How to Eat Out Paleo Style
Eating out Paleo-style isn’t as hard as it seems. Yes, you’re going to have to make some careful choices and do a little planning, but it’s honestly not as challenging as you think. In the end, you’ll still be able to enjoy eating out while keeping to your healthy principals.
Decide what style of food you want to eat
First thing’s first: decide what style you want to eat. Some styles are going to be more difficult than others. So, if you have free-choice on what your options are, you may want to stay away from styles that are carb-heavy or rely heavily on seed oils.
A few that come to mind are Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai.
I already know what you’re thinking, “But these are my favorite!” Don’t worry. These are some of mine as well, and I’ll show you how to navigate around these in a minute. But first, let’s cover some easy Paleo-friendly options.
A steakhouse is probably the easiest type of restaurant to navigate for Paleo or low-carb options.
Most plates are served with a steak and some kind of starch (potato, rice, bread, etc.). Nearly every steakhouse will substitute the starch for veggies. Just ask them how the veggies are cooked and if they use “vegetable” oil or not (that’s code for rancid seed oil!).
If they do, ask them to use butter, olive oil, or just steam them. It’s usually no trouble at all so don’t be afraid. Trust me, I know people in the foodservice industry that tell me all kinds of crazy things people order… this is nothing by comparison.
Another easy place to get Paleo-ish food is any type of American-style diner. Even though the majority of the menu is sandwiches and breakfast foods, you can also get steaks, burgers, sausages, and deli meats. This is where you need to get creative.
If I were eating breakfast there, I would get some eggs, sausage, and bacon. If I were eating lunch, I would get a bunless burger, or a sandwich and just remove the bread when it got to my table. Who says you can’t eat the inside of a sandwich with a fork and knife?
Dinner could be a steak and veggies, a bunless burger, ham, turkey, or chicken options. Of course, no fried chicken, rice, or beans, etc. Sub those out for veggies.
Unfortunately, diner food isn’t known for it’s high-quality, pasture-raised meat and organic produce. I’m only bringing this up as an option to consider if this is your only choice.
Fast food places. Why are you eating at McDonald’s or Taco Bell? There hasn’t been anything resembling food there for decades. Keep driving!
Now, I realized there are a lot of “in-between” places to eat. These can be lunch cafes, fast-ish food, bars/pubs, and takeout options. These are all going to vary wildly, but here’s a good way to figure out which one has the best options for you.
If it’s a sandwich place, chances are you’re not going to have many options. They might have decent soup, or you can do the breadless sandwich thing, but I find these types of places very limited and not very satisfying.
Some bars and pubs can be a really good option for the Paleo eater. If you haven’t been in one in a while, many have really upped their game when it comes to food. Try to find a place that calls itself a “gastropub.” This is quality food at affordable prices.
On the plus side, they can usually make substitutions for you just like a “regular” restaurant. On the minus side, most of the menu items are fried or carb-heavy… even if the quality is better than bar food of the old days.
The reason I bring them up is, they almost always have one or two “normal” dishes that are Paleo-friendly… and they’re often quite good (like a steak or chicken entré, or some Paleo-friendly sides that you can assemble into your own custom meal). Look the menu over carefully, and don’t hesitate to ask questions.
As for specialty places like Mexican, Thai, Italian, Chinese, etc, your options will be limited. However, I’ve found ways to still enjoy these places in a Paleo-friendly manner, even if they’re not perfect.
Mexican is one of my favorites. It’s also full of flour and corn tortillas, and beans and rice. That’s pretty much the basis of all Mexican food.
So how do you avoid all this? Instead of a burrito, ask for a burrito bowl. Ask them to hold the rice and double up on veggies and meat. If they won’t do that, just don’t eat the rice. If they won’t make a bowl, order a burrito with only meat and veg, then dump it out on a plate and throw away the tortilla. I’m being serious here! It might seem a little rude, but if they can’t bend a little on their end, you need to take drastic measures to eat well. Turn that burrito into an instant entré.
Some authentic Mexican places will have a beef stew called Birria. It’s basically slow-cooked beef (or goat) in a savory broth.
If you’re lucky enough to be near any Mexican seafood places (Mariscos), you can order ceviches (lime-cured raw seafood) or cocktails (shrimp, scallops, etc.). These are served with a tostada side but just say “no thanks” to that. They often have fresh oysters too (slurp down those nutrients!).
