Mindful meals at Charlotte restaurants
by Katie Toussaint Thurston
“It’s so hard to eat healthy when I go out.” That’s one of the most common statements I’ve heard from clients since I became a certified nutrition coach last year. The good news for them, and for all of us: It’s actually quite simple, if you’re open to it. Taking a healthy approach to eating your way through the Charlotte restaurant scene comes down to two things: Mindset and choice.
Starting with mindset, a more sustainable way to think about eating in general is to stop trying to cram every meal into the boxes of “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Instead, reframe that to: How can I make healthier choices? That way, you’re working along a spectrum (think: a little bit better) versus an all-or-nothing approach (such as: if it’s not the healthiest, it’s completely unhealthy).
A healthier approach can be simple if your goal is to find balance. Hint: We want it to be simple because that sets us up for success in the long term.
Which leads to choice: To create more balance with your meals, seek out menu items that offer both nutritional benefits (proteins, fiber-rich carbohydrates, mostly unsaturated fats and plants) as well as emotional satisfaction. Not only will you be able to enjoy what you’re craving emotionally (say, the comfort of a bowl of spaghetti), but you’re also adding items that support your nutritional goals, like a side salad or green beans to contribute to your health and vitality.
While we’re at it, let’s not hate on spaghetti either — spaghetti with meatballs still provides carbohydrates for fast energy and protein for needs like muscle repair. But if that’s the only food you’re eating, you’re missing out on the vitamins and minerals your body could be getting from a plant-heavy side dish or appetizer.
A balanced plate is key when taking a healthier, more sustainable approach to personal nutrition. Here’s how to set yourself up for healthier meals at some of my favorite local spots.
For high protein: The Porter’s House
I was excited to book a reservation at this chophouse for my family’s Christmas Eve dinner. There are so many protein-heavy options beckoning to me on the menu: crab cakes, lobster tail, smoked salmon. Look for entrées that automatically set you up for balance: For example, ginger honey-glazed salmon with spaghetti squash, asparagus and green onion. Consider a side of mashed potatoes for some more carb content to balance the plants, protein and fat.
For satisfying takeout portions: Viva Chicken
This Peruvian spot has locations from Waverly to Concord, and their online orders always seem to be ready right on time — not to mention ideally portioned for dinner on the couch. Many options are packed with greens, protein and high-fiber carbohydrates, like the Limena Chopped Salad with romaine, solterito (Peruvian corn, edamame and queso fresco), chickpeas and added chicken; and the Naked Peruvian Wrap with quinoa, kale, cucumber, avocado and chicken. The best part: The serving sizes of Viva Chicken’s takeout containers easily reach a comfortable fullness threshold.
For balanced comfort: Little Mama’s
There’s nothing more soothing than tucking into a plate of pasta alongside a heavy pour of Montepulciano. Hence my choice of Little Mama’s for my birthday dinner while I cope with the fact that I’m getting carded less and less frequently. While there’s an abundance of pasta platters on the menu, from penne alla vodka to four-cheese ravioli, these dishes are flanked by lists of bright salads and sides like shaved and braised Brussels sprouts and braised beans and greens. I went for the protein-and-plant-heavy Combo Parm with eggplant and chicken served with a side of spaghetti, with the Chopped Salad full of kale and Marcona almonds as an appetizer. (Disclaimer: My husband works for FS Food Group, which owns Little Mama’s, but my love for this dish is heartfelt!)
For menu diversity: Lang Van
This East Charlotte gem has a book of a menu, full of steamed vegetables, fried rice, noodles and broths, fish, beef, tofu, and beyond. It’s perfect if you’re making a point to consume a diversity of foods, which sets you up for a better chance at getting all the nutrients you need to thrive. I’m particularly a fan of the crispy Ginger Tofu with vegetables and rice, while my husband tends toward the Pho Tai or Lemongrass Chicken. Even if you dine here often, you could easily get something different every time you go.
For a mindful approach: Dilworth Tasting Room
Whether I’m seated at the secret-garden-esque patio of the Dilworth location or settled under the elegant pendant lights at the newer SouthPark location, I come to DTR to sip wine. Slowly. And if I order a meal, from the octopus to the DTR salad (mixed greens, toasted walnuts, apples, figs and goat cheese), I come here to savor that just as slowly.
DTR sets a mood of mindfulness — there’s so much for which to be fully present: To see (the glow of the lights), to smell and taste (the notes in your glass), to feel (the curve of your chair as you lean back and relax), to hear (the clinking of glasses and pleasant chatter of other guests). Mindful meals mean emotionally satisfying meals.
These descriptors could be attached to so many places in Charlotte. Treat this as a prompt. The next time you’re making plans to dine out, ask yourself: Where can I go to get what I’m craving, and what’s on the menu that I can add to that for extra nutrition? And off you go, eating healthier in Charlotte. Easy. SP
Cover photo: Ginger honey-glazed salmon at The Porter’s House by Justin Driscoll