Just One Thing: Mindful Food Choices

When you eat out, how do you choose what to order? Most people would probably say “I just order what I want,” but is it really that simple? After all, there are many things we want from our food: good taste, nutrition, something that will “stick to our ribs” or something “light,” something within our budget or even something that will leave enough leftovers for lunch tomorrow. And I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, food ethics also come into play: where was the food grown, how was it raised, and were people, animals, plants, or the environment unduly harmed on the trip to my table.

After the jump: the questions I ask myself when surveying a menu…

When I read a menu, I ask myself the following questions, which are not 100% carved in stone, but guide the majority of my decision-making when I eat out.

  1. Is there anything local and/or organic on the menu? There almost never is, so often I have to ignore this criterion.
  2. What is the most ethical protein on the menu? I assume all beef, pork, chicken, and eggs come from factory farms unless stated otherwise on the menu. I carry a Seafood Watch pocket card to help with fish choices, though my rule of thumb is the only good fish to eat out are whitefish, catfish, pollack, clams, bay scallops, tilapia, and rainbow trout. If I can afford salmon, it’s not “good” salmon. Usually everything on the menu fails this test, so more and more these days I am functionally vegetarian when I eat out.
  3. What is (or can be) made without tons of dairy? Milk and I don’t get along so well, not to mention the ethical issues around conventional milk.

At this point, the menu is usually narrowed down to a few choices, and I start thinking about the more “optional” criteria.

  1. What has the most vegetables? I find it very hard to get enough veggies when eating out, so this is a big one for me, especially when traveling or otherwise have to eat several consecutive meals out.
  2. Is there a decent balance of veg, protein, and fat to balance out the starch? I almost never order pasta out because all that white flour hits me like a candy bar and when I get hungry an hour later, the only thing to eat is…more pasta.
  3. Do I want leftovers? This often helps me decide between a sandwich and an entree.
  4. Finally, what tickles my fancy? What just “sounds good”? Ok, I know I’m prone to thinking too much, and maybe this question should come first more often, but usually, this is the last question I ask myself – after I’ve narrowed down the menu to a couple of items that meet as many of my previous criteria as possible.

So you might think I’m crazy, but this really doesn’t take much time or effort. If you were going to do just one thing to make your diet more sustainable, I would suggest asking yourself where your meat comes from. Chances are, it was raised in an over-drugged, polluted misery of a feedlot or cage eating grain that should be feeding starving people. Is there a way to take that out of your meal? Order something vegetarian, or get the tilapia, or have the small steak or burger instead of the big one.



  1. Derrick said,

    April 21, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Since I don’t get the chance to really eat out very often, I like to try and go for something that I have never heard of or have never tried before. Unfortunately, like you said, it’s always hard to know where the food comes from, and unless told otherwise, always assume it comes from a big box wholesaler.

  2. Alyssa said,

    April 21, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve been lurking for a little while now and thought I’d comment. I’m really struggling with all of this. I shop very local and organic if possible. My processed food is down to a minimum. However, because of personal health concerns, I can’t eat a lot of carbohydrates and I have to make sure that I’m getting a balance between protein and carbohydrates and I’m supposed to stay away from soy (including tofu). Eating vegetarian is very difficult for me. Although I’m starting to get around this by eating at restaurants I know are local and ethical, but what does one do at a business lunch where you have no choice?

  3. Emily said,

    April 21, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Alyssa – Personally, I say your first obligation of caring is to make sure you stay healthy. Everyone from Mother Theresa to Yogis to Pagan philosophers agree that if you don’t take care of your own health, you are a) harming a human being and b) not going to be of much good to anyone else. So, you are making a great effort to eat ethically, but often find yourself in a situation where you can’t. I say, if you have no choice, don’t beat yourself up over it…but do put a little thought into whether or not you have a choice. You might get a stable of backup foods that would work for you – for example, tilapia is an abundant fish, and often found at restaurants. It’s also mild and non-fishy tasting, nice if you’re not a big fish eater. A salad and chili (which is probably half beans and 2 oz of meat) could be another good choice. If you find a chain that does have food you feel good about, you might be able to steer the group in that direction.

    Derrick – one of the pleasures of food is the social aspect! Food shouldn’t be a duty or a chore, even if you are being mindful about the choices you make. And there’s a big difference between a “once-a-month treat” sort of meal and “what you eat every day for lunch” sort of meal.

    If you find yourself stuck with little choice about restaurant food (e.g., if you live in an area where the only vegetarian food is typically a house salad), you could ask questions of your waitstaff, or even a manager. “Do you have any grass-fed beef?” is a great question – polite, respectful, non-accusatory, and yet lets the restaurant know your preferences.

  4. TeacherPatti said,

    April 21, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    My husband and I have very few places where we eat out. Aubree’s probably gets most of our business because we order from the Corner (they have me in their system as “Patti from the Corner”, which is a little embarrassing when we order from there several times per week 🙂 ) I realized the other day that I don’t eat at any chain restaurants (except for a rare jaunt to the Castle or Wendy’s). So, right now, I guess I am focused on eating at local businesses. Do you have any recommendations for local restaurants that have food from local sources? I’m sure you know about the Arbor Brew Co….
    PS: We started our food unit in class 🙂

  5. Alyssa said,

    April 22, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Thanks Emily. I appreciate it! The diagnosis is new for me, so I’m still struggling with eating restrictions. You make a good point about chili. I do try to eat beans wherever possible as well. Not just b/c they’re yummy but because they’re especially good for me.

  6. Rebecca said,

    April 23, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Patti asks about restaurants in our area that use local sources: Eve’s in Kerrytown is conscious about using local and seasonal ingredients, and are big supporters of organic agriculture ans sustainable foodways. Also, The Common Grill in Chelsea does a great job of featuring Great Lakes fishes and Michigan produce. These two places are pretty pricey, it’s true! If I want to pick up a quick bite, I always feel secure in eating at the food coop’s Cafe Verde, where I know they at least use Rosewood Tofu, and I can get a healthy salad or some greens/beans/tofu combo (one of my favorite fortifying meals).

    Thanks for the discussion!

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