Whether you’re staying in to decompress after a busy holiday season or laying low amid a COVID-19 surge, you might be ordering more takeout than usual. But even if one of your health goals includes balancing out your blood sugar levels, that doesn’t mean ordering takeout food is, by any means, off-limits. There are plenty of healthy takeout options to consider, and we’re here to share some healthy takeout ideas and healthy delivery options.
“You don’t have to give up takeout food or fast food when managing your blood sugar,” One Drop coach, Lorraine Chu, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), assures us. “While it may seem ideal to have home-cooked food available to you around the clock, that may not be so practical or possible long-term.”
Depending on your socioeconomic status and where you live, “time, money, and access to food can all be real issues,” she notes. “Sometimes the main goal is just managing to feed ourselves consistently, which is why I say that no food is ever off the table. If this is what’s doable for your lifestyle, then we can make adjustments to make it work.”
Plus, having an all-or-nothing outlook on takeout food means you’re putting yourself at a higher risk of burnout with your health goals. Not only would such restrictions be likely to impede your own ability to stay consistent with healthy habits, but they’d probably affect your social life as well. Think about it: Is there anything better than bonding with people you love over a delicious takeout order, or a night out at a great restaurant? Missing out on experiences like this might “negatively impact your mental health, which is a vital component in chronic disease and diabetes management,” explains Michelle Routhenstein, a registered dietitian (RD) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES) who specializes in preventive cardiology.
Bottom line: Takeout food can absolutely be part of a healthy lifestyle. Read on for tips on how to make it work for you.
Read Your Menu Closely
“Spending a couple of minutes researching the menu can make a huge difference,” says Chu. “When you thoroughly assess the menu, you’re less likely to make an impulse decision and order something you’re not that excited about or that may not make you feel the best afterward.”
For example, let’s say you’re in the mood for a chicken sandwich. Look for words such as “grilled” or “baked” in lieu of “fried,” as fried chicken is bound to have a lot more saturated fat and sodium (which can increase the risk of high cholesterol, a condition that people living with diabetes are already more prone to experiencing).
If you see a salad on the menu, don’t automatically assume it’s the “healthiest” option. “A salad can be loaded with bacon and creamy dressing, which may have more calories and saturated fat than a simple grilled or baked protein with some steamed or roasted vegetables on the side,” explains One Drop coach, Danica Crouse, RDN, and certified nutrition support clinician (CNSC). “Choosing whole foods (items in their most natural form) is a good place to start.”
Reading the menu more closely will also help you avoid falling for any gimmicky advertising, adds Chu. “You’ll be able to filter out certain terms or lingo that’s meant to draw you in,” like a dish that advertises itself as “fat-free,” but is actually loaded with added sugar.
Know Which Nutrients You Need
Regardless of what or where you’re eating, it’s important to balance your combination of carbs (particularly fiber), protein, and fat when managing blood sugar—not only to avoid spikes but also to ensure you’re satisfied by the amount of food you’re eating.
“Ordering food that provides a combination of fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean protein, and heart-healthy fats can help to not only provide satiety and fullness for longer, but can also help keep your blood glucose levels stable,” explains Chu. “The fiber, protein, and fats will help slow the digestion of carbs and their absorption into the blood.”
Meaning, you don’t always have to resort to a salad. A whole wheat chicken wrap with lettuce, tomato, and avocado can help you hit all the nutrients you need, or a salmon sushi roll with brown rice instead of white rice, or even a baked potato topped with salsa or chili.
“Some restaurants have their nutrition facts listed on their website, which can help guide you as well,” adds Rothenstein.
If you want to avoid an overload of salt in your takeout order, Rothenstein recommends choosing some potassium-rich foods (beans, lentils, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, avocado, tomatoes, chicken, salmon, yogurt) to help negate some of the sodium content—which will help with managing not just cholesterol but also blood pressure, notes Rothenstein. “Sodium and potassium work in tandem in the body to control blood pressure,” she explains. “Excess sodium can lead to constriction in the blood vessels, while potassium helps reduce tension in the blood vessels.”
To figure out the right combo of nutrients for your health goals, “brainstorm with your health coach for suggestions to take with you to your favorite takeout spot,” suggests Chu.
Experiment with New Cuisines for New Healthy Takeout Ideas
Whether you’re going out to a restaurant or ordering in, eating takeout is an opportunity to try something new.
If it’s available in your area, One Drop coach, Melinda Washington, RDN, CDCES, suggests exploring foods outside of your culture. “For example, Chinese and Greek cuisines often offer plant-based dishes on the side,” she says.
Think of it as a way of breaking up your routine, adds Maddison Saalinger, an RDN at the Diabetes Research Institute, University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine. Normally you’re grocery shopping, meal-prepping, cooking, and cleaning up all the dishes you used to get it all done. Eating out is a chance to not only let someone else do most of the work, but also an opportunity for a novel experience, like trying that new Cuban restaurant that just opened up by your house or that cute Thai place your coworker recommended.
“Remember, many times it’s about the habits we have,” explains Saalinger. “If we get into the habit of eating homecooked meals, it can become the norm, while eating out can be more of an experience.”
Be Honest With Yourself About How Hungry You Are
“Eating before you get too hungry is a general rule I like to live by,” says Chu. “When you wait too long to eat, you’re more likely to eat past fullness and binge, and less likely to be mindful about what you’re eating and whether it truly satisfies you. When you’re in a more neutral state, you’re able to make better choices to satisfy your hunger.”
But what does “mindful” eating look like, exactly? For one, it means being present with your meals. In other words: “Consider eating without screens,” suggests Washington. If you normally eat your takeout straight from the container in front of your TV, try changing things up. Put your food on a plate or in a bowl, ditch the screens (yes, that means your phone, too!), and focus on simply enjoying your food.
“Doing this can enhance the experience of your food because your senses of taste and smell are heightened when your attention is focused on the meal rather than screens,” explains Washington. It can also help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes healthy digestion to help you better recognize when you’re full, she adds.
If, on the other hand, you’re eating on the go and in a rush (for example, in your car), try pausing for a few minutes to take some deep breaths before digging in, suggests Crouse. “Also, try pacing yourself throughout the meal,” she adds. “Set down the food or your fork and take drinks of water between bites to help you slow down.”
That said, sometimes you will overeat or choose something that’s not exactly ideal for your blood sugar—and that’s okay. “If you know you overate or didn’t choose the best option, don’t feel guilty about it,” says Rothenstein. “This guilt can lead to black and white thinking, which can snowball.”
Instead, she continues, enjoy your meal for what it is, let yourself acknowledge how it made you feel (even if that feeling is a combination of guilt and satisfaction), and look at your next meal as an opportunity to make a better choice, whether it’s eating something more balanced or going for a walk after a big meal to help with blood sugar management.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop.