Margarita Monday? Taco Tuesday? As if you need a special day of the week to enjoy some delicious eats at your local Mexican restaurant. One of the virtues of Mexican cuisine is that you can enjoy it without falling off the nutritious-eating bandwagon. (Guacamole, anyone?) The trick is knowing how to navigate the menu.
While you might think sticking to the "ensalada" section is a smart bet, the truth is that some of the salads can pack more calories than some entree counterparts — here's looking at you, generic taco salad with over 800 calories and almost 50 grams of fat.
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To help you find your way, we asked leading dietitians to share their go-to favorites when dining out at their local Mexican joint. Try these 10 nutritious menu picks for a delicious dinner any night of the week.
1. A La Carte Tostada
"Your eyes are bigger than your stomach." Or is it, "You eat with your eyes first"? However the idiom goes, the point is how we see food may play a role in how much food we end up eating.
The Delboeuf illusion can cause us to misjudge how much food we're eating, per a September 2013 review in the International Journal of Obesity (London). For example, if there's more "white space" on our plate, we feel like the portion is smaller than it might actually be. So what does this have to do with Mexican food?
Enter tostadas. "I love tostadas because they really are just like a flat, crunchy taco, but they look bigger than a taco," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap. "It's a smart choice to order from the a la carte menu because you get what you want for the main dish, but don't have the extra calories of the rice and bean sides. I like to pair it with a skinny margarita."
2. Skinny Margarita
Speaking of margaritas, you can imbibe in this adult beverage, but there are a few tricks of the trade when it comes to exactly how you order. A typical margarita can run 400 calories or more, but you can slash this drastically with a few simple swaps.
Instead of ordering the classic margarita cocktail, which often includes sugary add-ins like simple syrup, agave or even a premade mix, ask your waiter for a "skinny margarita," which consists of a shot of tequila, club soda and fresh lime juice or a side of limes wedges.
The skinny marg has about 100 calories per drink, so you can still enjoy your dinner without overdoing it on calories. Although we can't make any promises when it comes to a hangover.
Often underrated or overlooked when it comes to dining out Mexican-style, ceviche is a smart pick when trying to eat healthy. "While I love chips and salsa, sometimes I want a lighter start to the meal," says Rachel Begun, RDN, culinary nutritionist and consultant in Los Angeles.
"When I do, I order ceviche, which is fresh, raw fish cured in a citrus juice, spiced with chilies and often mixed with citrus, avocado and/or vegetables. It's a lighter dish that starts the meal off with the health benefits of lean fish protein and vegetables."
Protein may help you feel fuller longer (per Harvard Health Publishing) — perhaps increasing your chances of passing on the churros or flan at the end of the night.
4. Order an Appetizer, Plus a Side (or Two)
You've likely heard that restaurant portions can be out of control, but did you know that 92 percent of menu options fit this bill, according to a January 2016 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics? Yikes!
Try to balance this by opting for smaller portions of food (think apps and side dishes) so that you'll be less likely to blow your daily calorie limit.
"If there are a couple of indulgent things on the menu at a Mexican restaurant that you have your sights set on, order them in appetizer portions and get a couple of healthier, filling sides like avocado and beans to go with it," says Maggie Michalczyk, Chicago-based dietitian and founder of the blog Once Upon a Pumpkin. "That way you'll be satisfied with the smaller portion and still be adding nutrition through the avocado and beans."
5. DIY Nachos
Yes, you can have your chips and eat them too. The trick is in how you order. "I love chips and salsa, so I make a meal out of it," Blatner says. "I'll order black beans and guac and then use the chips and salsa at the table to make my own version of veggie nachos. It's a smart choice because then I'm not eating both the chips and dinner. I just make the chips my actual dinner."
If roasted veggies are offered on the menu as a side (think peppers, onions, squash, etc.), throw those in too. Another pro tip? Cut out the cheese and sour cream — guacamole is a much more nutritious fat option.
6. Grilled Salmon, Black Beans and Veggies
When perusing the menu, look for the house specialties, entrees or "del mar" section. Here you should find a dish option or two that includes grilled fish, which you can then pair with a side of beans and veggies.
"This nutritious combo is as healthy as it is tasty. The salmon provides protein and omega-3 fats for heart and brain health," says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, nationally recognized nutritionist and healthy-cooking expert.
The black beans provide even more protein as well as fiber and antioxidants. And the flavorful grilled veggies are loaded with vitamins and minerals for a truly nutrient-packed meal. Add more healthy fats and nutrients by topping your meal with guacamole and pico de gallo rather than cheese and sour cream.
7. Burrito Bowls
Get all the Mexican flavors you're craving without the extra calories by choosing a burrito bowl the next time you are at a Mexican restaurant. "Burrito bowls are typically packed with protein like steak, chicken or fish; have black beans, which are a good source of fiber; and shredded lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo and avocado," Michalczyk says.
All of these foods are "hardworking" in that they're nutrient-packed. One real-life example? "On the Border offers Border Bowls, which are a bowl of steak, chicken or shrimp on top of lettuce, tomatoes, black beans, pico de gallo and avocado. Ask for the queso and/or sour cream on the side so you can be the one to determine how much goes on," Michalczyk says.
8. Fish or Shrimp Tacos
Taco Tuesday just got a whole lot more fun. Hold the barbacoa and carnitas and fill your tacos with grilled lean proteins instead.
You can bump up the nutrition even further by swapping white flour tortillas for corn: "Go with corn tortillas, which are a whole grain, providing fiber and other nutrients for good health. Fill them with fish or shrimp for a high-quality protein that offers heart-healthy omega-3 fats," Bannan says.
"Then load on the veggies, guacamole and pico de gallo for a flavorful meal that's bursting with fiber, nutrients and healthy fats. Smart side dishes include beans (not refried), brown rice, corn or grilled veggies."
9. Taco Salad (Sans Shell)
OK, we did knock the taco salad in the beginning, but it's really the fried outer shell that ruins this salad. In fact, the "guts" of this salad typically includes shredded lettuce, ground beef, black olives, tomatoes and beans, which are all things we can work with.
Stick with the ground beef or swap it out for grilled chicken, and ask your waiter to put the sour cream and cheese (which often top the salad) on the side. This way you can control how much is added. Better yet, scrap the cheese and sour cream altogether and top with avocado and pico de gallo or salsa for a healthier option that still provides all of the flavor.
Because there is some assembly required, fajitas give you more control over what and how much you're actually eating.
Start by choosing wisely: "When it comes to ordering fajitas, chicken, steak or shrimp are great options not only because the meat is grilled, which keeps the calories lower overall, but this selection comes with a generous side of vegetables like grilled peppers and onions," says Christy Wilson, RD, owner of Christy Wilson Nutrition blog and nutrition consulting.
And ask for corn tortillas instead of the flour variety to get in your whole grains, then pair your fajitas with beans and avocado for a balanced meal.
- International Journal of Obesity (London): "Visual illusions and plate design: The effects of plate rim widths and rim coloring on perceived food portion size"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it"
- The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Energy Contents of Frequently Ordered Restaurant Meals and Comparison with Human Energy Requirements and US Department of Agriculture Database Information: A Multisite Randomized Study"