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The DAO of eating on the go (updated)

Whether you are on the road, out shopping, or at CVS, I will give you guidance for situations where you have to just grab a bite or a snack on the road (for travel, please see my post here). You will be able to apply the “Little Black Dress” Method to have your go-to choice for each spot.

Whether you are on the road, out shopping, or at CVS, the DAOFitLife approach will give you guidance on nutritious choices for situations where you have to just grab a bite or a snack on the road. 

This is the DAO guide to ordering on the go. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. If you see something on the menu that catches your eye and you want to try it or it satisfies a craving, go for it. That is where portion control can serve you.

Also, in some salad references, I refer to my “BYOD” method, which is essentially bringing my own low-cal dressings. 

How this guide is set up 

This guide is set up as follows:

PART 1: Common casual dining options—We will explore options for chain restaurants like Applebee’s.

PART 2: Fast food and drink options—We will explore options for on-the-go traditional and nontraditional fast food like Starbucks, Dunkin’, McDonald’s, Subway, Panera.

PART 3: The “Build a Bowl” options —The model of a lot of salad and ethnic food bars is the same “build-a-bowl” option, so this will be widely applicable guidance that can apply despite geographical differences.

PART 4: Convenience Options —We will explore options for places like 7-11, CVS, Walgreens, Duane Read, or gas station convenience stores. We have all been there, aimlessly staring and roaming around. Now you have the DAO to get you in and out. 

photo of pub set in room during daytime
Photo by Jason Leung

Common casual dining options 

Ruby Tuesday

I used to work here, so I know that the salad bar is an awesome choice. 

Other than the bar, these are the choices I would recommend for lunch or dinner:

  • Garden salad with protein and dressing on the side (or BYOD)
  • Steamed broccoli or grilled zucchini sides
  • Grilled chicken sandwich 
  • Vegetarian: Awesome burger

The spinach artichoke dip is delicious, but it is very high in calories and greasy, so it’s not as healthy as it sounds. A good “20” choice.

Olive garden

Ah, the breadsticks and salad! Some of this brings back memories from childhood. While Olive Garden can be a calorie disaster, there are some healthy options I would recommend, in line with suggestions from nutritionists:

  • Zoodles Primavera (570 calories)
  • Chicken Giardino (530 calories) 
  • Minestrone Soup (110 calories)

The good news about the breadsticks is that one of them does not do too much damage (it is 140 calories, half of it coming from carbs and the other from fat). And you can even have your fill of salad if you request the low-fat version of their famous dressing on the side, which only has 30 calories per serving. You can even order it online to have some of your very own (I have to say it is very close to the real deal, if only slightly a little more runny). Just don’t literally take them at face value of “bottomless” – this is where you can get on that slippery slope.

Outback Steakhouse

Outback’s menu varies by location, but in most places, lists the full calorie count for most items. Their full nutritional menu is available at (https://outback.blob.core.windows.net/content/images/OBS_Full_Nutrition_Information_Core_Menu_Items.pdf). 

You can see that like Ruby Tuesday, the calorically expensive choices are mainly in the appetizers. Bloomin Onion, anyone? I will vouch for the fact that it is delish—you just may not want to order anything else!

Here are some of the healthier choices (note some menus are subject to change)

  • Aussie Cobb Salad 
  • Bourbon Salmon or Perfectly Grilled Salmon option 
  • Brisbane Caesar Salad with Grilled Shrimp
  • Grilled Chicken on the Barbie 
  • Steak: The healthiest and leanest cut of steak for Outback is the center cut sirloin
  • Sides: Outback has sides of mixed and seasonal vegetables, as well as side salads (just watch the dressing). 

California Pizza Kitchen 

Pizza has been demonized, but you can still eat pizza and be fit.  Healthier pizza choices include:

  • Wild Mushroom Pizza
  • California Veggie Pizza

You may want to skip some of the pizzas, like the Spicy Milano Thin Crust Pizza (per slice, 240 calories and 11g of fat)

You also may want to skip the Full Thai Crunch Salad With Lime Cilantro Dressing (1100 calories, taking walking over 330 minutes to burn off).

