What to Eat—and What to Skip—When It Comes to Takeout Food
While many of us are brushing up on our cooking skills and making more meals at home, there are still plenty of people out there who enjoy some takeout. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, in 2018, the average household spent $3,459 on takeout. So yes, everyone loves to indulge in takeout every once in a while. If that strain on your wallet doesn't bother you though, the effect your takeout habit can have on your waistline just might—and if we had to guess, that's likely why you're here, seeking healthy takeout orders. And it's possible!
"Since I find the science behind a lower carb approach to be most compelling, I recommend choosing lower carb options when eating out. You'll still be very full since the food (is likely) cooked in more fat and is higher in calories," says Rachel Paul, PhD, RD from CollegeNutritionist.com.
Sure, cooking from scratch is always going to be the healthiest bet, but the next best thing you can do is to learn exactly how to healthify your takeout order, right? Whether you're partial to Chinese, sushi, pizza, or something else, we'll show you which items are the best and worst so you know exactly what to order.
When You're Craving Thai…
For a lot of us, Thai seems like the healthier, lighter alternative to Chinese food—but that's not always the case. Along with the healthy stuff, a typical Thai takeout menu is also riddled with diet-sabotaging boobie traps. Here's the best and worst of the lot for your belly.
Summer rolls are steamed instead of fried—and typically filled with lean proteins and veggies, making them a winning appetizer in our book. Pair them with an order of edamame and a broth-based soup for a satisfying, filling meal.
Spring = deep-fried, which is why we say to skip 'em! They're filled with fat and calories your gut and ticker don't need. More heart-harming foods to avoid: all of these 30 Worst Foods For Your Heart!
Laced with ginger, garlic, and chilies, Thai-style vegetables pack huge flavor for few calories. Try splitting an entrée and sharing a side of sizzling vegetables to round out the meal.
Thai Fried Rice
Thai fried rice is nearly as oil-soaked as its Chinese counterpart. The more low-quality fat you have on your plate, the more flab will find up stuck to your frame. Skip it and fill up your plate with an order of veggies instead.
Ordering Pad Thai is a safe bet, and better yet, it's pretty much on every Thai menu in America. An average portion of this popular noodle entrée is usually very low in saturated fat, making it a pretty good option in takeout land. Another great entrée option? Well, keeping in mind what Paul always does, she says it's best to "order a protein and vegetable-based meal," like chicken and broccoli with peanut sauce. And go ahead and even order some curry, too. See, Thai curries, regardless of color, are based on coconut milk. Coconut milk is higher in fat, so you'll end up feeling fuller for longer.
Pla Rad Prik
When it comes to Thai food, be cautious about fish dishes. Many of them are deep-fried, just like this dish. To make this white fish meal, chefs bathe snapper in a wok of hot, bubbling oil. Eat the whole thing with rice and the meal tops out around 900 calories. Skip it to stay slim.
This app is simply lean grilled meat on a stick slathered in a spicy peanut sauce. It's a seriously satisfying, low-fat food. If you want to be extra cautious of excess calories, ask for the kitchen to go light on the peanut sauce or better yet, ask for it on the side.
Tofu Spice Appetizer
While a tofu app may sound innocent. This appetizer is actually fried and served with a peanut and chili sauce. Like porous veggies, tofu acts like a soybean sponge, sucking up anything it comes into contact with. When it's fried, that often translates into a heavy dose of oil and little else. Ask for it sautéed, or stick to the Thai vegetables or satay.
When You're Craving Pizza or Italian…
Pizza and pasta are the quintessential comfort foods, so it's no surprise if you find yourself ordering Italian-inspired food on the reg. Find out here which dishes you should order and which ones are better left far away from your front door.
Linguine Aglio E Olio
Made with pasta, olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper, this simple dish packs a powerful flavor punch without overdoing it in terms of fat and calories. (Bonus: The capsaicin in hot pepper has been shown to increase body heat, boost metabolic rate and decrease appetite!) To add some blood sugar-stabilizing fiber to your meal (a must if you don't want to be ravishing soon after you finish eating), save half of your pasta dish for another day and round out your meal with a side of broccoli raab or sauteed spinach.
