen vegetables at home might be just what you need to add. These are already prepped and bite-sized so they just need to be steamed or microwaved for a few minutes.

Go crazy with non-starchy vegetables as they provide fiber and a wide range of important nutrients for almost no calories. They can also speed up your feeling of fullness and help you to bump out the unnecessary excesses of other foods at the meal. An example would be a large salad (and choose the dark leafy greens instead of iceberg lettuce if available). 

If a takeout meal includes a calcium source, it tends to be cheese, but this can be at the expense of more calories and saturated fat. A glass of low fat milk would be a great addition or a bowl of yogurt with fruit might make a tasty dessert. Remember that calcium is not just good for bones but can also help with blood pressure numbers and reduce your risk of kidney stones.

Be aware of what would be considered a normal serving size of the foods you have chosen. If you end up with more than you need calorically/nutritionally, you can save the rest for another meal or share with a friend or family member. This also cuts down on the cost of a meal.  

Beverages can be another source of unnecessary calories and added sugars. Choose water, non-caloric beverages, soy milk, or low fat dairy milk. The latter two contain calcium, protein, and other nutrients. Alternative milk products vary greatly in their nutrient content and many have added sugars with minimal nutrients.

So, if a busy day interferes with a home-cooked meal, a thoughtfully planned take-out meal can be your back-up plan. Paying attention to some of these tips may allow you to still be able to stay on target with your health and weight goals. 

Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH.  She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and provides guidance in sports nutrition. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas). 

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