For Thai places, you’ll probably have to avoid all the noodle dishes, but the curry options are where you want to go. Most curries are various blends of meat, coconut milk, and veg: practically Paleo already! However, these are often served over rice. Just ask to sub out the rice for veggies or eat the curry as a savory kind-of stew. It’s delicious that way!
Italian is difficult to navigate, I’ll admit. I usually avoid these places altogether because nearly 100% of the dishes involve bread and pasta to some (a large!) degree.
If you can find an Italian place that ventures out beyond the usual carb-loaded food, then you can make some better choices… but it won’t be easy. Some nicer Italian places will cook steaks and seafood dishes where you can sub out for veggies. This is usually my go-to on the rare occasion I eat out Italian.
Chinese food is also very difficult because so much of it is fried or loaded with hidden sugars. Many places also rely heavily on seed oils as the preferred cooking oil, which makes things even more difficult.
To be honest, I never eat out Chinese because of these factors. However, there may be places near you that have wider menu options to choose from that you can Paleo-ize.
Do some research online
I’ve covered some basics on what to do and look for when you walk into a place to eat, but some good preparation will make your eating out experience much better. It’s time to go online and do some research before you step out the door.
If I’m just looking for something inexpensive like a gastropub or fast-ish food from a local place, I go straight to their online menu first.
Anything with a bun or bread may not be automatically out. So, think to yourself if that sandwich or hamburger would still be good without a bun.
Look to see if they serve any veggies on the side. If they’re anything but steamed, there’s a good chance they’ve used seed oils to cook them.
Pick up the phone and ask them what kind of oil they use. They’ll probably think this is a strange question, but don’t give up. Tell them you have dietary restrictions and it’s very important to know. This will usually do the trick.
If you’re still getting push-back, tell them you’re “considering” buying a large order for a large group, or even that you have a food sensitivity (which may be kinda-sorta-true in your situation).
You certainly shouldn’t lie, but “food sensitivity,” “large group,” or even “allergy” are keywords that get them to listen up fast. They want your business, and they don’t want some raging Yelper ripping into them later over a dangerous food allergy that could seriously damage their reputation.
Next, look at Yelp photos. You’re probably looking here anyway, but what I try to do is to compare what the menu says with what the dish actually looks like plated, “What’s that thick sauce drenched over my otherwise Paleo chicken? The menu didn’t mention that. Could be loaded with sugar and flour.” This is a good way to prepare yourself when you go in: just ask for no sauce.
Looking at Yelp photos is also a way to judge the quality of the food. If the place in question is taking care to serve your food in a pleasing manner, chances are they care about food quality as well. They’re probably not going to serve you mystery meat and may not cook everything in seed oils (but you’ll still need to ask, of course).
Photos can also help you judge how big your portions are going to be after you Paleo-ize them. After I remove the baguette from my sandwich, is there really much meat and veg left for me to fill up on? No? Maybe I should try something else.
One last good use of Yelp is to do a search for “paleo” in your area. Users will often mention if a dish or restaurant is Paleo-friendly or not. You can save a lot of time this way.
Ask at the restaurant
For farm-to-table restaurants, they’ll usually proudly post where they source their food from online. If they just say, “sourced from sustainable sources,” you’ll have to be your own judge on whether this is good enough for your needs or not.
If it’s a place that I like and want to visit frequently, I’ll email them and ask them exactly, “What farms/ranches do you source your food from?” Or, I’ll just ask them when I’m in there.
Sometimes the server is stumped by this question, but a good one will go and ask the chef who usually cares more about the food than the server and will proudly tell you. They’ll probably come back with the name of a farm or ranch that you’ve never heard of, so just take note and research it later. If you’re extra lucky, they’ll even know and tell you how the animals are raised on that ranch as well. Go to their website and see if their product is up to your standards.
While it’s hard to find a diehard, regenerative, pasture-raised, ultra-clean producer, you’re probably going to have to settle for “close enough.” The ranch/farm may not be perfect. That steak may not be 100% grass fed and finished… but if all other considerations are “close enough” for eating out Paleo, then I’m usually OK with that from time to time.
If you like one of these “close enough” places, feel free to express how much you love their food and hope they choose clean/regenerative products moving forward. They’ll take this to heart and consider if there’s a market opportunity for this and possibly adjust.
When you’re at the restaurant, you may feel like you’re being a nuisance by asking so many questions. Don’t be! Even if your server doesn’t care about your food and is just working there to pay the rent, this is your body and you deserve to know what goes in it.
