Eating out at a restaurant can come with a whole host of challenges when following a Paleo diet; you may be dealing with a limited choice of restaurants, choosing from a restricted menu, and gambling on your waiter and chef both understanding and caring about your requirements. All of this comes with no guarantee that you will end up with a tasty and Paleo-friendly meal. A lot of our social interactions and experiences these days seem to rely around food and it is possible to eat Paleo and eat out at the same time.
Your Paleo lifestyle should empower, not restrict and confine you. Understanding the limitations of eating out, being okay with them and choosing to relax a little (the Paleo Police are too under-staffed to watch over everyone) will go way further in making you feel good than worrying about the minute details of your meal. Of course, if you have a severe sensitivity or an allergy, you still want to be vigilant and not create more problems for yourself.
Eating Out Strategies
Check the website. Look at the menu online and scan for words like "roasted," "broiled," "grilled" and "sautéed." Those are the most likely areas to find something Paleo, though you may want to ask about spice rubs and marinades to check on sneaky sugar, soy and cooking oils. Avoid the words "creamy" and "crispy." There's nothing for you there!
Aim for establishments that make things themselves, from scratch, offering simple grilled or prepared meats and have plenty of vegetable or salad options.
Go in with a plan. Read the menu online or call ahead to discuss your options before arriving there. Do not be afraid to ask if they are able to make off menu items for you. Read reviews. Often servers are unaware of the ingredients to all the sauces, marinades and dishes. They may not know exactly how things are prepared. You need to be your own advocate. When at the restaurant, it is quite acceptable to ask to speak to the chef or ask your server to clarify with the chef.
Make Smart Choices
Choose menu items that you can work with, for example, steak and vegetables. You can order the steak, remembering to ask if it has been pre-marinated (and if it's grass-fed). You may want to request no seasoning blends, just plain salt. Hold the mashed potatoes, ask what the side vegetable options are. If the restaurant offers a catch of the day or grilled fish, this is another Paleo friendly option to request. Use the words ‘plain,’ ‘simple,’ ‘sauce on the side,’ ‘no garnish’ or ‘salt only seasoning.’ Dressing should always be ordered on the side and if the ingredients seem suspect or cannot be verified (and most commercially prepared dressing have some questionable ingredients), ask for olive oil and lemon wedge.
Be clear and precise. If you are dealing with further sensitivities, read ingredients carefully and ask as often, certain foods (think nuts, dairy, and nightshades) may not be on the menu.
It is important to offer your own alternatives or ask for them. Your server is not an expert in your food restrictions and you need to have an alternative in mind that you already see on the menu. Asking the server for a substitution can be asking for an even more challenging situation.
When you do have to be that person, be gracious to the staff and the chef — ask nicely and don't reach too far outside the existing menu if you can help it. You're not in your own kitchen and shouldn't make up your own dish out of nowhere and expect them to cook it.
Usually they will be more than happy to comply.
Understand The Limitations
Crop and seed oils are almost impossible to avoid at restaurants. Unless you have an allergy, like butter, peanut oil or an allergy to avocado oil (which most places won’t have), feel free to ask but be aware that most restaurants use canola oil. This may not be ideal, but once will not kill you. Asking to change such fundamental things really disrupts the kitchen flow.
Gluten and corn may be easier to avoid and work around, as well as added sugars and dairy. Eating out should be an enjoyable experience and unless faced with an allergy, there is no need to create added stressors for you (and the restaurant staff).
When eating Paleo at restaurants, look for menu items with simple ingredients and ask to go without the fancy stuff if you’re unsure. Stick with stuff you know or that would be easy to figure out the ingredients for or something easy to make modifications to. Simple is almost always better, especially when you’re not in your own kitchen.
Instinct will tell you that deep-fried foods are not your best choice, but it can be overwhelming when trying to dissect the cooking methods and determine which ones may work best for your Paleo choices. Look for these methods and descriptions and remember to ask your server questions to verify ingredients.
Braised: There may be wine or soy involved in the braising liquid, so clarify with the server.
Broiled: Be sure to ask if the meat is basted with anything before, during, or after broiling.
Grilled: Ask about the marinade and dry rub ingredients and whether the protein is finished with a sauce or oil when it comes off the grill.
Poached: Fish and chicken poached in water or broth can be flavorful, tender, and Paleo-approved. Ask the server if wine was included in the poaching broth
Roasted: These are almost always a good choice as long as you ask for the details about dry rubs or marinades to verify the ingredients.
