How Do I Find Real Food in a Restaurant?

Dining Out

There’s one thing about us humans—we want what we want. And more times than not, we want reality to be how we want it to be rather than how the nice writers behind this blog tell us it is.

That said, please forgive us for being the bearers of bad news, but you’re not going to find real food in most restaurants. Especially chain restaurants.

Yes, there are pockets of the world where restaurateurs curate ingredients from local, organic sources. They make salads and sides from their own organic garden vegetables. They use virgin, first-pressed olive oil and healthy animal fats. The chefs cook so skillfully that they don’t need sugar or synthetic chemicals to flavor their dishes.

Unfortunately, such places tend to be located in densely populated, wealthy enclaves such as New York City, parts of California, Boulder, Denver, Austin, Seattle, and northern Oregon. More real food restaurants are opening all the time, but in my neck of the woods, which is much like vast areas in the rest of the country, such places are hard to find. Our landscape is cluttered with restaurants that serve more processed food than real food. And when people do go out, it’s good enough that the meal arrives on a plate in front of them, preferably within arm’s reach of the ketchup.

We’re not snobs. We’re not demanding that all restaurants serve pigeon with warm foie gras or 7-year-old dairy cow cooked right at the table on a hot stone. But why not seek out simple fare like hamburgers made with grass-fed beef, eggs from organic, pastured chickens, or preservative-free deli meats? And surely we can procure organic, fresh-ground whole grain bread easily enough. Sigh.

So here’s a guide for those of us who aren’t surrounded by current notions of real, organic, clean, epicurean fare. And if you come across any good news out there in the Real Food world, cheer us up with an email about it.

Tips for Finding Real Food at Any Restaurant

Sometimes the best way to navigate your way to a healthier plate, no matter where you’re dining, is simply knowing what to avoid. Dining out means facing a gauntlet of unwholesome ingredients: white sugar, white flour, hydrogenated oils, low quality cheese, ultrapasteurized, homogenized dairy products, chemical flavoring (even MSG), and also chemical concoctions like prepackaged milk shakes, fake mashed potatoes and guacamole, and powdered eggs.

Even so, there are times when cooking at home or packing your own food isn’t an option. At these times, the best you can do is arm yourself with information. That’s where the following tips come in handy.

Talk to your waitperson. Your server can help recommend the healthier options available to you. Even if the menu has a section devoted to “lighter” items, you still should ask about any hidden surprises like synthetic sweeteners. Sometimes the “light” menu is more focused on reduced calories than increased nutrition. And here’s a super-secret tip: servers typically know of a variety of other options and substitutions that aren’t anywhere on the menu. Often the food they eat before their shift is healthier than the food they serve during it.

Stay away from the refined carbs. Avoid the rolls, baguettes, breadcrumbs, tortillas, and pasta. Yes, even whole wheat, unless your waitperson confirms it’s truly 100 percent whole wheat. (Often, it isn’t. And it most certainly isn’t fresh-ground and preservative-free either.) If you do help yourself to a breadstick, feel free to tell the waiter to either take the rest away or, at the very least, not deliver another basket.

Ask about hidden sweeteners and preservatives. If the waiter or chef can’t tell you what ingredients are in any particular item, the chances are high it wasn’t made in house. Chances are even higher that it’s packed with additives you don’t want or need.

Ask where the meat is from. Before ordering that steak, ask where it came from. If the restaurant can’t tell you even that much, order something else. There’s not much chance that the steak came from local or grass-fed beef, but there’s a very good chance it’s pumped full of antibiotics. No thanks.

Say no to the kid’s menu. Sure, let the little one color in the pictures if it will keep him occupied for five minutes—just don’t order from it. You’ll find nothing but highly processed ingredients processed into highly processed foods. Pizza dough made with bleached white flour. Pizza sauce packed with sugar. Chicken nuggets made in a factory—maybe in the same factory that churned out the corn dogs and french fries. Check out the side items instead, and make a plate with things he likes—a baked potato, fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheese. If you see an ingredient listed elsewhere on the menu, try ordering it solo.

To sauce or not to sauce? When it comes to sauces, dressings, and marinades, you never know what you’ll find. It’s the perfect place to hide extra sugar—lots of extra sugar. Especially in barbeque sauce. Again, talk to your server. Find out what’s lurking in the marinara, and leave it off if you have to. For salads, stick to simple oil and vinegar.

What about soups? Soup in restaurants can be real trouble. Ingredients often include chemicals such as hydrolyzed corn, soy protein, yeast extract, and autolyzed yeast extract—all of which are also known as MSG. And more sugar, of course.

And salads? While we might assume that salad is a safe bet, chemical preservatives are sometimes used on salad greens to keep them looking fresh, and commercial salad greens are loaded with pesticides and herbicides. Also remember that most salad dressings are loaded with hydrogenated oils, sugar, and chemicals.

Make a plan. You can find the menu for just about any restaurant right on their website, and some even list their ingredients. So if you have enough time, definitely check them out in advance. And be sure to ask your waiter about specific ingredients when you’re ordering. You can also find articles online that list the healthiest meals offered at popular chain restaurants. But take these “healthy” recommendations with a grain of salt—their definition of healthy is not the same as ours! While they count calories and sodium levels, we’re looking for quality and clean food. One more thing—bring your own spring water! There’s no reason to drink chlorinated, fluoridated tap water anywhere you travel.

Healthier options: By “healthier” we mean minimizing the bad stuff. Again, unless the restaurant boasts organic and/or local food, most of the fare on the menu won’t support a healthy diet. Your best approach is to keep it simple: steak, roast chicken, or another meat of your choice grilled or cooked simply without any sauces; a baked potato or other vegetables; and maybe some wild or brown rice if they offer it (an easy item to bring with you). Seafood is another good option—so long as it’s wild caught, not farmed. Also consider breakfast items like scrambled eggs or an omelet with cheese and vegetables.

Further Reading 

SRP Admin

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