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Healthiest Side Dishes to Order at a Restaurant

Dining out for dinner is part and parcel of traveling for business. Recently, I provided some tips on how to make smart choices around appetizers and entrees and now I’m going to give you the scoop on choosing healthy side dishes.

As you know, depending on the destination or airport, there may not be very many restaurants that serve healthier fare. That said, choosing a few sides can make an otherwise unhealthy meal a bit healthier. It is important to realize, that although many sides come in small portions, they can very quickly become very unhealthy and highly caloric.  As a result, it pays to be smart about your choices. To do so, follow my dining out suggestions below:

  • Fibrous Vegetables: Sides made with fibrous vegetables are the best healthy side dishes you can order. These include greens (such as spinach, broccoli rabe, kale, collard greens, etc.), carrots, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, mushrooms, squash, peppers and zucchini. What I love about these as sides is that they are filled with tons of vitamins and minerals, and are high in fiber. When traveling for business, we don’t always get all of the nutrients we need and can struggle with regularity. As a result, these are the best of the best. A couple of tips:
    • The healthiest version of these are those that are steamed, grilled or boiled.
    • Roasted can be healthy, but unfortunately, a lot of restaurants will use a lot of oil in the process. As a result, it is better to avoid this type of preparation.
    • Avoid creamed (E.g., creamed spinach) or sauteed vegetables. Creamed veggies, as the name implies, contain a lot of cream and butter, while sauteed veggies contain a lot of oil.
    • Depending where you are traveling for business, you may find these veggies fried, breaded, battered, served tempura or served with cheese. Avoid these as well, as they are high in saturated fat and calories.
  • Grains: Whenever possible, choose whole grains over refined grains. For instance, choose brown rice over white rice. Brown rice is filled with fiber and other nutrients, while white rice is refined, leaving very little nutritional value in comparison. Some other grains that make healthy side dishes include quinoa, couscous, cracked bulgar and tabouleh.
  • Lentils and Beans: Lentils and beans make very healthy side dishes because they are high in protein and fiber. That said, they are very dense, so they are still high in calories. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, however, I highly recommend that you incorporate beans into your diet when you are dining out. They will give you the protein your body needs on the road.
  • Other Starches: I recommend that you avoid starchy sides, as they tend to be high in calories and can cause you to feel especially full and heavy during the trip. If pasta or potatoes automatically comes with your meal, one strategy would be to substitute something healthier for the starch. Examples of healthy side dishes to substitute include steamed vegetables or a salad. That said, if you can’t imagine a dinner without a starch, keep these things in mind:
    • Corn, Plantains and Peas: These starches tend to be high in sugar, and as a result, stay clear from these when dining out. If, however, you love these foods, steamed or grilled is best. Avoid anything with cheese, cream or butter.
    • Potatoes:
      • Always opt for whole potatoes that are boiled or baked. A good serving size is a potato that is the size of your computer mouse.
      • If you do get a baked potato, don’t add butter, bacon, cheese or sour cream. These will add tons of saturated fat to your potato. Instead, eat it plain with a little salt and pepper. Also, you may try using a tablespoon of A-1, Barbecue or Worcester Sauce for some added flavor.
      • When possible, choose sweet potatoes over regular white potatoes, as they are more nutritious and more flavorful (requiring less toppings).
      • Avoid potatoes that are fried, mashed, au gratin or covered in cheese. Fried potatoes (or french fries), tend to be loaded with fats and oils and mashed potatoes often contain butter and/or cream…both of which are very high in saturated fat. Further au gratin and cheese are high in saturated fat.
    • Pastas:
      • Like rice, pasta tends to be very low in nutritional value. That said, if a restaurant offers whole grain pasta, you should indulge. It is higher in fiber and protein than its traditional counterpart.
      • Always choose sauces that are tomato, wine or broth based (E.g., marinara, puttanesca, marsala), and avoid those that are cream (alfredo), cheese (pesto), butter or meat based (bolognese).
      • Avoid sauces that are “pink” – such as A la Vodka. Pink sauces are made with both tomato and cream.

What healthy side dishes do you enjoy when you are dining out?

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