Also ask for light cheese and/or sauce, or cauliflower crust—they will accommodate and do offer these options! 

For non-pizza options, there are good “power bowls.”

  • Banh Mi Power Bowl
  • Santa Fe Power Bowl
  • Cedar Plank Salmon
  • Classic Caesar Salad
round brown wooden table
Photo by S.Ratanak

Fast Food and Drink

Starbucks 

Let me start by saying categorically: I CANNOT. DRINK. BLACK. COFFEE.

If I could, I would recommend that, and this would be a very short book. Drink black coffee. It’s 5 calories. The end. But no, not me. I will gag. I need my coffee to be creamy. I need my tea not to taste like I am drinking freshly mowed lawn. So when I wrote this, I had all of you in mind—we want our yummy coffee and tea drinks, but if we wanted them to have 200+ calories, we’d just as well order the ice lemon pound cake. 

Do’s and don’ts of ordering at Starbucks

Here is a deeper dive on the do’s or don’ts of ordering at Starbucks. You can find the nutrition menu PDF here: https://globalassets.starbucks.com/assets/94fbcc2ab1e24359850fa1870fc988bc.pdf

Don’t Order: Matcha green tea latte
A matcha green tea latte sounds healthy, right? But it clocks in at 240 calories and 32 grams of sugar! 
Do order: Hot Green tea latte or Unsweetened iced green tea

If you still want a bit of foam with your green tea, get a hot green tea latte. This is kind of off-menu but the barista should understand it. It’s only going to set you back about 50 calories and 3 grams of sugar.

Iced green tea is also a good option because it’s zero calories, and it’s blended with mint to make it less “grassy,” which is one of the primary turn-offs of green tea for many people.

Don’t order: “Skinny” lattes

Like we discussed in Chapter 6 on Nutrition labels, many of the labels at coffee shops also have misleading “halo” effects. Skinny coffee drinks at Starbucks and other places are a perfect example. I was once the queen of venti skinny caramel macchiatos. Even though on its face 160 calories may not seem that bad, it is still about 23 grams of sugar. And I was drinking two of these a day. Yiiiikes.

The problem with the syrups is that they usually are loaded with sugar. And even if you get the sugar-free brand, that is loaded with chemicals that make you crave even more sugar. It always comes as a cost. Plus, it tastes nasty, doesn’t it?

Nonfat milk actually has a lot of sugar (it has “lactose,” one of the kinds of sugar). For example, a grande nonfat latte with no flavors has 18 grams of sugar. Add some syrup, and you can go up to 30, which is almost the same as having a regular soda.

Do order: Almond milk or coconut milk lattes

Almond milk latte grande size has 100 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 5 grams of sugar. Coconut milk lattes have 110 calories, with 10 grams of sugar. These are better alternatives if you want a milky drink.

Don’t order: Frappuccinos

Have you seen the people who usually order the Frappuccinos with a ton of whipped cream and syrup? It is basically an ice cream sundae in a cup. Even the “light” frappuccinos are packed with sugar. Every time I see someone carrying a frappuccino with a mound of whipped cream, I shudder. 

Do order: Iced shaken espresso with almond milk

You still get the icy, creamy feeling of a Frappuccino, but without all the calories. Be sure not to include the classic syrup, and sweeten with Stevia in the Raw instead.

For an awesome DIY low cal frappuccino recipe, combine:

1 cup Silk Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk

1 tbsp monk fruit

1 tbsp stevia-sweetened 5 sparrows Frappe and Smoothie base

2 Tbsp non-dairy creamer (like nutpods)

Ice

Blend and have a 50 calorie no-sugar Frappuccino instead!

Don’t order: Flavored Cream cold brews

These drinks which are often seasonal clock in at 230 calories and have 23 grams of sugar! Irish cream cold brew, pumpkin cream cold brews, and vanilla sweet cream cold brews all back at least 250 calories for a grande and over 30 grams of sugar! But don’t worry, you can have your cold brew and drink it too. 

Do order: Plan Nitro Cold Brew or Nitro Cold Brew with sweet cream and cold foam 

A plain Nitro Cold brew only has 5 calories, and if you drink it fresh with just a little stevia, it is actually very foamy and creamy. If you want a little something-something, get the Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream and cold foam, which is like a light version of the other Cream cold brews above. It has 70 calories and 5 grams of sugar.