Sautéed: If food is sautéed in a quality form of fat without added sugar, soy, or grains, it will work, however, if it's prepared and finished with non-Paleo ingredients, you may want to skip this one over.
Smoked: Smoking can be a very Paleo-friendly cooking method. Sugar is often included in the rubs used on meat, so you may want to ask your server. Often it is used minimally or in the cure and may not be worth worrying about here.
Steamed: Ask if the vegetables are topped with seasoning or fat after cooking. You might need to request that they’re served to you plain (ask for olive oil on the side).
Sous vide: Sous vide is really trendy in higher end restaurants. As always, ask your server if anything is added to the meat before it is served.
Avoid menu items with the words
- Deep fried
- Meatballs or meatloaf
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What To Order
Protein and vegetables: Think steak and grilled vegetables or broiled chicken and Generally, this formula of protein and vegetables is relatively easy to find in most restaurants these days.
Burgers, No Buns: Alternatively, ask for a lettuce-wrapped option, if it’s available. You will likely want to substitute a side salad or another Paleo-friendly side for the fries. Ketchup is also out because it's all sugar. Mustard is usually okay though.
Salads: If the dressing isn’t compliant, just order the salad with lemon and olive oil. If there's protein on top, check to see how it's prepared or ask to substitute grilled something-or-other.
Breakfast: Poached eggs will always be a good option as are fried eggs if you request that they are cooked with olive oil instead of butter or canola oil. Scrambled eggs and omelets often have some dairy (or even flour) or are made with pre-made egg mixes which are best avoided. If you can request olive oil, hash browns and breakfast potatoes might be ok.
Middle Eastern and Greek: Shish kebabs, baba ghanoush, grilled vegetables, lamb shawarma, roast meats of all kinds, olives, salads, even creamy avgolemono (Greek egg-lemon sauce or soup) are often Paleo compliant. Avoid gyro meat, the garlic or sweet sauces and sides of rice, cheese and hummus, of course.
Mexican: If prepared traditionally, almost all the Mexican meats will be Paleo-friendly (carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, tinga, etc.). Fajitas without the accoutrements are good options too. Enjoy fresh pico de gallo and salsas and certain mole sauces like mole verde.
South American: - Focus on steaks, grilled and roasted meats, chimichurri, ceviche, rotisserie chicken and plantains.
Thai: Watch out for added sugar, soy and peanuts. Safest bets are usually curries, tom kha, salads, lettuce wraps (watch out for rice flour in the larb though) and satay without peanut sauce.
Vietnamese: It's very unlikely for your favorite pho broth to be 100% Paleo. There is likely a trace of hoisin sauce (soy) and fish sauce (sugar) in there, but you may choose to indulge. Order vegetables instead of noodles and depending on the marinades, things like lemongrass shrimp and lemongrass pork chops might be okay too.
Barbecue: Depending on the type of global or regional BBQ you're dealing with, you will either find lots of things to eat or very few. As a rule, red BBQ sauces are almost never Paleo no matter where you're eating, but the meats and some of the sides like collard greens might be okay.
Italian: Grilled proteins and a big salad or an antipasto platter is a good way to go if those options are available.
Indian: Indian food can contain dairy, so be mindful but there are a lot of curries and vegetarian dishes that will be Paleo friendly. Vindaloo and other tomato-based curries (often listed as regular "masala") are good choices. Avoid: korma, makhani, tikka masala, josh, paneer, dal, channa.
Japanese: Sashimi is a great option and you could even bring a small container of coconut aminos with you. Avoid: tempura, tofu, miso, soy, mayo, ramen, soba, udon.
Filipino: Filipino food is very challenging but some Paleo dishes include lechon (whole roasted pig), kaldereta (goat stew), kinilaw (kind of like ceviche, but with vinegar) and some of the coconut milk-based stews.
Chinese: Chinese food is another tough option and it is unlikely that you'll find anything that's 100% Paleo in a Chinese restaurant unless it's plain steamed vegetables.
Korean: Yet another challenging option but some of the BBQ meats might be okay, depending on the marinades and sauces. Some of the banchan (the little side dishes) might work too, and you could always make a meal of that if you’re desperate.
Eating Paleo at restaurants can be challenging, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. You'll start having these techniques down as your normal routine, and will be able to start looking at a menu and immediately pick out what you're going to order for your meal.
Give it time, give it practice, and get creative - it's worth it!