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Eating Out: A Restaurant Survival Guide

Cooking for yourself when starting your Paleo diet can be a learning curve. Even seasoned veterans can sometimes be challenged when trying to prepare an alternative to a specific dish. At least when cooking at home, you are in control of the situation. Eating out, however, is an entirely different ball game – no matter how long you may have been at it!

Restaurants present the paleo eater with a whole host of challenges to contend with; 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. Hardly makes for an enticing night out, does it? Try not to be disheartened, it  is possible to eat paleo and eat out at the same time.

It is important to remember that there is a certain pleasure derived from sharing a meal with friends and loved ones, going to a great restaurant, having a good time out and creating experiences and memories that go way beyond the food.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.

Let’s go over some of the basics:

Research.

    Do your research. It is impossible to navigate every menu. Burger joints, fast food places or otherwise junky food kinds place are not your best options. If everything is fried, choose another restaurant if possible. Aim for establishments that make things themselves, from scratch, offering  simple grilled or prepared meats and have plenty of vegetable or salad options.

    Plan.

    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.

    Choose wisely.

      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.’ 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.

      Usually they will be more than happy to comply. 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.

      Pick your battles.

        Crop based cooking 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. Agin I want to emphasize that 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).

        Extra tips and tricks

        • Have more than one option. Never bank on one item/dish. It might not be Paleo friendly once you get the details on it. Always have a second option in mind, no matter how boring it may appear. 
        • Smile a lot, listen carefully to answers and even if the server has to go to the kitchen, and comes back with an answer you were not hoping for, be polite, no pouting or sighing. Say thank you and go to your back up.
        • Stay away from soups. Most, if not all restaurants soups are full of filler ingredients, will probably have dairy, definitely nightshades or at least legumes and grains.
        • At coffee houses avoid ordering food unless they make it themselves.
        • Bring your own milk. If black coffee is unappealing to you, bring your own coconut or nut milk. Many coffee places now offer coconut, almond or soy milk, however, these commercially prepared brands are often full of preservatives, additives and sketchy ingredients.
        • Side dish meal. If nothing in the entrée section seems appealing or Paleo friendly, raid the side dish menu. Sides of veggies, sides of protein (a burger patty, cooked eggs or diced chicken) can add up to one delicious meal for you.
        • Eat our earlier or later. I know sometimes it is tough to avoid. If you must eat out during peak business hours, pick a place that is health centered, and preferably somewhere you have been before and have a go-to. Otherwise, going during off hours ensures a slower kitchen that will have the time to properly read your order and execute your meal.
        • Watch out for Asian restaurants or Asian influenced places. There is soy sauce in everything. Bring your own coconut aminos!
        • Stay away from big chains. The food in most chain restaurants comes to them already seasoned/marinated etc. The sauces are made off site and the staff may not have access all the information.
        • Splurge on quality. The higher end the restaurant the more likely they will gladly accommodate you. Call ahead. Some chef’s refuse to change menu items.  Stay away from prefix menus or Chef’s tasting table, unfortunately.

        Whenever asking your questions or making any special requests, it is always important to be very nice. Be very patient. Say thank you A LOT. Tip really well. A little kindness goes a long way in getting the server and chef’s support.

        Easier Choices

        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:This is a great paleo-friendly cooking method. There may be wine or soy involved in the braising liquid, so clarify with the server.
        • Broiled:Broiled protein is a great choice. 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. You can always ask to omit the finishing sauces or order your dish ‘dry.’
        • 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 so you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want enjoy that ingredient at this dining experience.
        • 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:The word “sauté” can be tricky. If food is sautéed in a quality form of fat without added sugar, soy, or grains, it will work, however, if its 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:Steaming is just about the ideal way to cook vegetables. Again, 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. The meat or seafood is cooked in a hot water bath and finished using a high heat source to brown the meat. As always, ask your server if anything is added to the meat before it is served.

        Terms to avoid.

        ‘Battered’ and ‘crispy’ are words that make food sound extremely appetizing, but come with a big, flashing warning. Anything battered and crispy is most likely rolled in flour and deep-fried in canola oil. Definitely foods to avoid when trying to eat out Paleo. Some other caution words include:

        • Breaded
        • Coated
        • Croquettes
        • Deep fried
        • Dumpling
        • Fritter
        • Meatballs or meatloaf
        • Sausage

        I really (really) like to emphasize the importance of going to establishments that source locally, make everything from scratch, can and are prepared to offer truly paleo, gluten free, customizable options. These eateries are not only great for the local economy but your dollar is a vote. A vote for better farming, a vote for more places where you can eat safely and calmly and enjoy yourself!


        Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com

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