When you’re running from study hall to work to a basketball game, it can be really hard to find time to plan or cook your own meals.
We understand how easy it is to end up eating out more than you mean to. Take out may not be the healthiest, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. The next time you’re eating out—whether it’s at a bodega, fast food joint, sit-down restaurant, food cart, or buffet—use these tips to take control of what you’re eating, and stay energized and ready to take on the world!
1. Substitute, substitute, substitute
There are tons of quick and easy ways to make what you order just a bit (or a lot!) healthier. Don’t be afraid to ask for sides that aren’t on the menu.
- Get a baked potato, yogurt, fruit, vegetable side, or garden salad instead of fries. Even if it’s not on the menu, ask!
- Ask for brown rice or whole wheat bread instead of white.
- Choose water over soda or juice, which has tons of added sugar.
- On burgers or sandwiches, hold the cheese and bacon and ask for (extra) lettuce, tomato, and onion instead.
- For your morning bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, swap out the bacon for turkey meat and the bagel or roll for whole wheat bread.
- At delis and bodegas, go for grilled chicken instead of processed meats like ham or bacon, which are loaded with sodium and fat. You can also ask for extra vegetables and whole grain bread.
- With pizza, choose thin crust with lots of veggies, instead of the meat lover’s. This’ll help you cut down on processed carbohydrates AND processed meats.
- At food carts, ask them to add more salad or vegetables, and less meat and rice. Order chicken over lettuce instead of lamb with pita bread and rice. Ask for the white sauce on the side, or for them to go light with it.
- Ask for your food to be prepared in a healthier way. Swap out one or two pieces of fried chicken for grilled chicken, or ask for your fish to be sautéed instead of fried. You can also ask that it be prepared with less salt (which can increase your blood pressure if you consume too much!).
2. Be fast food savvy
Most fast food joints have a healthy section with low-calorie options. Start there. Just be wary of salads—they’re often loaded with breaded chicken, croutons, and dressing with lots of sugar, sodium and fat. Choose a side garden salad with the dressing on the side instead. This way, you can at least control how much dressing you put on.
In New York, chain restaurants are required to include foods’ calorie count on the menu. Even though calories aren’t the end all and be all of eating healthy, they’re a good place to start. Check out calorie counts when you’re considering what to order.
3. Share or save your food for later
At food carts and sit-down restaurants, the portion sizes are often waaayyyy bigger than what you want or need. Ask a friend if they want to share, or save half for later. This’ll help you save money and stay healthy. If you sometimes tell yourself you’re only going to eat half but end up finishing the whole thing, ask for a to-go box at the beginning of your meal. Before you start eating, move half your meal into the to-go box so you’re less tempted later.
4. Size down (or just not up)
At buffets, choose smaller plates. This’ll mean you have to make more trips for the same amount of food, forcing you to slow down and really think about whether you want another helping of mac n’ cheese. Another tip for buffets? Eat your vegetables and fruit first, so you fill up on healthy fiber and end up eating fewer empty carbs later.
At fast food places, if you’re offered a deal like a larger soda or fries for just 50 cents, say no. It may be financially tempting, but you’ll probably regret it later when you crash from your sugar high in the middle of your 4th period math test.
Also, a friendly reminder: You don’t need to finish all your food! If you’re full, stop eating.
5. Eat all your food groups
Eating just pasta for dinner means you’re depriving your body of the fiber and vitamins it needs to function. Balance your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a lean protein like grilled chicken, tuna, or beans. You can use MyPlate to learn more about how much to eat of what in order to become your healthiest self!
For more about healthy eating, check out 10 Practices for Healthy Living, learn what happens to your body when you skip lunch, and read about why some sugar is actually good for you! Remember that being healthy isn’t always easy. If you slip up sometimes, that’s ok! Don’t beat yourself up about it, just take a moment to recommit yourself to your health, and move on.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, you can also join our Teen Fit program, a fitness and wellness program designed with you in mind. Click here for more information and details on how to join.
Maeda Qureshi is a chef and dietetic intern with Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a culinary degree from The Culinary Institute of America and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Nutrition and Public Health at Teachers College. She believes in a “food first” approach and is passionate about providing culinary nutrition through hands on cooking experience and nutritional knowledge to promote healthier lifestyle changes.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.