Top all-around best Starbucks drink choices:
  • Tall almond milk latte (80 calories);
  • Hot green or herbal tea (0 calories);
  • Americano with splash of half and half and stevia (40 calories)
  • Tall iced shaken green tea or passion fruit herbal tea with no syrup (45-60 calories)
  • Tall cold brew coffee with splash of milk of choice (20-50 calories)

Because we all go here so much, and the menu is so big, here is a more extensive do’s and don’ts ordering list. 

Best food choices:
Breakfast:
  • Eggs Sous Vide Red Pepper and Egg White (140 calories)
  • Blueberry Oatmeal (no added brown sugar), add banana (250 calories)
  • Spinach, Feta, and Egg wrap 280 calories) 
  • Low-fat Turkey Bacon English Muffin Sandwich (230 calories) 
  • If you absolutely must have a baked good, make it your “20” or order a blueberry bagel with cream cheese (400 calories)
Lunch or snacks:

Dunkin’ Donuts

Like with Starbucks, you generally want to avoid a lot of fancy drink names and flavored syrups. For example, the Irish Crème Swirl Frozen Coffee with Cream is 1110 calories! You can find the nutrition menu PDF here: https://www.dunkindonuts.com/content/dam/dd/pdf/nutrition.pdf

For food, donuts and bagels are more “20” choices, but there are some healthier items on the menu. 

Beverages: 

  • Small coffee with a splash of milk of choice (almond, oat, cream, or nonfat milk)
  • Hot green tea 
  • Cold brew coffee with splash of milk of choice 
  • Blackberry Oat Cold Brew (45 Calories)

Food: 

  • Avocado and Roasted Tomato Avocado Toast (260 calories)
  • Veggie Egg White Omelet Sandwich (290 calories)
  • Wake Up Wrap with Beyond Sausage Patty (180 calories)
  • Snackin’ Bacon (190 calories)

Chick-fil-A

You probably want to pass on the regular Spicy Chicken sandwich  (460 calories and 19g of fat), the Chick-Fil-A waffle fries (420 for a small). The Grilled chicken breast sandwich is a healthier option (380 calories and 11g of fat).

An even better combo would be the following: 

  • Grilled Chicken Nuggets 
  • Side Kale and Apple Salad 
  • ½ container of Polynesian Sauce 

Total for all of the above: 330 calories. 

In n’ Out burger 

This is mostly a California/West Coast joint, but I need to give it a shout so that this book is not too East Coast-slanted. The classic healthy choice here is the “Protein-Style” hamburger, which does not include a bun. This menu choice is lower in calories, fat, carbohydrates, and sodium. If you choose not to have fries with your order, your overall intake of those nutrients is lower.

red and white concrete building near palm trees during daytime
Photo by Thabang

McDonald’s

Did you know McDonald’s removed salads from its menu in response to the pandemic in April 2020? Until those come back, here are the best options:

Breakfast

  • Fruit and Maple Oatmeal
  • McCafe Americano or Latte

Lunch

Literally all you can pick here are burgers or fries. There are not even grilled chicken sandwiches anymore. So McDonald’s would be a good “20” meal. And it doesn’t have to be so expensive in calories. A regular cheeseburger with a kid’s-size of fries is 410 calories. Just try to avoid “supersizing” even if it is only 20 cents extra.

Subway

Most of the 6-inch subs at Subway are relatively low in calories. Although it is delicious, the classic Tuna is drenched in mayonnaise and therefore calories, so you probably want to steer clear of that and the double meat sandwich. Same with the sides of chips or cookies. 

The healthiest options at Starbucks are:

  • Protein Bowl—Cold Cut Combo, Black Forest Ham, or Oven Roasted Chicken. Add any and all veggies (even pickles). Red wine and/or regular or spice mustard for dressing (about 350-400 calories per bowl). Avoid the honey mustard or mayo-based sauces. 
  • 6-inch Turkey or Oven Roasted Chicken Sub on wheat roll. Add swiss cheese (their serving size only adds about 50 calories), lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and purple onion, red wine vinegar and mustard. Or make it a footlong and eat it over two lunches (350-400 calories per sandwich).

