You’re on a diet, so you can’t possibly go to an Italian restaurant without blowing it, right? Wrong! In fact, Italian cuisine serves up an abundance of healthy food options if you know what to look for when ordering. Loads of fresh veggies, rich olive oil, heart-healthy seafood — learning how to eat healthy at an Italian restaurant is easier than you might think. It turns out you can have your pasta — in small portions — and eat it, too, all while enjoying a healthy dining out experience.
Have a Plan Before You Go
Pastas, pizzas and salads are staples on most Italian restaurant menus, but you’ll find many differences in the specific types of meals and portion sizes from one restaurant to the next. Scope out the menu online before you head out to make eating healthy Italian easier.
This gives you a chance to plan your meal to stay within your diet parameters. Many restaurants offer nutrition information online, so you can see exactly how many calories a dish has and compare the options to find the best fit for your diet. Have a few healthy options in mind in case your first choice doesn’t sound good when you arrive at the restaurant.
If you don’t get a chance to browse the menu for the restaurant, at least create a game plan going in to make dining out healthy. For example, you might tell yourself you will order a bowl of veggie-packed soup and an entrée with grilled meat and a small portion of pasta with a tomato-based sauce. If you go into the meal with those parameters in mind, you are more likely to stick to them when your server takes your order.
Another part of preparing for a healthy night out at an Italian restaurant is to show up hungry but not ravenous. If you are starving when you arrive, you are more likely to dive into the bread basket and make unhealthy meal decisions. Eat a healthy breakfast and lunch in preparation for your Italian feast.
Skip the Bread Basket
It’s a painful suggestion to make, but if the bread basket is your undoing, ask your server to forego the bread completely. This removes the temptation from the table. Bread fills you up and adds calories to the meal, leaving less room and fewer calories for the main course. It all comes down to where you want to spend your calories, and the main dish often gives you a greater burst of flavor.
If you can keep your bread eating under control, stick to one small piece of plain bread. Snack on whole-grain bread when it is offered to give yourself a dose of digestion-friendly dietary fiber. Dip the bread in a little olive oil if you need some extra flavor.
Another option is to have a few bites of cheese or Italian meat with a small piece of bread. This combination helps you feel satisfied so you aren’t tempted to keep reaching for the bread basket or cheese board. Avoid garlic bread or breadsticks, which often have loads of butter and oils that increase the fat and calorie content.
Choose the Ingredients Carefully
When you want healthy Italian food, you need to put a little detective work into the ordering process. Some dishes may sound healthy, but they are secretly full of heavy, fatty ingredients. Some menu items sound too decadent for a diet, but they may actually serve up lots of good-for-you ingredients.
A healthy Italian meal focuses on a lean protein source and vegetables rather than a hefty meal made up primarily of pasta. A small side of pasta is a healthier option.
A few simple tricks help you pick apart the menu to find a dish that satisfies your craving for delicious Italian cuisine without providing enough fat and calories for three meals. Keep these ingredient suggestions in mind when learning how to order healthy food at an Italian restaurant.
Skip Cream or Butter Bases
Many sauces use rich cream or butter as the base. While delicious, these Italian dishes rank high in fat and calories, making it difficult to stick to your diet. If you can’t tell what’s in a dish based on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask your server.
Choose Red Sauce
A red tomato-based sauce offers a lighter choice that is full of flavor.
Choose Oil Over Butter
Olive oil is a healthy source of fat and is often found on Italian menus. If you do indulge in bread, dip it in olive oil instead of slathering it with butter. Dip with caution. Bread soaks up oil quickly, and even though olive oil is a healthier fat, you don’t want too much in one meal. When given the choice between oil and butter in a dish, opt for the menu item that uses olive oil.
Say Yes to Veggies
Scan the Italian restaurant menu to find dishes chock-full of vegetables. The veggies boost your dietary fiber intake and help you fill up. Vegetables are generally low in calories, so your meal doesn’t go overboard in that department. Veggie are also packed with antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients that make the meal healthier overall.
Look for Lean Protein Options
Heavy meat-filled dishes increase your calorie consumption for the meal. Opt for a meatless meal, or choose seafood or poultry for a leaner protein source. You still get your fill of protein without extra fat and calories.
Cut Back on Cheese
Gooey cheese is tough to resist, but all that dairy adds a lot of fat to the meal. Watch for pastas stuffed or smothered with cheese. Opt for pasta in a light, healthy sauce. If you can’t resist the flavor of cheese, ask for a small amount of freshly grated cheese on top.
Choose Airy Pasta
You don’t have to give up your pasta completely to enjoy a healthy Italian feast, but cutting back on the portion size helps balance the meal. To make that smaller portion size seem bigger, opt for ziti or similar pastas with hollow middles. The pasta seems bigger than spaghetti or similar solid pasta types, so it may give you a greater sense of satisfaction.
Eat Your Beans
Beans often show up on Italian menus, particularly in soups or pasta e fagioli. The beans bulk up the dish while adding healthy fiber and protein. In dishes like pasta e fagioli, you still get some pasta, but the beans replace part of it, giving it a healthier profile.
Order Thin Crust Pizza
If your Italian craving involves pizza, order the thinnest crust available at the restaurant. This cuts down on the amount of carbohydrates and fat in the pizza. Choose a pizza with lots of vegetables on top, or ask to add extra vegetables for added healthy benefits.
