Healthier Dining Out: Mexican

by in Dining Out, March 12, 2009

Jonesing for some fajitas, enchiladas and a sweet margarita? Typical Mexican — and Tex-Mex — restaurants have a lot of flavorful menu choices, but they’re not always the lightest delights. Check out these tips before heading out to your favorite Mexican joint.

Chips & Dip
If you go to any Mexican restaurant worth it’s margarita salt, servers will greet you with fried tortilla chips and salsa (or cheese or guacamole if you upgrade) when seated. Although the thought of never-ending chips is tempting, just grab a small handful on your plate and go for the lighter dip — salsa. Also, don’t feel obligated to finish the chips that are on the table. You can always ask the waiter to take them away or not to refill them.

Skip the Crunchy Shells
Soft tortillas are baked, while the crunchy ones are fried. You don’t need to be a nutritionist to know that fried anything means more fat and calories so opt for soft. If you must have a crunchy taco, skip the tortilla chip appetizers (sorry, you can’t have it all!).

Customize Your Order
Many of the fajitas, tortillas, tacos and enchiladas come with pork, chicken or beef fillings. These dishes typically also come with many toppings on the side — cheese, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, rice and beans. The first three are the most calorie-dense, and it’s wise to hold back on a few (or all).

Beans can be deceiving. Black beans are very healthy — loaded with fiber, high in protein and low in fat — but many refried beans are cooked using lard and Mexican cheese blends or pork. Instead, try pinto beans that have the same nutritional benefits without all the added fat.

Dishes to Avoid
Although delicious, the following dishes are typically deep fried and you should avoid them (or share them on special occasions): chimichangas, taquitoes, chalupas and chile relleno. If you aren’t sure if something’s fried, ask your server.

    And to help, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Chimichanga: Deep-fried burrito
  • Taquitoes: Small, fried tortillas filled with chicken or beef
  • Chalupas: Deep-fried dough filled with chicken or meat
  • Chile relleno: Literally means “stuffed pepper,” which are filled with various goodies (i.e. meat, cheese, pork) and then fried

Many more traditional Mexican restaurants feature regional entrees that don’t involve frying at all — spiced-up chicken and grilled seafood dishes are usually available.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Some Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants now offer healthier fare such as brown rice, whole wheat tortillas and low-fat cheeses. You may even find that the sides can be replaced with steamed veggies or a fresh salad — just be sure to order the dressing on the side.

Beer or Margarita?
I always look forward to margaritas when dining at Mexican restaurants. Unless you have enough people at the table, stick to a single glass and not a pitcher. Margaritas have tons of added sugar from the mixes and can have a few hundred calories, so stick to one.

A better option may be a Mexican beer such as Corona or Dos Equis, which won’t have the added sugars. Ask for Corona Light for a lower-calorie option. If you’re looking for a more authentic experience, order a Michelada.

TELL US: Do you have any favorite, lighter Mexican favorites — traditional or Americanized?

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