I love finding a new restaurant to try. I’m talking off the beaten path, definitely not a chain, new-to-me cuisines and even dives. While I’m not a huge fan of meat and try to follow a largely plant based diet, ethnic cuisines are some of my favorites. A good Pad Thai, sushi, a wood-fired pizza, hummus or tzatziki with fresh veggies and homemade pita — it doesn’t get much better than that.
When it comes to trying new foods or different cuisines, it’s hard to know what’s healthy. Unlike those Golden Arches, most small, local, non-chain restaurants aren’t required to list their nutritional content on their website or menu, and some of the best places have neither. I’m going to break down some of the most popular ethnic dining choices (just the tip of the iceberg), some healthier options at each one, and a handful of items to steer clear of. Bon appetit.
Unfortunately, when I say “Chinese,” most often the next word that comes to mind is “buffet.” I’m not a big fan of any sort of buffet for a myriad of reasons. It’s hard to reign in portion control, the sodium, the list goes on. If you can order something off the menu, please go that route. For the times you can’t, be selective with your choices (you don’t have to sample it all) and one plate should be your limit.
If you can’t close the lid on your to-go box …. do I even need to tell you that it is not a good sign?
Healthier choices, whether at a buffet or ordering off the menu include: wonton soup, hot and sour, egg drop soup, steamed, not fried veggie-based dishes, brown rice instead of white, seafood or tofu instead of heavily breaded and sauced items like General Tso’s. Use reduced sodium soy sauce over regular.
Menu items to steer clear of: Egg rolls and their sugary dipping sauce, like I mentioned above, heavily breaded and fried menu items like General Tso’s or Kung pao chicken.
Do I even need to tell you to avoid “American” foods that show up on a buffet, like chicken fingers or french fries? I sure hope not. If dessert is calling your name, add some fresh fruit and a fortune cookie to round out your meal. Bonus if you use chopsticks since it naturally slows you down — a good thing when at a buffet.
My friend Jenn just died a little inside with this recommendation, but if you want good sushi Greeneville residents, head to your local Publix. While sushi can be a very healthy choice, not all of it is. Healthier choices include veggie-based rolls (choose brown over white rice or make it even healthier with a cucumber or hand roll), tuna roll, California roll, salmon roll and even a Rainbow roll.
Pair your roll with seaweed salad — you can’t go wrong with that burst of deep green. Sashimi, low sodium soy sauce for dipping and the filling, yet light on calories Miso soup.
Avoid anything tempura (aka fried), mayo or cream cheese-based rolls like the Philadelphia roll and any kind of “spicy” roll as spicy often includes mayo.
If you are looking for a delicious, authentic and fresh Italian experience try The Glass Onion in neighboring Weaverville. Delizioso! For the times you may not make it farther than your phone and a call to Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Dominos, Rocky’s, or Little Caesars let me steer you towards some healthier options.
When ordering a pizza go with whole wheat or thin crust over deep dish or pan, stick with veggies as your topping and if you must add a meat go with a lean selection like Canadian bacon. Say no to extra anything unless it’s veggies. Keep it to two to three slices and pair with a side salad for some fresh veggies and color (dressing on the side, and I’m not talking about ranch).
If you find yourself at more of a sit-down style Italian restaurant, you can’t go wrong with a bowl of minestrone soup. Whole wheat pasta with shrimp or grilled chicken and red sauce is a good choice as well. If a bread basket and butter/olive oil are a pre-dinner offering, go with a little olive oil over butter. Steer clear of anything with alfredo (aka heavy cream/fat bomb), anything loaded down with cheese (menu items like lasagna) or fried options like chicken or eggplant parmigiana.
Just say no to adding meatballs to your pasta, as they are often a blend of high fat meats.
My personal favorite, Greek cuisine offers many veggie-based healthier options. My Big Fat Greek Plate at Stoney Knob in neighboring Weaverville is what dreams are made of and I had some amazing tzatziki and hummus from Blue Spinx (a Johnson City based food truck) just a couple weekends ago.
A Greek salad with or without grilled chicken is a great choice, especially when you ask your server to go light on the feta and dressing, or ask for it on the side. Souvlakis is essentially a meat and veggie kebab making it a decent choice. Just go with the chicken over pork or lamb.
Gyros are a popular option, and don’t fret, you can still enjoy in moderation — just ask your server to leave off fat- and calorie-heavy condiments like mayo and go for veggie or grilled chicken over lamb or pork (how they are traditionally made).
Hummus or tzatziki with fresh veggies is always a good choice and one of my favorite everyday snacks. Falafel is a favorite of mine as well and even though bean based (ground chickpeas), most are deep fried rather than pan fried or sauteed. So while fine to enjoy in small quantities, don’t make this the main event.
I love naan, but it’s not always your healthiest selection when partaking in Indian cuisine. Indian food, though I’ve yet to drag my husband, Andy, is a personal favorite because of all the spices they use. I love a little heat. Most close-to-us Indian restaurants serve lunch buffet style. While I’m usually not one to advocate a buffet, there are some healthier choices you can feel good about.
Anything Dal, made with good for you lentils, especially when served in a tomato/red sauce and paired with brown instead of white rice is a good choice. Chana Masala, another good-for-you, bean-based dish, is a nice selection. If you feel sad about skipping out on meat try chicken tandoori. It’s grilled, not fried, scoring it automatic health points.
Just say no on pakoras — heavily-breaded fried veggies — and chicken Tikka Masala. This dish is often heavy on the cream, making heavy on the fat content. If you are a fellow carb lover/naan lover, try roti, a whole wheat flat bread.
Behind Greek food, this is a close second for me. Fresh summer rolls — go light on the sauce — are a lovely alternative to a fried roll. Tom Yum soup with shrimp, for some extra protein, is a filling and satisfying choice. Veggie curry (try it with tofu) is a flavorful and filling choice too. Pad Thai is a personal favorite of mine.
Steer clear of both spring rolls and fried rice. Spring rolls are deep fried.
While a really good margarita, fresh chips and good quality guacamole are some of my favorite treats, it can be pretty hard to know what’s healthy at your favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s even harder to not polish off a basket of deep-fried tortilla chips pre-meal.
Healthier options include chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas, minus the high-fat sour cream and cheese. You can control your portion — limit to two to three based on your calorie needs. Add all the fresh veggies and salsa you want.
A bean burrito with a side of sliced avocado is also a great choice. If corn tortillas are an option, choose those over regular flour tortillas. And if you only take away one tidbit, I urge you to go easy on those chips. Just say no to a refill and pair with salsa versus the calorie bombs that are queso/cheese dip.
Most top their enchiladas or burritos with either a red sauce or a cream/cheese-based sauce. Ask for red or leave it off. If given the choice, go for black beans or pinto instead of refried beans and rice — most combo meals come with this side.
If a margarita or beer is calling your name go for on the rocks instead of the sugary heavy frozen mixes and always choose small. A fishbowl margarita is not considered one serving. Choose a light beer (small, please) over a craft or heavier option.
Steer clear of chimichangas, taquitos and taco salads in a deep-fried serving bowl. These are all dishes that have spent some serious time in the deep fryer.