Dining Out: Diners by Toby Amidor in Dining Out, October 30, 2009
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Diners are a fave for weekend brunch or a late-night meal. The wide variety of foods means there is something there for everyone, but the options usually aren’t the healthiest. There’s no need to just settle for a plain salad or cottage cheese, however.
Old School Diners
When browsing the main items or specials, you might be tempted by the triple-decker sandwiches, bacon cheeseburger, omelets, mayo-drenched coleslaw or other fatty appetizers. There are some smarter choices in the mix, but also a few booby traps. For example, avoid falling for the “deluxe” package (just more food and calories). Most diners have “healthy” menu sections; usually, they list cottage cheese, a bun-less burger or a plain chef salad — all a bit boring. Don’t fall for those 80s-style “diet” plates that come with fruit salad. More often than not they feature canned fruit in syrup (extra sugar and calories!).
Popular for weekend breakfasts, diners offer up morning classics from scrambled eggs to pancakes to challah French toast. All these items are made on the same grill, which is typically (and repeatedly!) topped with oil or butter. Ask for poached or boiled eggs instead — they’re cooked in water without added fat. Add an English muffin and fresh fruit on the side, and you’ve got yourself a basic balanced breakfast.
Here are some more things to keep in mind for those breakfast favorites:
Problem: Super-sized portions and gobs of cheese
Solve It: Forgo the cheese, pile on the veggies and split large portions with a friend. (Skip the home fries, if possible.)
Food: Pancakes, French Toast
Problem: Large portions and high-cal toppings such as syrup and butter
Solve It: Choose one to two slices of French toast or pancakes. Skip the butter and measure out two tablespoons of syrup. Add on fresh berries (if available) to boost the flavor.
Problem: Enormous sizes and a topping overload of syrup, butter, ice cream and/or chocolate sauce
Solve It: Stick to half a waffle, top with fresh fruit and one to two tablespoons of syrup.
Soups & Salads
Soups can be healthy choices. Just watch out for the creamy ones! Don’t automatically assume the pea and carrot soups are lower calorie. Many use heavy cream to help thicken them so be sure to ask. Some good soup options include chicken and rice, chicken noodle, vegetable, minestrone and black bean.
At a diner, salads don’t automatically equal the smartest choice. Before selecting a salad, read the menu carefully. Check for various high-fat meats (bacon is a common addition), cheeses and eggs. You’ll probably spot a salad with all these packed into one dish, then topped with tons of Thousand Island, ranch or other creamy dressing. Instead, look for tons of veggies and tell the server to hold most of those toppings (choose one or two that you like). Ask for a vinaigrette dressing or oil and vinegar on the side. A grilled chicken salad or house salad with added chicken and dressing on the side are other good options.
Sandwiches & Burgers
I sometimes indulge in a hot, juicy burger on my trips to the diner, but I always swap out cheese and mayo for extra veggies and Dijon mustard. As for the ever-popular side of fries or onion rings, 10 fries (a small handful) typically satisfies a craving or swap in a baked potato and only eat half if it’s one of those monster ones.
Just because it’s a fish sandwich, don’t think you’ve found a healthier choice. Ask how it’s cooked. A fried fish sandwich can have more calories than a moderately sized burger! Be wary of those obnoxiously thick deli sandwiches, too; they pack three to four times more cold cuts in between those slices than a simple sandwich from home. Get your money’s worth by taking off half the meat and request to have it wrapped up to go. You can make yourself another sandwich at home the next day. Better sandwich choices include grilled chicken, sliced turkey (with two slices of bread, not three) or a veggie burger.
Who can miss those display cases with the cookies, chocolate cakes, rice pudding and ever-present cheesecake? I love desserts but typically skip them at diners — they rarely taste as good as they look and aren’t worth the extra calories or money. If you’re craving sweets, try a small frozen yogurt topped with fresh fruit, or split a small chocolate milk or milkshake instead.
TELL US: What do you order at a diner?