Dining Out Mediterranean

Tuesday, January 9, 2007 - 4:47pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

Thanks to the growing interest in Mediterranean-style foods, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding restaurants that offer these selections when dining out. Just Google “Mediterranean restaurants” and you’ll find lots of choices in most major cities. But don’t feel that you’re limited to themed restaurants if you want to stick to a Mediterranean diet. Most restaurants have menu items that fit the Mediterranean description, even though they may not be labeled as such. You just need to know how to recognize them.

Fast food
If you’re lucky enough to have a falafel stand nearby, you can enjoy fast Mediterranean foods like souvlaki, salads, vegetables and gyros with pita bread. But if this isn’t available, you can put together a Mediterranean-type meal at many fast food restaurants, if you choose right. Take Wendy’s. A Basil/Pesto Turkey Frescheta sandwich or a Chicken Ceasar Salad would each fit roughly into the Mediterranean definition. Unfortunately, the olive oil component would be lacking, but if you only occasionally eat at fast food restaurants, it’s not a big deal.

Cheeseburgers and fries are fast food staples, and frankly don’t fit a Mediterranean diet plan. Here are a few food selection tips to help you stick to a -mostly - Mediterranean diet in fast food restaurants:

  • Avoid items with cheese or mayonnaise spreads.
  • Avoid fried potatoes and breaded, fried meats.
  • Meal-sized salads, with chicken or turkeys are good options.
  • Grilled chicken sandwiches, without cheese, are okay.
  • Avoid soda pop, desserts and chips.

Sandwiches, etc.
Subway has positioned itself as the go-to sub shop for lowfat choices. In fact, most of Subway’s fresh, lowfat subs are suitable for a Mediterranean diet, again minus the olive oil. The turkey wraps or chicken spinach salad are also options. Your favorite sub or sandwich shop probably has similar choices. When in doubt, refer to the tips above. If you avoid cheese, mayonnaise spreads and fried foods, you’re on the right track.

What, no pizza?!
Actually, Italian pizza is a quintessential Mediterranean food, but the Americanized version places too much emphasis on mounds of cheese and high fat meats. If you can find thin-crust pizza, that’s your best bet, as long as the bottom isn’t swimming in oil. True thin crust pizza should be dry on the bottom. Then order lots of vegetable toppings, with no meat and light on the cheese. If you can choose feta cheese, go for that. An ideal pizza would be thin crust, with feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, fresh spinach and perhaps olives, mushrooms and peppers.

Fast casual
There are hundreds of fast casual restaurants, both national chains and locally owned. Most are likely to have menu items that fit into a Mediterranean diet. Some may even label the choices as Mediterranean, but use your judgment. One restaurant’s “Mediterranean” style may mean a lot of pasta, no olive oil, and no fresh vegetables. When in doubt, salads with olive-oil dressing and some meat or fish, plus a whole grain roll are fail-safe Mediterranean dishes, as well as sandwiches with low-fat meats and lots of veggies.

With fast casual, as with fast food, avoid sandwiches that feature lots of cheese and mayonnaise, or breaded, fried meats. For hot meals, a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes won’t fit the Mediterranean plan, but grilled chicken and vegetables on rice would be acceptable. The main shortcoming of all these restaurants will be the lack of olive oil. If you aren’t sure whether or not olive oil is being used, just ask.

High end eateries
If you don’t mind the cost, you’re more likely to find food closer to the Mediterranean ideal in more expensive restaurants, where chefs are willing to cater to patrons’ requests and health concerns. Most such restaurants use olive oil for salads and cooking anyway. And you are less likely to find dishes smothered in cheese. Simple meals with fish or meat, vegetables, salad, olive oil dressing and quality bread should be easy to find, if not exactly cheap. As for dessert - if you must indulge in a fancy dessert, find something you can share with others at your table. Or just enjoy an espresso or some tea.

Sticking to a Mediterranean food plan while dining out is not impossible. Once you know what to look for and what to avoid, you should find this easy to do. The hardest part might be maintaining the self-discipline to forego choosing old favorites. If your plan is “Mostly Mediterranean” rather than “Strictly Mediterranean” you have room to indulge in the occasional cheeseburger or fried chicken.