How to Make Any Restaurant Meal Paleo | The Paleo Diet®
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How to Make Any Take-Out Meal Paleo

By Megan Patiry, Lifestyle Writer
November 9, 2020
Oksana Mizina/ Shutterstock.com Oksana Mizina/ Shutterstock.com

It’s easy to stick to Paleo when you cook for yourself. But what about when you’re ordering from a restaurant?

It can be especially tricky to stay Paleo when a restaurant has limited menu options.

Rest assured, you probably have more options than you think.

Menus don’t always tell the whole story. It helps to think of them more like suggestions as to what a restaurant can give you.

But before you modify the menu options, check out this guide of what you can safely order at most restaurants (including take-out).

Mexican

Tortillas, corn chips, beans, rice, tacos. On the surface, Mexican seems like a poor choice for Paleo dieters—but it’s actually one of the best cuisines for a healthy meal.

When you look beyond the sides of rice and beans, you’ll notice that most Mexican meals center around meat, bell peppers, onions, avocado, and salsa. Replace gluten-heavy sides with a serving of veggie sticks with guacamole and salsa, and you’re golden.

Many modern and upscale Mexican restaurants also offer alternative dishes like roast chicken and nopales (a type of cactus that grows in Mexico), which are other good options. Make sure if there is a sauce with anything, you ask if it is dairy-free and gluten-free, although it’s usually just best to request it on the side to be safe.

Order: Chicken or beef with no sauce, extra guacamole and avocado, salsa, and veggies

Avoid: Tacos, tortillas, rice and beans, sauces and toppings, corn chips

Chinese & Japanese

While Chinese food often comes with rice, you’ll find that meat, fish, and veggies are also plentiful. If you’ve ever gone to a hibachi restaurant where they cook in front of you, you probably remember seeing veggies in the form of onion towers!

The key here is to focus on meats and veggies. Make sure your chicken, pork, fish, or beef is grilled or sauteed, not fried, and skip the rice noodles in favor of sauteed veggies. You can also order a salad with a Paleo-friendly ginger dressing. (Just ask what’s in it to be on the safe side.)

Order: Grilled or sauteed beef, fish, and chicken; sauteed veggies, cabbage or kelp salads, veggies

Avoid: Noodles, rice, miso soup (soy), soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, egg rolls, anything deep-fried (like tempura)

Sushi

Your best bet with sushi, wherever you are, is to actually order sashimi (a.k.a. raw fish). When ordering, stick to salmon or a white fish instead of tuna to reduce mercury intake.

Also, skip the soy sauce for dipping. Instead, secretly tote in your own coconut aminos. They're still made with salt and therefore not 100-percent Paleo, but it’s still a much better option than soy sauce.

If you’re ordering rolls, ask that they be made without rice and skip the sauce. Even better: Try a veggie roll or two!

Order: Sashimi, sushi without the rice, green salad

Avoid: Rice, soy sauce, miso soups

Thai

As with other Asian cuisine, you’ll want to center your Thai order around meat and fish rather than noodles, rice, or soy. Thai cooking typically uses a lot of sauces. Peanut sauce is off-limits, but lighter sauces made with fish sauce might be okay. This type of sauce usually contains a bit of non-Paleo salt and sugar, but since it’s used in small portions, it’s probably fine.

As for veggies, you can ask for “pad pak,” which is the generic term for mixed veggies (sans sauce) as a side. Sometimes there will also be other sauteed veggie options on the menu, along with fruit salad, so be sure to ask.

Another tip with eating Thai is to remove the skin from any meats, since sauces tend to “stick” there if the restaurant does add any.

Order: Grilled or sauteed meats, extra veggies with no teriyaki sauce, whole fish dishes, fruit salad, stir-fried vegetables

Avoid: Sauces, noodles, rice, and anything battered or fried

Italian

Ah, the land of pizza and spaghetti. We’re waiting for the day when spaghetti squash with marinara becomes mainstream at Italian restaurants, but alas, until then: Place the focus on fresh greens and a range of meats. You may also be able to order sauteed veggies with a tomato or marinara sauce (make sure there’s no cheese in it) as a side that will really fill you up.

