Eating Healthy at Ethnic Restaurants

Eating healthy while dining out can be challenging even when the choices are familiar. But when the choices aren’t necessarily familiar–such as when dining out at ethnic restaurants–it can be even more difficult.

The following guidelines should help to take the guesswork out of eating healthy when eating out ethnic.

Read more about healthy eating

Avoid anything deep-fried

It’s not always obvious when a dish is deep-fried. But words like “crispy”, “crunchy”, “poppers” and “fritters” can be clues.

It’s better to ask than to assume, which brings us to our second guideline…

Always ask how a dish is prepared, and always ask what’s in it

Don’t assume. Especially when it comes to foods you are not familiar with. Potential areas of misunderstanding include:

“Poached” – you might assume it means “cooked in a water bath”. But at French restaurants, it may mean “cooked in a water bath after soaking in butter”.

“Vegetarian” – you might assume it means that a dish contains vegetables. But at Chinese restaurants, it may simply mean that the dish contains no meat – without a vegetable in sight.

“Salad” – you might assume that a salad is always your healthiest choice. But at a Mexican restaurant, a taco salad is deep-fried flour-tortilla filled with meat, cheese, sour cream and guacamole and some lettuce to soak up the grease.

“Creamy” – you might assume that it indicates the presence of cream. But at Caribbean and Thai restaurants, “creaminess” may be attained through the presence of coconut milk (far healthier than heavy cream).

Cuisine-specific guidelines for five of the more popular ethnic cuisines:


Less healthy choices: Taco salad or anything else topped with sour cream, cheese, guacamole or refried beans. Ask your waiter to keep the chips off the table.

Healthier choices: Grilled fish, seafood and poultry. If you order fajitas, ask the waiter to hold the sour cream, cheese and guacamole. Enjoy pico de gallo as a salad dressing and as a condiment on everything.


Less healthy choices: Anything deep-fried (such General Tsao’s Chicken), anything “sweet and sour”, all stir-fried eggplant (because eggplant acts as a sponge for oil), fried rice, lo mein noodles, anything moo shoo (because although it is not deep fried, the shredded vegetables tend to absorb copious amounts of oil). Ask your waiter to hold the crispy noodles.

Healthier choices: Hot and sour soup, anything steamed - and most dishes are available steamed, upon request.


Less healthy choices: Caesar salad, stuffed anything (such as stuffed artichokes, mushrooms, shells, or clams), veal Milanese (although it is topped with salad, it starts with deep fried meat), Alfredo sauce and other white sauces, eggplant dishes (they sound healthy, but the eggplant sucks up all the oil in the dish).

Healthier choices: Minestrone soup, tri-color salad, grilled and unbreaded meats and fish, steamed artichokes, steamed asparagus, anything prepared marinara, fra diablo or puttanesca, anything “marsala” or piccata.


Less healthy choices: Tempura, white rice, udon, sushi rolls

Healthier choices: Miso soup; sashimi; vinegar, teriyaki


Less healthy choices: Naan bread, stuffed bread, korma; curries

Healthier choices: Anything Tandoori, dal, paneer.

Of course, these are just general recommendations. How a dish is actually prepared at any given restaurant may vary. It is always a good idea to ask before ordering.

Read more about vegetarian nutrition

Photo Credit: stefou!

By Lauren Cahn| December 11, 2013
Categories:  Eat

About the Author

Lauren Cahn

Lauren Cahn

Lauren Cahn has written extensively about yoga, health and wellness since 2004, when she earned her first yoga teaching certification from Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga Center (NYC).

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