If you're not in the mood for pasta though, Paul gives another entreé suggestion.
"Order meatballs and a salad for a filling meal that's lower in carbs," she says.
Topped with pancetta, cheese, and cream, this indulgent pasta dish should pass your lips, like, basically never. While nutrition information will vary from restaurant to restaurant, Cheesecake Factory's take on the dish packs a whopping 2,070 calories and 3,560 milligrams of sodium. If that doesn't convince you to steer clear, we're not sure what will.
Most of the evils of pizza lie in the empty-calorie, yet highly caloric crust. Typically made from refined white flour, pizza dough offers little nutrition to your body and will spike your insulin levels, causing you to crave more. The less crust you indulge in, the better. That means thin-crust pizzas are almost always the better option.
The first rule of pizza delivery—do not stuffeth thy crust. It adds unnecessary calories and fat. There's already plenty to enjoy on top of the dough anyway.
Ordering your pizza with "half cheese" is an easy way to cut the saturated fat on a plain- or veggie-topped pie by 50 percent! Even if you decide to boost the cheese factor on your slimmed-down pie with an additional tablespoon of pungent Parmesan (only 22 calories), you'll still save mega calories.
And as Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal best-selling cookbook author of The Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook points out, it really is the toppings that make a difference.
"There is nothing better than ordering pizza to support your favorite local pizzeria but don't go crazy on the fatty meat toppings," she says. "Instead, top your favorite pizza with vegetables or order a plain pie and complement it with a nice side salad or side of steamed broccoli to round out your healthy meal."
Extra Cheese Pie
If you're the kind of person that downs two or three slices when you order-in, you will easily save up to 150 calories per evening just by ditching the extra cheese—easy as pie!
A spinach salad often includes things like mozzarella, veggies, croutons, grilled chicken, and dried cranberries. If your go-to Italian takeout joint serves theirs with bacon, have them leave that off. To save additional calories, order the dressing on the side and request that the kitchen goes light on the croutons and cranberries. Ordering this bed of greens instead of something heavier like antipasto will save you about 673 calories—even if it's dressed in a bit of balsamic vinaigrette!
Some antipasto plates carry nearly 1,000 calories and 70 grams of artery-clogging fat! Although you may have every intention of saving half of the platter for tomorrow's lunch, there are more effective ways to up the health-value of this commonly ordered takeout dish: just don't order it.
When You're Craving Chinese…
Here's a ratio worth forgetting at Chinese restaurants: 1 entrée to 1 diner. At over a pound (and usually 1,000 calories) per order, these overstuffed cartons are really meant to serve two. Stick to one of our recommended picks and split your meal with a family member or roomie—it's the best way to stay on the straight and narrow toward your weight loss goal.
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings
When she orders Chinese, registered dietitian nutritionist Elisa Zied gets an order of steamed vegetable dumplings sans sauce. "I often pair them with either chicken and broccoli in brown sauce (I ask for a little sauce made without sugar) or steamed shrimp dumplings," she tells us.
When you deconstruct crab wontons, it's easy to see why they're a "Not That!" The inside is filled with crabmeat (oftentimes it's imitation crab) and cream cheese (which is just a fancy-ish, spreadable fat), the wonton is made of refined flour, egg and salt and the crispy coating is a result of a deep oil bath.
Steamed Chicken and Broccoli with Black Bean Sauce
"Order a protein and vegetable-based meal like beef and broccoli. If you like, ask for no rice to be included—we likely don't need extra carbohydrates when we're sitting at home," Paul says.
Essentially, when it comes to ordering a skinny dish from a Chinese restaurant, your best bet is to order some kind of steamed meat and veggie combo with a side of sauce. We like black bean sauce because a half a cup has less than 150 calories. Compared to other Chinese restaurant sauces, it's also relatively low in fat. As Amidor points out though, if you are in the mood for rice, be sure to order brown rice to pair along with that chicken and veggies order.
