Takeout Tips and Traps

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Joe Wilkes

In a perfect world, we'd all be able to spend each morning browsing the farmers' market for the ideal seasonal produce, then spend the afternoon making a nutritious meal that would bring a tear to Martha Stewart's eye with its flawless presentation. But in reality, sometimes you don't even have time to make do with what's in the fridge. You might even have to resort to what's hanging on your doorknob or stuck in your windshield wiper, the scourge of diets everywhere: the delivery menu.

Ah, the delivery menu. A full meal (or more) brought to your door in 30 minutes or less. No cooking. No cleaning. It's like going to a fine restaurant—in your underpants. A dream come true. But it can be a nightmare for your figure if you succumb to some of the common pitfalls of deliverable cuisine. Here are some things to keep in mind so you can order your dinner in without having to let your pants out.

What to watch out for
  1. Good things come in small packages. Unfortunately, most delivery food comes in large packages. It's rare that you can get someone to bring you one or two slices of pizza. You usually get the whole pie. And Chinese and Thai food come in those top-heavy tapered white boxes, so while it may seem you've only eaten half a container, you've actually gone through most of it. Before you dig into your freshly arrived repast, get a plate from your kitchen. (Come on, someone else cooked the dinner, you can wash one plate!) Put a serving on your plate and put the rest in the refrigerator for another time. By removing the extra food, you'll significantly reduce the chance that you'll power-eat your way through two or three meals' worth of calories straight out of the container.
  2. Don't eat the "minimum." One problem with delivery, especially for single people, is that there's usually a $10.00 or $12.00 minimum. If the entrée you order doesn't meet the minimum delivery cost, don't be lured into loading up your order with fatty appetizers or extra desserts just to ensure free delivery. Instead, order two individual-sized entrées and put one in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch or dinner. You'll save money on the delivery fee, plus that's two nights in a row you don't have to cook. You win!
  3. Watch your sides. Your diet's already in trouble since you have to order a banquet's worth of food just to get the delivery guy to show up at your door. Don't get talked into the add-ons like egg rolls, breadsticks, or chicken wings. Don't let a craving, a zealous phone order-taker, or just plain habit talk you into indulging in these unnecessary extras. Your pizza's already going to run you roughly 300 calories a slice (and do you honestly expect to stop at just one?); do you really want to add 300 calories' worth of wings to that?
  4. Read the fine print. The best thing about Chinese, Thai, and other ethnic menus is that since the dish is in a foreign tongue, they usually have to add a couple of sentences about what's in the item and how it's prepared. Look for words and phrases like "steamed," "boiled," "all white meat," etc. Stay away from words like "fried," "crispy," "cheese-filled," "creamy," etc. Also, some menus include heart icons next to the healthier items—keep an eye out for those!
  5. Spice it up. If you can take the heat, sprinkle some hot peppers on your pizza or order your food extra spicy! While some claims that spicy food will boost your metabolism are overexaggerated, there are some other benefits to eating the hot stuff. First off, peppers and curries add a lot of flavor without adding sodium, so pick dishes that emphasize spice over salt. Secondly, if your mouth is on fire, you might be encouraged to drink more water to cool you off. In addition to its myriad other benefits, water will help keep you feeling full, which helps a lot with portion control. (Avoid drinking high-calorie sodas, beers, or Thai iced tea [200 calories a serving] to put out the fire, though.)
What to order

Most of the restaurants that deliver are local eateries, not national chains, so we can't give you specific nutritional information for all of them, but here are some tips for good things to order and bad things to avoid for three of the most popular categories of restaurant.

  • Get steamed. Order steamed rice, not fried, and go with brown rice if they have it—it has extra fiber.
  • Veg out. Look for the dishes that are mostly vegetables and are steamed rather than fried. If you order dishes like beef and broccoli, ask them for extra broccoli.
  • Soup it up. Egg-drop, wonton, and hot-and-sour soups are good low-cal, low-fat options (although they usually have plenty of sodium, so no extra soy sauce!). Fill up on some soup and put away half your entrée for later.
  • Grease: not the word. Stay away from deep-fried dishes like egg rolls, crispy orange chicken, General Tso's chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, etc.
  • Lay off the sauce. Watch out for sauces made with corn syrup or oil. Request low sauce or no sauce. An order of kung pao chicken seems healthy but it's sautéed in enough oil that it can have up to 76 grams of fat—more than an entire day's worth. If possible, ask how it's prepared.
  • Pass up the salt. Ask for low-salt options. Don't use the full-sodium soy sauce packets that come with your meal. Instead, invest in your own bottle of low-sodium soy sauce. Also, make sure your restaurant is one of the many that no longer use monosodium glutamate (MSG) in their dishes.
  • Switch it up. For dinner combos, see if you can substitute healthier options for the normal items. For example, at my Panda Express®, they'll give me an extra serving of steamed vegetables instead of the side of starchy chow mein or fried rice that it typically comes with.
  • The future is bright, and light! A fortune cookie has only 30 calories and no fat, and potentially brings good news or a daily affirmation—treat yourself!
  • Don't pick up that phone. It's hard to find healthy pizza and it's far better to make your own. If delivery's the only option, however, read on . . .
  • More veggies. Load up on veggie toppings like peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh garlic, jalapeños, etc.
  • Less fat and/or less cheese. Ask for low-fat cheese, or ask them to use half the cheese.
  • Defeat the meat. Try to stay away from fatty meat toppings like pepperoni, meatballs, and sausage. Instead, try leaner options like Canadian bacon, chicken, or shrimp.
  • Bust the crust. Not all pizzas are created equal, and neither are their crusts. Most pizza chains list nutrition info on their Web sites, so make sure you take a look before ordering to ensure the smartest choice.
  • Lighten up. Many of the same tips for Chinese food apply to Thai food as well. Try to get steamed brown rice and lots of vegetables and stay away from heavy sauces and high-sodium dishes.
  • Don't get saucy. Satay is a good option, but try not to use too much of the peanut dipping sauce, if any; that's where your calories will start to add up.
  • Don't go (coco)nuts. Watch the coconut milk. It's delicious, but usually extremely fattening. Try to look for dishes flavored with ginger, citrus, curry, or chilies instead. Or ask if they can prepare your dish with low-fat coconut milk.
  • Hold the milk. Thai restaurants offer a lot of delicious low-fat soups that you can fill up on. They also have some soups that are high in fat because of coconut milk. Try and order soups that don't include it. And as with all soups, keep an eye on the sodium.
  • Green and lean. Thai cuisine includes many salads that are a meal in themselves, such as Yum Nuah (beef salad) or Pla Goong (grilled shrimp salad). Many of these have simple lime juice dressings that are low in fat. But, as with American salads, caveat emptor, and ask the restaurant what's in the dressing.
  • Go fish (or tofu). Check out the fish and tofu options. Even more than their Chinese counterparts, Thai restaurants have lots of dishes that feature seafood and tofu. And if you don't care for either, the Thai spices might just help you overcome your aversion.
So while it's unlikely you'll lose much weight on a takeout diet, there are still a lot of ways you can minimize the damage. But if you're still afraid that takeout temptation will take out your resolve, try filling that "30 minutes or less" with a quick P90X or P90X+® workout like Ab Ripper X or Abs/Core Plus while you're waiting for your food to arrive. Then you can enjoy that Szechwan chicken with a side of virtuousness.