Wendy’s

  • Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad, no dressing or BYOD (440 calories)
  • Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, no dressing or BYOD (340 calories)

With all the smashed avocado in the Southwest Salad, and the Blue Cheese in the Apple Pecan you don’t really need to use the dressing. This way you keep your lunch under 500 calories. 

Panera 

The Modern Caprese Sandwich of Panera Bread is deceptively unhealthy, so definitely avoid that and most of the pasta dishes and pastries.

  • Low-fat Chicken Noodle Soup (160 calories) (notice you can buy these in grocery stores)
  • Sprouted Grain Bagel (180 calories)
  • Asian Sesame Salad (410 calories)

“Build a Bowl” Places 

Bowls To-go: CAVA, BibiBOP, Roti

All these places have a formula perfect for the LBD method: you choose a base, protein, veggie, fat, dressing, and then pay at least 20 dollars. 

For lunch, going to a place where you can conveniently customize is key. For example, here is what you should order at a “bowl”

  • Base of greens (spinach, kale, arugula)
  • One whole grain: quinoa, brown rice, or wild rice, root vegetables (sweet potato or carrot)
  • Protein: chicken, shrimp, or beans if vegetarian
  • Veggies: cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, celery, bell pepper (pickled veggies also give a sour taste if that’s what you are in the mood for) 
  • ONE of cheese, olives, seeds or avocado as a fat: parmesan crisps, goat cheese, avocado or shaved parmesan
  • Plain balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar or BYOD 

For sauces, if it is a mediterranean type place, I like shug or harissa sauce, which is spicy, and tzatziki sauce which, contrary to most beliefs, is actually low calorie. Anything yogurt or chili based is generally a good choice. You can also take advantage of their perfectly sliced lemons and limes to add more flavor by asking for a lime or lemon squeeze.

I prefer to get my carbs from the grains rather than the side bread option, as I usually don’t know whether the bread has whole grains and will be a fibrous carb choice. 

Try to stay away from salami-type meats and heavy cheeses like cheddar or mozzarella. They are fine, but they usually give too much in portions. 

Chipotle 

It goes without saying, but generally you want to avoid the chips, quesadillas, burritos and tacos because the flour tortillas are cooked with a lot of heavy oils and the toppings in these include a lot of sour cream, rice, and guacamole which can really inflate the calorie and fat count.

The best option at Chipotle is the Chicken Burrito Bowl. If you use your own salad greens, you can stretch a burrito bowl over two lunches. Any of their salads with steak, beans  or chicken are also healthy options, as long as you get the right toppings. If you get a salad bowl, get it with greens, brown rice, chicken, salsa, and guacamole on the side. Make sure you eat a golf ball size’s worth, because the serving chipotle gives can be as much as a whole avocado, which is a whopping 250 calories on its own. This way, your meal will be only about 350 calories and have a lot of healthy PFC in it. 

Convenience stores, CVS, Walgreens

Look, we all have to pop into a gas station or a random strip mall every once in a while to grab a bite. If you know you will be running around or driving for a few hours, try to eat a meal or snack before leaving the house. Otherwise, the shopping will make you hungrier and more likely to make poor food choices.

If you need to stop at a convenience place, don’t just wander the aisles and stare at the food (I see this all the time). Have an “LBD” option for these places. 

For example, my go-to LBD for these places is something I know I can get in all of them, which I would recommend:

  • Nuts
  • Fruit cups 
  • Dried fruit (dates, apricots, prunes, mango) (just watch for the added sugar)
  • Whole wheat crackers and string cheese
  • Baby carrots (usually)
  • Kind Bars 
  • Dark chocolate (look for at least 55% cacao)
  • Popchips (not exactly “healthy” but a nice crunchy salty alternative to the chips)
  • Yogurt (usually Chobani Dannon, or Fage are available)

What if I am vegan?

Good news! There is a whole website dedicated to ordering vegan anywhere, including many of the places I am about to list below: https://veggl.com/



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