General Tso's/Orange/Sesame Chicken
Place an order for General Tso's and you're signing up for a battered, fried dish containing up to 1,300 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat and 3,200 milligrams of sodium! (Bet ya didn't see that one coming!) If you think that sounds bad, you're right: It exceeds a person's entire daily recommended sodium intake, half of the recommended caloric intake and about half of the recommended saturated fat limit. Other similar-looking dishes to avoid: orange and sesame chicken. Like General Tso's, they top the 1,000 calorie mark. That's because they're fried, vegetable-less, and topped with gloppy, sugar-laden sauces.
Most of the fat from the skin renders out of the duck over the course of cooking, making this a healthier option than most of the stir-fry entrées available. Order a side of steamed vegetables and serve it with a small scoop of brown rice. Done and done!
Sweet and Sour Anything
Anything with "sweet and sour" in its title is a surefire cue that something has been deep-fried and covered in a sickly-sweet pink sauce. If you pair your selection with a side of rice, you're looking at a 1,000-calorie meal.
Brown Rice with Steamed Veggies
While generally speaking rice consumption should be kept to a minimum (a single portion can cost you 300 calories), but if you stick to the brown variety and mix it with an order of steamed veggies, the combination can make for a solid dish. Pair a serving with an order of steamed dumplings or a wonton soup for a satisfying vegetarian meal.
Lo Mein may seem innocent enough, but the noodles are wok-fried with an abundance of oil, and then speckled with fatty pork or beef. Even ordering the vegetable version won't undo the wrong wrought by this dish. Our advice: Stay away!
When You're Craving Japanese…
Sure, sushi sounds like a health food, but that's not always the case. Scan our approved picks below before you order to ensure the best bet for your gut.
High in protein and fiber and very low in calories, steamed soybeans make a good start to a meal. Request that your edamame comes salt-less and apply it carefully yourself to keep sodium in check.
Sounds healthy, right? The iceberg it's served on offers very little nutritionally, and two tablespoons of the oily ginger dressing can have up to 200 calories and 10 grams of fat. Branch out and try the seaweed salad, one of nature's most potent multivitamins, instead.
Start your meal with miso soup—studies have found that fermented foods, like miso, benefit weight loss.
Repeat after me, "Tempura is a fancy word for fried." Those batter-dipped broccoli spears are the caloric equivalent to dousing your broccoli in ranch dressing—you're not doing yourself any favors.
More than half of the calories in this simple, classic roll come from protein, making it a great light meal or a snack with substance. Plus, tuna is a prime source of docosahexaenoic acid, a type of omega-3 fat found in oily fish that can down-regulate fat genes in the abdomen, preventing belly fat cells from growing larger. Sounds like a good reason to place an order of the Japanese staple to us!
Spicy Tuna Roll
The "spicy" comes from a fattening dab of Asian chili sauce mixed with mayo. Want something fiery? Stick with the plain tuna roll and ask for chili sauce on the side, or extra wasabi.
This is one of the most popular menu items and it also just so happens to be one of the healthiest. It packs just 300 calories for eight pieces and carries a dose of healthy fat from the avocado.
With 476 calories per order, this roll is higher in calories than most, but it's loaded with substantial portions of raw fish, so most of those calories are the good kind. For a superior Rainbow Roll, ask the sushi chef to make it with real crab. They may charge a bit more, but the flavor punch and extra flab-frying protein make it a worthy upgrade. Looking to slim down? Pair this roll with an order of steamed edamame and call it a day. A second roll would push you far beyond the reasonable amount of calories for a single meal.
When You're Craving Mexican…
Like most fare that makes its way into our fine country, Mexican food has been thoroughly Americanized, which is really just a nice way of saying it's been pumped with fat, calories, sodium, and chemicals. If you're careful, though, it's totally possible to indulge in some delicious Mexican dishes without packing on the pounds. One pro tip: don't eat the side of tortilla chips you get right away.