And, the majority of restaurateurs care deeply about their customers’ feedback. They want to stay in business, so they want to know what you really want. By asking questions and requesting substitutions, you’re giving them valuable information that they may use (if they’re smart) to further Paleo-ize their menu in the future.
When eating out, you may want to avoid the whole “Paleo” conversation with your server. I know I often do.
While I love spreading the word, I also just want to eat and enjoy my food in peace. I don’t always want to launch into a conversation as to why Paleo or low-carb diets are optimal, or to justify my eating habits to the server.
Or maybe you’re with your friends or co-workers and you don’t want to get into it either. In these cases, I just say “I’m eating low-carb.” Or, “I just don’t like rice with my chicken.” You can still be truthful without saying the “P” word and reserve your conversation for another time.
Work or social events
That leads us to eating out in social situations involving work, family, or friends. This can be the most frustrating for many Paleo-eaters for a number of reasons.
Let’s say you’re going out to lunch with co-workers. The first few times, you’re probably going to have to explain your Paleo “diet” at little bit. It’s been my experience, that a ton of questions come up when you keep skipping the pasta salad and ordering your bunless burgers.
If you’re lucky, your co-workers have already heard of Paleo and will just accept your choices and leave it alone… but you’ll always get someone who thinks you only eat steaks and bacon every day, or that Paleo is an unsustainable, “extreme” diet… or worse yet, a “fad”… ugh.
From my own experience, that’s when I sometimes feel like the “vegan” at the table. So, I have some empathy there.
If you do get a lot of questions, you can either take this opportunity to politely educate them or just deflect and say you like eating low-carb. Most people understand the low-carb concept and will leave it alone there.
For me, I’m always happy to have a mini-justification ready to go to educate anyone I’m eating with in a non-preachy way.
The plus side of all this is, you’re probably eating with your co-workers partly because they’re your work friends… and friends will accept your “strange” eating style and might even come to respect you for sticking with a “diet” where the majority of them have probably failed at theirs.
From time to time, I’ve been eating with co-workers and I eat or drink something technically “non-Paleo.” They may instantly jump on you saying, “that’s not Paleo!” like some kind of gotcha.
In the past, this stung a little, causing me to think I’m not representing Paleo perfectly. But the deeper I get into eating Paleo, I now take these comments in stride because I know that this non-Paleo thing I may be eating is very rare, a treat, or a small portion that is greatly offset by my otherwise solid Paleo diet.
So if someone sees me eating a taco, it’s because I haven’t had one in a long time and I know I’m not going to make this a regular staple of my diet.
Having one or two non-Paleo things in the context of a social gathering from time to time may be hard for others to understand because many view Paleo in the same way they view vegans: you’re either 100% in or 100% out.
With vegans, one bite of chicken means you’re “out.” It’s not like that with Paleo, of course (at least I think so): Paleo is a template for wise food choices, it’s not a prescription with hard lines all around.
Sure, eliminating grains, sugars, and seed oils from all or at least 99% of your diet will do you a world of good, but it’s not like you’re a hypocrite for that one treat now and then. You know what you’re doing even if they don’t fully understand Paleo yet.
Much of what I just said goes for any social event where food is involved. You can ask about the food choices ahead of time, avoid non-Paleo-friendly foods, or just ask for substitutions if possible.
And of course, it’s up to you as to how deep you want to go into the justification for your food choices with friends, family, or co-workers. In the end, even if a little uncomfortable at first, they’ll either respect your choices or just leave you alone about it. Either way, remember, this is your body and you have the right to put into it what you see fit.
I’ve heard some Paleo and low-carb people comment about how they were at a family or holiday party and “had” to eat the non-Paleo food to be polite or fit in… No you don’t.
Use the tools I’ve described here to navigate around those situations. You don’t have to be the militant Paleo person in the group or look down your nose at other people’s choices, but you also don’t have to hide the fact that you make what you believe to be wise food choices.
I still have people ask me after years of eating this way if I “still do Paleo.” I can understand with so many other “diets” falling by the wayside over the years that they would think this is just another fad that will fade as well.
I can’t blame them, and I’m no longer annoyed with the question because it opens up a conversation at best… or at least reminds them that eating within a healthy framework is possible and sustainable.
So on your adventures in eating out, stick to your principles, ask questions, do your research, and just enjoy your time away from the pots and pans for a while.