If I was stranded on an island and could only eat one type of food for the rest of my life it would be Mexican, hands down. Nutritionally speaking it offers all the elements I look for in a meal: plenty of veggies; lean protein (beans, chicken, seafood); plant based fat (in one of my favorite forms – avocado); a variety of natural herbs and metabolism-boosting hot peppers; and one of my favorite whole grains (whole corn) is a staple of this enticing cuisine. So when I’m out and about and need a fast, fresh, healthy meal, Mexican is my ace in the hole. Here are healthy selections from five regional and national chains:
Confession: I daydream about Chipotle. It’s my No. 1 ‘emergency back-up meal’ when I don’t have time to cook, and I always order the exact same thing: a fajita burrito bowl made only with: black beans, fajita veggies, mild salsa, corn salsa, extra lettuce and guacamole. I love this meal so much I featured it in my newest book as a go-to option that gives your body everything it needs to feel satisfied and energized.
If you need to sink your teeth into some meat go for chicken or steak instead of beans – both are leaner than the carnitas. And FYI: as fun as burritos are to eat, keep in mind that going naked (skipping the flour tortilla) saves nearly 300 calories alone, mostly from the three slices of white bread worth of refined carb it packs. Skipping the white rice, cheese and sour cream saves an additional 350 calories, but don’t worry, you get all the creaminess you crave and more nutritional bang per bite from the guac (it’s free with vegetarian orders).
I was recently introduced to this chain when I started spending more time on the west coast and I can see why it’s so popular (the fresh salsas rock and the corn tortillas are made from 100% stone-ground white corn, water and lime). My omnivore pic on this menu would be the chile lime wild salmon tacos in soft corn tortillas. Each provides a lean 230 calories but is rich in protein, heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Ask for extra cabbage and doctor them up at the free salsa bar.
I like to aim for two servings of veggies at each lunch and dinner and yes, salsa does count!
I was a devoted Tijuana Flats patron when I lived in Florida and still visit every time I’m back in the Sunshine State. My staple selection: a fresh salad. I love that they’re made with dark leafy greens (no iceberg) and topped with guacamole and fresh chopped veggies, including jalapenos (not pickled), onions and tomatoes. I ask for black beans, salsa as the dressing, skip the cheese and sour cream and leave the fried shell behind. It’s such a hearty and healthy meal for only 241 calories according to their web site’s calculator (or 421 if you add chicken).
I can’t find any nutrition info for this restaurant, but I can tell you that it’s true that hot peppers really do rev up your metabolism, and Tijuana Flats’ hot sauce bar will definitely get you fired up!
I love it when restaurants offer online nutrition calculators, and Qboda is one of them. This tool allows you to instantly see how a few ingredient changes impact your meal. For example, skipping the cheese and sour cream in an order of street tacos saves 240 calories. I recommend street tacos because you can order them with soft corn tortillas, which are nutritionally superior to the refined white flour variety. And if you’re a meat lover the pulled pork is surprisingly lean at 0.5 g of saturated fat per taco. An order of three topped with pico de gallo will only cost you 330 calories. And a side of BBQ beans and you’re out for just under 500.
If you’re tempted by those chips keep in mind that you’d have to power walk for over an hour to burn them off!
Wahoo's Fish Taco
If you have the will to ignore the Maui onion rings and nachos there are some pretty healthy selections to be had here. My pick is a customized version of the Wahoo salad. I ask for it with greens, beans, salsa, guacamole, and raw Banzai veggies (sans teriyaki sauce), which include red and green peppers, cabbage, mushrooms, zucchini, and broccoli. Other protein-rich lean toppings include blackened fish or chicken and shrimp. It’s a good sized meal for well under 500 calories - if you skip the cheese and chips.
If you’re looking to add a whole grain serving to your meal order a side of soft corn tortillas. You get three but stop at two and you’ll only tack on an additional 100 calories.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.