A big part of the lifestyle we’re practicing now involves cooking healthy food at home. We’re eating organic, no hormone, grass fed beef, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and making our own soups and salads out of ingredients we prepare ourselves. But sometimes you just want to go out to a restaurant. Maybe you’re pressed for time and it’s convenient. Maybe you’re going out to celebrate a big event. Maybe you just really want to sit and relax while someone else makes breakfast. Whatever the reason, you want to eat out. But you still want to stick to the plan. So what do you do?
Well, the good news is, it really isn’t that difficult. With a little planning and preparation ahead of time, you can eat out pretty much carefree. First it’s a good idea to spend a little time learning about different cuisines, how they’re prepared, and what kinds of foods you can generally expect to find on the menus of different restaurants.
American food is pretty easy to define. Hamburgers and sandwiches, it’s mostly meat on bread, Sides usually include fries or chips. This kind of food can be made fairly “Paleo friendly” without too much trouble. Order burgers without cheese or a bun, most places are willing to put it in a lettuce wrap or just on a plate for you with the toppings. Ask for some variation of steamed or sauteed veg for a side.
Chinese food is a tricky one. You can order grilled meat and steamed veg, but the sauces are almost exclusively made with soy products which I’m trying to avoid as much as possible. Soy has a lot of potentially unhealthy aspects, which you can find on a number of websites like this one. In addition, especially in America, Chinese restaurants tend to serve breaded foods cooked in any of several oils often avoided in the Paleo lifestyle. Corn, canola, vegetable, and peanut oils are all common in so called “American Chinese” restaurants. If you just have to have Chinese food, and I’m someone who loves Chinese and still craves it occasionally, try sticking to steamed vegetables and grilled meats. Avoid things like rice, fried pastries, and soups which usually have soy and tofu in them.
Indian food is actually pretty naturally Paleo. They tend to use coconut milk and coconut oil instead of dairy milk and vegetable oils, and the dishes usually consist mostly of large chunks of meat. Watch out for foods that include Paneer, which is a kind of homemade cheese, as well as lentils, chickpeas, and yogurt. Look for a good, authentic, Indian restaurant, and you can probably eat pretty easily while still sticking to the plan.
Italian food is another story. Usually it’s breaded meat or veg served over pasta with cheesebread on the side. Wash it down with a soda and you can enjoy bread four ways in one meal. You can find things to eat at Italian restaurants, grilled chicken, potato gnocchi in meat sauce, antipasto salads, it’s not a total wasteland for the ancestral eater. But they will try to cover the food in cheese and overwhelm you with bread. If I’m in an Italian restaurant I start by asking the waiter not to bring bread to the table and then specifically request no bread or cheese on my main dish, regardless of what I order, just to be safe. I’ve had dishes sometimes arrive with cheese sprinkled over the top that wasn’t mentioned on the menu when I didn’t specifically address it with the server while ordering, so now I just do so as a matter of course. Don’t get bent. Just go in knowing that your choices will be limited, and then do your best.
Mexican food can be enjoyed pretty easily, just stay away from the rice and beans and tortillas. Order the fajitas and just eat the sizzling steak and veg with lettuce and guacamole.
I stick to a couple of basic guidelines when I’m eating out that make it easier to decide what to order.
1. No more than two special requests. If I’m looking at something I want to order on the menu and I can do so with two or fewer adjustments, that’s fine. But if I’m going to have to order none of this, and none of that, and hold the other thing, then I’m ordering something completely different, so I might as well just go ahead and order something completely different. Don’t get hung up on the thing you always used to eat but have to make six changes to to bring in line with your plan. Instead open yourself to trying something new that’s naturally closer to your goals. You could order breaded chicken over cheesy rice with a side of beans minus the bread and the cheese and the rice and the beans, or you could just order the grilled salmon with steamed broccoli. Save yourself, the waiter, and the cookstaff some trouble and make the right decision.
2. Think outside the box. Recently my parents really really wanted to take me to a new Hot Italian Beef Sandwich restaurant they’d discovered. They were all excited to share this new experience and they wanted to go out as a family and have a nice meal. Now I knew that everything was going to be served on a loaf of bread, but I didn’t rain on their party. I got excited with them and went and ordered a sandwich like everybody else with double meat and veg. Then when I got my food I just dumped the meat and veg off the hoagie, tossed the bread in the trash, and ate my huge pile of delicious food with a fork and a knife. Great meal, great family time, no worries about “breaking the rules.” Don’t get self conscious, don’t think you have to “clean your plate.” Just eat the stuff you do want to eat, and don’t eat the stuff you don’t want to eat.
