How to Eat Healthy at a Mexican Restaurant

Fresh tacos on a plate
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If you're like most people, Mexican food is a family favorite. After all, it's filled with delicious meats and tasty sides. From chips and salsas to tostadas and enchiladas, there is a lot to choose from. But you may be wondering how to make nutritious choices with so many options available to you.

At its core, Mexican food is generally comprised of beans, corn, tomatoes, avocado, meats, cactus, and chilies, among other ingredients, which are essentially nutritious. Yet, the way in which some items are prepared—with heavy cooking oils and often fried—can add additional saturated fat, calories, and sodium on top of nutrients they provide. Continuous habits could increase your waistline.

If you are wondering what to order the next time you get Mexican fare, we provide some tips to help you along the way. With a wide variety of staples and choices, you are certain to find nutritious options—you just need to know what to look for.

How to Order Nutritious Mexican Food

With a few simple switches and modifications, you can find nutritious food on just about every Mexican menu without skimping on taste and flavor, even if you are managing your weight. In general, more nutritious options include fajitas, bean burritos, grilled chicken dishes, and soft tacos. Here are also some of the most nutritious choices to look for on the menu.

Salads

Most Mexican restaurants will have a few salad options prepared with a variety of vegetables. Ask for your dressing on the side—this helps you choose the quantity for yourself. Salad dressings can contain many hidden calories. You also can consider skipping the cheese and/or tortilla chips that often accompany it to save on saturated fats and calories if you want. Or you can limit your portion or share them with a friend.

Lean Protein

Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet, known for its ability to maintain muscle mass and its satiating effect on appetite. Order grilled over fried options, such as chicken or fish. Meat and fish dishes are sometimes cooked in heavy oils and sauces, negating some of their nutrition benefits, but you can ask the chef if there is an alternative way to prepare it like serving the sauce on the side or grilling. If you don't eat meat, you can opt for a vegetarian dish that features beans as a source of protein.

Beans

Black beans are high in protein, low in total fat, low in saturated fat, and contain plenty of fiber, giving them the green light as a nutritious, low-calorie choice on the menu. Refried beans on the other hand may sound like a nutritious option, but it depends on how the restaurant prepares them. Some refried beans are prepared with lard. And in some instances, restaurants add cheese and salt for taste. Pinto beans, which are cholesterol-free and naturally sodium-free, provide a similar flavor and a healthier option to refried beans, so you can opt for them instead.

Soft Over Crunchy

Crunchy options, such as that tempting stack of tortilla chips, are flavorful due to being fried. But they may contain more fat and sodium than you want to eat. Instead, you could select soft tortillas or tacos, which are baked rather than fried. This choice will save calories, total fat, saturated fat, and sodium. Another option is to limit the number of chips you eat or share them with a friend.

Brown Rice Over White

Check if the restaurant has the option of brown rice, which is much higher in fiber, protein, and other micronutrients compared to its white counterpart. It also contains unsaturated lipids, micronutrients and ranks low on the glycemic index. Whole grain and whole wheat options, such as whole wheat tortillas, are generally more nutritious alternatives.

What Mexican Foods to Avoid

Although enticing, some of the less nutritious dishes you might want to skip include nachos, chimichangas, chalupas, taquitos, chile Relleno— all of which are deep-fried—as well as enchiladas, topped with heavy sauces and cheese, and dishes cooked in cream. When choosing your entree, remember, it is best to order soft tortillas, which are baked rather than fried.

Fried Foods

Given their high-fat content, the continued intake of fried foods can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. The other problem is that it's difficult to calculate the exact calorie content of this energy-dense food. If you are managing your weight, it is best to skip fried foods.

Go Light on the Cheese

Replacing cheese with a light cheese on your salad or taco (or avoiding altogether) will save you calories. To give your meal a boost of flavor, add extra tomatoes, onions, and black beans.

Sugary Drinks

A simple switch to dodge unnecessary calories is to order a pitcher of water for the table instead of a sugary drink or cocktail. Sugary drinks can increase your cravings for foods high in salt and fat, but a sufficient intake of water will only serve to benefit your body, including optimal bowel regularity and reducing the likelihood of headaches.

Savvy Swaps When Dining Out

Side dishes can really make or break a nutritious meal with additional ingredients that are full of flavor, but often high in saturated fats and sodium. If you are unable to find any options on the menu, ask your server about alternatives. Some Mexican restaurants will replace high-calorie sides, such as fried foods, with a salad or even a medley of marinated vegetables.

Lighten Up Salads

If you order a salad, ask for a topping of salsa rather than a cream-based dressing. If you prefer dressing on your salad, you could ask for a low-fat option, such as reduced-fat ranch dressing on the side, and blend a small amount into your salad for a pop of flavor. And, if you order a taco salad, skip the deep-fried torilla bowl and instead ask for it to be served on a plate.

Choose Dips Wisely

Salsa features a blend of tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices, chilies, and lime, meaning it can be a nutritious choice, as the restaurant doesn't prepare it with extra sugar. In contrast, con queso dips and nacho cheese are tempting toppers, but given their creamy content, are high in total fat, saturated fat, and calories. However, guacamole, made with avocado is a better alternative. Although you should be mindful of your portion sizes as a little can add up quickly to your daily caloric and total fat intake.

Limit Chips

Although tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant are a staple, limit your intake to a small handful and order them to share with others at the table to save on some calories and added fats. One way to accomplish this is to put a small portion on your plate.

Plan on Leftovers

Many restaurants prepare large meals, which is great value for money but not helpful when you are managing your intake. Eat slowly and mindfully, stopping when you are full. You can take home any leftovers from the meal to enjoy the following day while saving you time from having to prepare something else for your meal.

Consider Making Swaps

Substitute bean burritos in place of beef or cheese burritos to reduce on fats and oils. You also can ask for corn tortillas instead of flour for a boost of fiber.

A Word From Verywell

Eating out can be a challenge if you are trying to eat nutritiously and manage your weight. But if you look at the menu ahead of time and make a plan, you can usually find a meal that helps you meet your goals.

If you still cannot find nutritious meals at your favorite Mexican restaurant, don't give up on eating Mexican fare just yet. It's easy to cook low-calorie Mexican food, like chicken Verde quinoa casserole, in your own kitchen. Making your own meals at home will save extra calories and a few bucks, too.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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