As we continue to self-isolate during the pandemic, many people are concerned about being stuck at home and the effects it may be having on their overall eating habits or their weight. Some are finding they are engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as emotional eating while bored or stressed. Others are concerned that they’re turning more to familiar take-out foods – a practice that may feel comforting but could also be contributing to weight gain since these meals are often higher in calories than meals cooked at home.
However, the stay-at-home mandate should not cause additional stress when it comes to eating. Why not treat yourself to delicious, guilt-free take-out and delivery… while at the same time supporting local businesses in your community?
How Can I Order Take-Out Guilt Free?
Before you call your order in, check out the online menus beforehand to review the offerings – and, if they’re available – the nutritional information. Look for vegetables first, then lean proteins like chicken or fish, and then build the rest of the meal around those items. Some of the best cuisines to consider are Mediterranean or Asian, because they tend to focus on low-fat proteins and vegetables. A stir-fry with shrimp and broccoli, for example, or a salad tossed with olive oil and lemon and topped with grilled chicken are always good bets.
If nutrition information is available, be sure to read it carefully – studies have shown that the calories you eat might be nearly 20% higher than what the menu says. Also, keep in mind that the calorie counts usually list the different items in a meal separately, rather than the full calorie count for the whole meal. So, if you order a full meal, be sure to note the calories for not only the entrée, but for the side dishes as well.
Watch out for foods that sound healthier than they are. Sandwiches can be healthy if they’re made with lean meats, veggies and whole grain breads, but the calories can add up fast if you load up on cheese or mayonnaise, or if the sandwich is a foot long. The same goes for those healthy-sounding salads. Some main-dish salads can rack up more than 1000 calories, thanks to heavy dressings and fatty add-ins like fried noodles, croutons, or bacon.
If you’re ordering Chinese take-out, consider steaming or microwaving additional vegetables while you’re waiting for the delivery—there’s usually extra sauce left in the food containers and you can mix veggies in to help expand the meal. The same thing can be done with many Indian or Thai dishes – you can toss a can of beans into a curry to pump up the protein or add extra veggies to a noodle dish.
Finally, try to resist the upsell from restaurants. They may try to tempt you with ‘meal deals’ that may include sugary drinks, or starchy, fatty appetizers or sides. When you’re told, “For just a dollar more, you can have a side of fries with that,” think to yourself: “For just a dollar more, I’ll be getting 600 more calories and an extra 40 grams of fat.”
Healthy Swaps to Make
Try customizing your home-delivered meal. Ordering pizza? Try it with thin crust, low-fat toppings and lots of vegetables to trim calories and add a salad to round out the meal. Ordering Mexican food? Swap corn tortillas for flour and you can save unneeded fat and calories.
Be aware of condiments. The calories listed on the menu for a salad or sandwich may not include salad dressing or condiments, so read the listings carefully. The extra calories you are adding to your meal through condiments and dressings can add up fast, so consider ordering those ‘extras’ on the side so you can control how much you use.
Make Health Your Priority
While many restaurants are able to accommodate healthy alternatives and diet preferences, according to the FDA, Americans take in about one-third of their calories from food and beverages prepared away from home. Without consciously amending your take-out order, these foods tend to provide more calories, sodium, and saturated fat than meals prepared at home, and those extra calories may lead to weight gain.
Right now, we should be focusing on optimizing our nutrition to support overall health and a healthy immune system while we navigate this crisis. While it’s always important to avoid weight gain, aggressive dieting could backfire. When cutting calories in an attempt to lose weight, it becomes more difficult to work in all the important nutrients the body needs – and that could mean sacrificing good nutrition in order to shed weight.
To keep your weight under control, try to order foods that are similar to what you would normally eat if you were eating at home, rather than using it as an occasion to over-indulge. And remember that restaurant portions can be huge. Split an entrée with a family member and order an extra side of veggies, or portion half of the meal for yourself upfront, and safe the leftovers for lunch the next day.
It takes discipline to stick with our usual diet and exercise routines during this uncertain time, but that is where our focus should be. The most important thing we can do is to take the best possible care of ourselves by eating the most nutrient-dense foods we can obtain. It’s also key to stay well hydrated, get adequate rest and exercise, and use methods such as meditation or yoga to help us relax.
About the Author
Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.