Spice It Up
Look for dishes that infuse lots of flavor with herbs and spices. Those ingredients delight your taste buds without adding lots of fat and calories.
If you have your heart set on some of the not-so-good ingredient options, request a lighter amount. Ask for just a little cheese on top or a small portion of the cream-based sauce on the side so you can add a smaller amount.
Start Off Light
Healthy eating out starts from the first course of the meal. Move past the fried calamari and breaded appetizers to find the lighter side of the starter menu. Those healthier starter options give you a taste of the Italian cuisine without consuming an entire meal’s worth of calories.
Not sure how to start your Italian meal without fried food? Here are some common starters on Italian menus that help you keep your healthy eating habits on track:
- Soup: Begin your meal with a broth-based soup, such as the classic minestrone or Italian wedding soup. These soups pack in the vegetables while keeping the calorie count low.
- Salad: A small salad kicks off your Italian meal with a healthy dose of vegetables. Opt for a salad with a variety of tasty veggies. Watch out for lots of high-fat extras on the salad, such as
cheese or Italian meats. Look for a salad with light vinaigrette, or ask for the dressing on the side to control how much you eat.
- Lean proteins: Stick with lean sources of protein for your starters. Opt for these foods prepared in a healthy way, such as grilled or roasted, rather than fried.
- Vegetables: Many Italian restaurants feature an assortment of vegetables on the antipasti menu. Look for a healthy preparation before diving in.
Be Picky About the Prep
So often it’s not what you eat but how it is prepared that makes or breaks your diet. Frying significantly increases the fat and calorie content of the food. Grilling is the healthiest preparation method. The food stays light yet flavorful with a grilled preparation. Roasting is also a relatively healthy prep method, although roasted foods may have a little more fat and oil in them than grilled dishes.
Tackle Hunger With Tapas
If you can’t stop yourself from finishing your entire meal, opt for tapas instead of a full meal. Tapas are also known as small plates, and they are exactly how they sound. They offer up small portions on small plates. Those small plates are often full of big flavor, so while the portions are smaller, you won’t give up the flavor of Italian.
If the Italian restaurant doesn’t have a specific tapas menu, head to the appetizer, antipasti or starters menu, where you’ll find those same smaller portions. Order several small plates for the table to share to give your taste buds variety without overindulging. Choose one splurge item with other healthier selections, such as olives, marinated vegetables or artichokes. Another option is to pair a small side salad with a bowl of soup or a healthy appetizer as your main course.
Divide and Conquer
Sharing your meal is a simple way to keep your diet intact. Split the portions right down the middle to enjoy all of the flavor and only half of the fat and calories.
If your dining partner doesn’t share the same tastes as you, order the full meal, but divide it in half on your plate. Enjoy half of the meal at the restaurant, and take the rest home for another meal. By dividing the meal before you start eating, you set a limit so you don’t eat more than half. If you’re afraid you won’t be able to stop — and we really can’t blame you — ask your server to box up half of the food right away.
Another option is to simply order a smaller portion size. Some Italian restaurants offer smaller plates. If the dinner menu doesn’t list smaller options, don’t be afraid to ask.
Look for a Light Menu
Some Italian restaurants make it easy to make healthier choices by having a separate light menu. These selections contain healthier ingredients with lower calorie and fat content, making them ideal choices when you want to stick to a diet. If the restaurant doesn’t have a light section on the menu, ask your server for suggestions.
Don’t Sip Your Calories
High-calorie beverages send your overall calorie consumption over the top if you don’t sip carefully. If you want wine with your Italian food, stick to just one glass instead of ordering an entire bottle. The glass limits you to one serving, while a bottle tempts you to refill. Even if you’re sharing the bottle with your dining partner, you will likely consume more than one glass. Still or sparkling water as your beverage lets you spend your calories on the food instead of on your drink.
Make Dessert Healthier
Did you save room for dessert? Skipping the sweet end to your meal is one way to stay on track with your diet. If you need a touch of sweet to wrap up your Italian dining experience, try these tips to keep it light:
- Account for the dessert when you track your calorie consumption for the meal. You might decide to cut back during the meal or drink water to leave room for dessert.
- Share your dessert with your dining partner. This gives you just enough to satisfy your sweet craving without going overboard.
- Choose a fruity dessert. The fruit gives you the sweetness you want while adding some health value and keeping the calorie count under control.
- Sip on a cappuccino or espresso without sugar as your dessert. Other healthier dessert options include sorbet or biscotti.
- Order a small dessert when possible. At Bricco, we offer small dessert plates, so you can treat yourself without completely derailing your diet.
Savor Delicious and Healthy Italian Food
Healthy eating at restaurants isn’t boring, and you won’t have to sacrifice flavor if you know what to order. Many flavorful meals offer a healthy, nutritious way to enjoy Italian cuisine. When your Italian meal arrives, savor each bite. Eating slowly lets you fully enjoy the flavors and may help you eat less by making it easier to notice when you are full.
Bricco offers up the finest ingredients, focusing on high-quality local produce. We create our menu around the seasonal offerings, capturing produce at its peak freshness and flavor. Our wide and ever-changing menu gives you plenty of flavorful options that won’t derail your diet.
Are you craving healthy Italian? Make your reservations now to enjoy guilt-free Italian in the upscale, contemporary ambiance of Bricco.