3. It’s ok to go “off plan.” There are no “Paleo Police” waiting to issue you a ticket for eating a croissant. There are no “Paleo Ninjas” waiting in the bushes to ambush you if they see you enjoy an after dinner mint. One piece of cheesecake isn’t going to give you diabetes. If you want to eat something that you know isn’t good for you, then make a decision. Either do what’s healthy, or what will make you happy. The whole point of this lifestyle is improving your quality of life. Sometimes that means resisting that sugary dessert that you know will make you sick later. Sometimes it means enjoying a nice evening out and not concerning yourself with nitpicking every aspect of every meal every day of your life. If you feel like you’re in prison, then stretch your legs. In my experience, those foods you’re avoiding will probably taste delicious, and then make you feel a little gross later that night, and over time you just won’t want to eat them that much anymore. In some ways, once you’ve detoxed from the Standard American Diet, the best way to reduce the urge to eat poison is to give in to it every once in a while. It’ll remind you why you made that decision in the first place.
4. It’s ok to have allergies. If you’re really concerned about cross-contamination of foods or that little bit of cheese sneaking on to your plate, just tell the waiter that you have an allergy. Most waitstaff are still unfamiliar with the Paleo lifestyle and trying to explain it to them is likely to cause more confusion than it clears up. But they have people tell them they have food allergies all day. Waiters are used to hearing that and communicating it to the people in the kitchen, who are all used to taking it into account when preparing food. It doesn’t matter if you actually do have a food allergy. Just tell them you’re allergic. It’s like a code. Everybody in the food industry is familiar with the idea of food allergies, and nobody will give you any trouble for it. And they’re a lot more likely to listen, because they also don’t want to face legal liability for ignoring someone’s allergy and causing them to have a medical emergency.
5. Eyes on your own plate. No one likes the vegan who starts screaming and spitting and throwing red paint on everyone who eats a burger. Nobody wants to be proselytized to while they’re eating Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. Enjoy your dinner and let other people enjoy theirs. Don’t make any rude comments or “helpful” suggestions unless they’re solicited. If you keep making healthy choices for yourself, people will be asking you for your advice soon enough anyway. You don’t have to force it on them. For now, eat your steak and mushrooms and let them eat their pizza and be content in the knowledge that you are making a healthy and delicious decision for yourself, and that’s all that’s any of your business. It’s easy to get excited and want to share the good news, especially when you start experiencing the benefits of this lifestyle. But it’s also easy to turn other people off of it by being a pushy jerk. If you really want to do your friends a favor, let them come to this on their own in their own way at their own pace. They’ll be a lot more open to it in the long run, and more likely to accept it and stick with it. You be the change you want to see in the world, and let other people eat their meal in peace.
6. Try not to be a jerk. Most people in your society aren’t eating like this. Most waiters aren’t used to getting these types of special orders. Most cooks aren’t familiar with these dietary restrictions. This is still a relatively new cultural phenomenon. Be patient with the people at the restaurant. They aren’t trying to ruin your meal and they’re making minimum or even sub-minimum wage. If you want it done right, do it yourself. At home. In your own kitchen. If you’re going to eat in someone else’s kitchen, then accept that someone else is doing the work and try to be gracious with the results. Within reason of course. I’m not saying if they drop your food on the floor you should say thank you and eat it up. I’m saying if your chicken was grilled on a flat-top they also warm burger buns on, or if there’s a tablespoon of shredded parmesan on your chicken breast, or if there’s some milk in the mashed potatoes, then eat the parts of the meal you’re comfortable with and do a better job ordering next time. Don’t let one instance of one tiny portion of something that other people eat all the time ruin your meal or a nice evening out. Take it in stride and roll on. Next time you’ll know to communicate more clearly with your server, or order something else, or maybe just eat somewhere else all together. Tonight, just enjoy your meal.
Breakfasts are pretty easy. You can get an omelet most places. Eggs, meat, veg. Watch out for milk in the eggs and the oil they use on the hashbrowns, sometimes they drench the potatoes in vegetable oils. Most of your “average nice” restaurants, like Friday’s and Applebee’s and Outback have a variety of steak and chicken and fish dishes you can order pretty easily. Places like Qdoba and Chipotle are a breeze, just order the salad bowl with just meat, lettuce, veg, guacamole, and salsa. Jimmy John’s will let you order any sandwich as a lettuce wrap. And of course if you absolutely have to fall back on something, almost everywhere has a salad you can order. Spend a little time doing some research on your own beyond this blog post. Google things like “Best Paleo Restaurants,” and “Eating Out Paleo.” Robb Wolf has a great e-book on this topic called The Paleo Dining Out Guide available for only eight bucks. Prepare ahead of time with a little knowledge and you won’t have any anxiety, or difficulty, when it’s your turn to order.
Let us know what you do when you eat out!