If getting healthy is on your docket, you’ve picked a perfect time. In 2019, it’s as easy to get a hearty salad as it is a Big Mac, salads have replaced subs and turmeric tonic is the new soda. Fast-casual restaurants are almost as prevalent as fluorescent red-and-yellow fast-food joints. Although these cleaner options cost more than their processed counterparts, it’s no longer hard to eat healthy in a hurry.
Ten years ago, who had even heard of a grain bowl? Now there are restaurants built around them. Among the multitude of options, Sweetgreen, Chop’t, Cava and Beefsteak stand out as a huge step up from greasy fast-food joints. But is everything on their menus healthy? As the co-founder of a D.C.-based nutrition education company, co-author of “The Super Food Cards” and someone who likes to eat well, I was curious. I dug into their offerings, asked the companies some questions and spoke to other nutrition experts to get a comprehensive answer. Here’s what I found.
Before you order, a few pointers:
Overall, their menus are healthy.
These four companies strive to serve vegetable-focused food, and they source their ingredients from responsible growers and small businesses. The menu items are free of high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, chemicals and trans fats. The dressings are gluten-free and made from high-quality oils and ingredients. My overall recommendation is to eat here and eat often.
The best choice is to build your own bowl.
To guarantee the healthiest meal, Teri Cochrane, nutrition expert and author of the book “The Wildatarian Diet,” suggests making your own. You can’t lose when you stick to a base of dark leafy greens or a whole grain and then pile on the vegetables. Kale, spinach or the other heartier mixes at Cava and Chop’t provide broader nutrition than romaine. The addition of quinoa or lentils delivers a boost of balanced protein. Brown or wild rice is a better choice than the white basmati offered at Cava (the former provides more nutrients, fiber and fatty acids).
If you crave more than a plant-based meal, Cochrane suggests the salmon at Beefsteak and the lamb at Cava, because wild-caught proteins that weren’t industrially raised or processed are higher in omega-3 fats and lower in other fats. I’m also a fan of the steelhead at Sweetgreen and the shrimp at Chop’t for their high omega 3 and protein counts.
Watch out for sodium.
The biggest pitfall at these restaurants is the amount of sodium lurking. It’s widely accepted that we should limit the element to 2,300 to 3,000 mg a day. But one serving of Mexican chicken soup at Chop’t has 1,030 mg of sodium, and a grain bowl at Cava can quickly reach 2,000 mg. No wonder you’re thirsty after eating one of these meals.
If you’re able to manage sodium by cooking your own breakfast and dinner, then eating this amount at lunch is no big deal. But if you’re planning to enjoy dinner at a restaurant, then you might want to stick to lower-sodium items at midday. Cava and Chop’t helpfully offer nutrition calculators on their websites, so you can research your choices in advance.
Pay attention to portion size.
Kelly Dorfman, a nutritionist and author of the book “Cure Your Child With Food,” points out that the bowls can quickly become more than one serving, especially at Cava, where there isn’t a set menu with balanced combinations. She explains: “The serving sizes are large especially for people who are getting older and may not be able to digest that much food. Consider taking half home for dinner.”
When you make your own, stick to a small amount of protein and a larger number of vegetables.
Rethink the fountain drinks.
Although some fountain drinks are made with kale, cucumber or turmeric, they also have added sugar. The Cava website calculates that a large fresh seasonal juice has 142 calories and 31 grams of sugar (slightly less than a 12-ounce can of Coke, with 39). Many of the drinks at Chop’t and Sweetgreen clock in a bit lower, yet not all are better beverages. It’s recommended that we consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day. Opt for sparkling water or one of the lower-sugar fountain drinks.
Here's what you should order, and what you should watch out for.
The standout option: At Cava, I suggest starting with a lentil and greens base for a good balance of protein and other nutrients. Add hummus; grass-fed, antibiotic-free lamb (which is made with healthy spices); a selection of the vegetable toppings (pickled onions, tomato-cucumber salad); and the lemon herb tahini dressing, which is creamy but low in sodium. Mint and a lemon wedge offer a touch of freshness. Alternatively, the Sriracha Greek yogurt and yogurt-dill dressings are the lowest in calories, fat and sodium.
Watch out for: Skip the pita and stick to a bowl for the most nutrient-dense meal. Be wary of too much dairy, which can be inflammatory; choosing the Crazy Feta and tzatziki toppings plus the yogurt dressing can tally up.
The harissa is surprisingly high in sodium, with 210 mg in a one-ounce serving, as are the meatballs, with 720 mg per serving. Be conscious of portion size. The bowls are big, and it’s tempting to pile on the sauces and toppings. Include greens in the base and stick to one sauce instead of three.
The Spicy Hatch Chile Caesar salad from Chop’t, without cheese. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
The standout option: I’m a fan of the Spicy Hatch Chile Caesar salad (without the cheese, because it’s so high in sodium). The cabbage and cilantro blend delivers vitamins and minerals, the avocado and chicken provide protein and healthy fats, and the pickled jalapeños and masa crisps lend flavor.
If you’d rather sample something else, choose cauliflower rice or quinoa for packed nutrition. Of the dressings, the Mexican goddess, lemon tahini and Greek yogurt tzatziki are the lowest in calories and sodium.
When I asked Chop’t’s chef, Aneesha Hargrave, what she orders to stay healthy, she says she piles a salad with vegetables and then gets creative with the dressings and crunch: “If you’re looking for creamy but don’t want the guilt associated with a mayonnaise-based dressing, choose the Mexican goddess, made with healthy fats like avocado, or the lemon tahini, which is seed-based — so, creamy but nutrient-dense.”
For added flavor and nutrients, she also suggests the masa crisps made with flaxseeds or the Parmesan-quinoa crunch made from just Parmesan and quinoa.
Watch out for: Skip or limit the wraps, pita chips, tortilla chips, croutons, bacon, fried chicken and dried cranberries to keep your meal nutrient-dense. The soups and the Harvest Bowl, Spicy Hatch Chile Caesar (with cheese), Carnitas Verde Bowl and Mesa Ranch salads are higher in sodium than most other salads. The chimichurri ranch, Mexican Caesar and balsamic vinaigrette dressings are the highest in fat and calories.
The standout option: The Little Wild Curry Bowl is my favorite for its density of nutrition. The lentils add protein; the kale, kohlrabi, spinach, shoots and radishes provide a ton of vitamins and minerals; and the sesame seeds deliver calcium and zinc. Beefsteak also has digestion-friendly toppings such as kimchi. Its vegetarian seasonal soups are always nutrient-rich; the current offering — squash soup — is made from just a few simple ingredients.
Watch out for: Skip or limit the brioche sandwiches and the crispy onions, which are the only fried item on the menu. The dressings are lower in sodium than the sauces. The spicy tomato sauce is the saltiest.
The standout option: A favorite of mine is the lentil-and-avocado salad for its mix of plant-based protein and nutrient-dense vegetables. Enjoy the omega 3-rich steelhead fish or incorporate quinoa as a base, because it provides all the essential amino acids.
Watch out for: For the most nutritious meal, skip or limit the bread, and be wary of sodium in items such as the salami and Parmesan crisps. And in general, it’s best to cut calories from add-ons that lack nutrients.
When making your own salad or bowl, pay attention to portions here as well. It’s easy to cram Sweetgreen’s big bowls with more than one serving. Stick to the base, one protein, one crunch and four vegetables.
First published on the cover of the weekend section of The Washington Post on January 4, 2019.