Veggie soups are often a good bet as well. Just ask if there is any dairy or gluten, to be on the safe side.

Order: Grilled meat, green salads with olive oil and balsamic, sauteed greens, veggie soups (inquire if there is dairy, gluten, or corn in the broth)

Avoid: Pasta, cream-based sauces and casseroles, breadsticks, croutons, pizza, cheese, creamy salad dressings

French

One of the most decadent cuisines, French food can be easily navigated as long as you’re mindful to ask for no butter (ideally, avoid sauces). Ratatouille, a common dish of veggies made with tomato sauce, will also be your best friend.

Luckily, French is still a Mediterranean cuisine, so check to see if you can substtite bread for something else, and always order salad and veggies with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Typically, you can also order grilled or baked chicken or fis—the only thing you need to be mindful of is avoiding sauces.

Order: Fish of the day (no sauce), grilled, baked, or sauteed meats (no sauce), sauteed veggies, ratatouille, salads with olive oil and vinegar, roasted veggies

Avoid: “Creamy” dishes and sauces, poached meats, casseroles, breaded items

American

When you’re faced with a choice between a burger or hot dog and fries, you might feel cornered. But actually, this one is pretty easy to navigate. Get a burger without the bun, and request a salad with oil and vinegar instead of fries.

Order: Bunless burgers, grilled chicken, greens with olive oil and vinegar, fruit

Avoid: Creamy sauces and fried chicken, sauces, hot dogs, French fries

Breakfast & Brunch

Remember your new breakfast mantra: Eggs, eggs, and more eggs. Get a veggie scramble, order fried eggs with your choice of protein (turkey, salmon, or beef), or get the Benedict with avocado.

You might think that omelets are a good idea, but double-check that the restaurant isn’t adding flour to them. That’s right: It’s common for restaurants to add flour to make omelets more “fluffy.”

Order: Eggs (if scrambled, make sure it’s not in butter), turkey, salmon, or beef, veggies, fruit

Avoid: Pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, yogurt

Middle Eastern

Middle Eastern cuisine is similar to other Mediterranean cuisines. The focus here should be on olive oil, meats (like lamb shanks), kebabs, and salads with olive oil and vinegar.

Baba ganoush is also an option if you’re not avoiding nightshades. Ask for carrots or other raw veggies to dip.

Order: Kebabs, lamb shanks, fish, grilled or baked meats, salads with lemon and olive oil, baba ganoush

Avoid: Hummus, “creamy” dishes, potatoes, chickpeas, pita chips

More tricks for staying Paleo at Restaurants:

  • Avoid anything on the menu that says “creamy”—this usually means it contains dairy.
  • Always ask if the dish is cooked in a sauce, or comes with a sauce topping.
  • Focus on meats, veggies, avocado, olive oil, and greens in any restaurant.
  • Ask for a simple salad with meat if there are no options, even if it’s not on the menu.
  • Double-check that dishes and/or salads do not automatically come with cheese as a topping. (It’s common for Italian restaurants to add parmesan without mentioning it, for instance.)
  • If you aren’t sure if “fried” means sauteed or deep-fried, ask.
  • Always order a side of lemon. It makes an excellent flavoring for almost anything!
  • Look for root vegetables on menus. If they have carrots, parsnips, or squash, you might be able to get them simply roasted.
  • Be careful with broths and soups—many contain soy or wheat, and could be thickened with corn starch.
  • Can’t find a good main dish? Order several sides instead.

Finally, ask questions. Restaurants are usually more than happy to help people with preferences. It’s okay to say you have a serious allergy if you feel more comfortable with that.

Again, eating out should be an enjoyable experience. By choosing simple dishes, you can make it easier on yourself to enjoy your time, instead of worrying if you’re going to eat something on the “bad” list.

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