How to Pick Takeout, Based On Your Health Goals

how to pick out takeout based on health goals

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With restaurants temporarily a thing of the past and cooking every meal from home starting to get old, you've probably turned to takeout to satisfy your inner foodie while in lockdown. But with seemingly infinite menus to pick from, it can be challenging to select a to-go meal that's both delicious and satisfying for your body.

To help, Byrdie talked to nutrition experts about how to pick healthy takeout—healthy, meaning whatever makes you feel good—so you can nail your next order.

Meet the Expert

  • Christina Jax, RDN, LDN, CLT, RYT, is a registered dietitian and nutritionist and health advisor for Lifesum and Gympass.
  • Rhiona Robertson is a naturopath and nutritionist at The Beauty Path.

Pick the Right Cuisine

First things first, select a restaurant that serves the type of cuisine best suited to your foodie goals, says Christina Jax, RDN, LDN, CLT, RYT, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, and health advisor for Lifesum and Gympass. She recommends picking a cuisine that incorporates lots of fresh or roasted veggies so that you're guaranteed some nutritious, plant-based ingredients, like Thai food. Broth-based soups and dishes that go heavy on the greens are a few great options if Thai tickles your tastebuds, she adds.

Rhiona Robertson, a naturopath and nutritionist at The Beauty Path, suggested Mediterranean cuisines for their emphasis on fresh ingredients, fish, and broad range of styles. Between Spanish, Turkish, Lebanese, Greek, and Moroccan food, she says there are tons of restaurants to pick from that all have unique flavor profiles with plenty of plant-heavy options (shout out to vegetarians). "Many of the traditional cuisines use loads of fresh vegetables and lean protein sources," she tells Byrdie. "You can get some amazing Greek meals full of fresh seafood and healthy salads, and the dressings use vinegars and olive oils rather than creamy mayonnaise or oils like canola."

Once you've rounded up a selection of cuisine styles that typically offer vegetable-heavy plates, it's up to your tastebuds to do the rest, says Robertson. If you love spice, perhaps try Thai. Or if you're more of a seafood person, Spanish food might be for you. Regardless, once you've narrowed down your pool to a handful of cuisines that center on nutritious, vegetable-rich dishes, you're headed in the right direction.

Pick the Right Preparation

How the food is also prepared matters when it comes to picking the right takeout dish for you. In general, Jax recommends steering clear of fried foods. While your body needs to consume fat to stay healthy, fried foods are heavy in trans fat, which is a specific type of fat that's extra hard for your body to break down. Research shows this can contribute to diseases down the line, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Robertson also suggests keeping an eye out for high-salt dishes. Like fats, some sodium is good for you, but overloading on salt forces your body to work hard to dilute it. And too much of this hard work puts pressure on your heart, which can lead to high blood pressure and increase your risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. Trans fats and extra salt can also hide out in sauces and sides like margarine, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce, adds Robertson. She suggests opting for your sauce on the side so you can decide how much you'd like to add to your meal.

Luckily, if you choose to steer clear of those ingredients, there are tons of other options still on the table, says Robertson. Sautéed, steamed, grilled, baked—the list of how you can prepare food goes on and on. Search for options that use these words to help ensure that whatever you're ordering preserves the most nutrients possible, she advises. And if your meal of choice does include fried food that you'd prefer to avoid, she says you can always request that it's prepared differently, like asking for your fish to be grilled instead of fried.

If all of the above feels overwhelming, a good rule of thumb is to order something colorful, says Robertson. "[Look for] a rainbow of color from fruit and vegetables full of phytochemicals, fiber, and nutrients. The more color from these sources on your plate, the better," she says. "Pairing that with a lean source of protein like fish or plant-based protein is important to ensure you get a good balance of macronutrients."

How to Find the Right Portion

Finding takeout that makes you feel your best isn't always about ingredients, says Jax—sometimes it's about the size of the meal. Restaurants tend to go big when it comes to portions, so she suggests splitting your meal in two to start with a manageable amount of food (bonus: there's your lunch for tomorrow). Sometimes that's easier said than done, though, so Robertson suggests ordering the lunch or side size of the dish if you prefer to keep portions regulated from the get-go.

The same goes for sauces and sides, adds Jax. Sometimes a veggie-loaded salad can be smothered in a dressing that not only contains ingredients that are hard for your body to process but that drown out the natural flavors of the dish you're eating. Ask for condiments on the side instead so that you can decide how saucy you want your meal to be.

And if that's too much to remember as you're perusing online menus, Robertson has another hack: Eat until you're 80 percent full, she says. "Portion sizes vary hugely," she tells Byrdie. "Eating until you’re 80 percent full allows your brain to catch up with your stomach, so you don’t overeat."

The Takeaway

When it comes to selecting healthy takeout, there's no one right answer. Everyone's preferences and bodies are unique and respond to food in different ways, and you're the expert in which foods make you feel your best. But no matter what you define as healthy, if you're looking for a roadmap to help you land on a delivery decision, there are a few simple considerations to keep in mind: what kind of cuisine you're eating, how the foods are prepared, and portion sizes. Keeping these criteria in mind as you place your next to-go order can help you pick a meal that's delicious and nutritious (and perhaps even minimize the time you spend debating what restaurant to pick).

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