"I save the tortilla chips for another day and make a killer nachos for my kids by melting cheese and mixing it with ground beef or leftover chili," says Amidor. This way, you're not overeating, and you're getting more for your money by essentially getting two meals.
A heap of onions and peppers is a plus, but to keep this sizzling skillet from breaking the caloric bank, skip the cheese and the sour cream—it will save you 300 calories and 15 grams of fat. To slice additional calories, just use one of the tortillas and stuff it full. Stash the rest in your fridge and use them to make breakfast burritos, filled with eggs (one of these foods for 6-pack abs), veggies, black beans, and salsa.
Friends don't let friends order nachos. Sadly, an order of nachos amounts to 1,000+ calories before you even dig into the rest of your order.
So long as your go-to take-out joint uses whole beans (as opposed to refried), this could be one of the healthiest things on the menu. The fiber in beans lowers cholesterol and helps make you feel full, making it a winning dish in our eyes.
If you are wanting some meat too though, that is possible to keep healthy too, as long as you're not loading up on extra fillings.
"I order a chicken burrito with beans, rice, and salsa on the side," Amidor says. "I ask them to hold the sour cream and give me double salsa instead."
Mojado means "wet" in Spanish, and normally denotes a burrito that is shrouded in melted cheese and then drowned in a rich, salty tomato- and chili-based sauce. Don't order it if you want to stay slim.
Soft tacos are lower in fat than a hard shell tortilla, and corn tortillas are better than flour. So order your fave taco in a soft corn tortilla and leave off the fatty toppings like sour cream and cheese, for a lean yet hearty meal your taste buds are sure to love.
With a whopping 900 calories and 55 grams of fat, this is perhaps the most liberal use of the word "salad" in the history of man. But does that really surprise you? It's a huge fried tortilla shell with ground beef, cheese, sour cream, and a few token shreds of iceberg lettuce—definitely not an "Eat This!"
When You're Craving Greek…
Middle Eastern restaurants are great go-tos for times when you want a healthy meal that's low on the meat and packed with veggies. Follow our ordering suggestions to make sure you don't sabotage your order.
Pita & Hummus
Hummus has become one of the hot health foods of the last few years, and for good reason. Made from chickpeas, ground sesame seeds, and olive oil, hummus is packed with fiber, protein, and healthy fats. But a large pita can run you 165 calories of just plain empty carbs. Ask for a side of veggie sticks along with your pita to keep calories to a minimum.
Falafel & Kibbeh
Have a falafel, just don't have too many: The dish is essentially a ball of ground chickpeas that's then deep-fried. Each 2-inch falafel ball is about 60 calories and 3 grams of fat so if you down five or six of them you'll have consumed over 300 calories before you even dig into your meal.
Babaganoush is a tasty, creamy eggplant dip that looks like it contains mayo, but it actually gets its rich texture from a mixture eggplants, tahini, and olive oil—one of the best fats for weight loss. We've giving it the green light.
This spiced, marinated meat is often a fattier cut of lamb, beef, veal or chicken that's further marinated in more fat. Thanks to its less-than-healthy cooking method, shawarmas typically run in the 600-calorie neighborhood, once you've added in the pita and sauces. Skip it to maintain your toned flat stomach.
In the mood for a salad? Stick with the fattoush salad. While you may have never heard of it before, most takeout joints have it. And, on average, it has 320 fewer calories than the ultra-popular Greek salad. Comprised solely of tossed greens, parsley, cucumber, tomatoes, bits of toasted pita, mint, and lemon, it's hard to go wrong with this dish. We suggest pairing it with red wine vinegar—since it only has three calories per tablespoon, it's difficult to overdo it. Order some on the side so your salad doesn't get soggy during delivery.
Some restaurants douse their Greek salad with up to 450 calories of dressing. It's unfortunate, really. Prior to the salad sabotage, the veggie-feta cheese combo was a great bed of greens. If your heart's set on ordering this dish, make sure to request the dressing on the side. Dressing it yourself can save you as much as 225 calories.