It wasn’t long ago that food trucks were commonly derided as “roach coaches” and mostly offered an unimaginative choice of pre-made sandwiches, chips, and canned soft drinks.
But that all changed about a decade ago, sparked by chef Roy Choi taking a Korean/Mexican fusion called Kogi BBQ to the streets of Los Angeles. Now food trucks are all the rage with an astounding variety of cuisines. And seeing how they often source produce locally and cook meals to order, they can actually be healthy eating if you choose the right stuff.
Of course, that’s not always easy to do. Like restaurants, food trucks are most successful when they offer lip-smacking grub, which often translates into a lot of salt, sugar, unhealthy fats, and simple carbohydrates. And while a growing number of trucks offer super-healthy fare, like soba noodle salad and Portobello carpaccio, most of us still flock to familiar ethnic cuisines, where it’s easy to run into trouble.
“Opt for grilled meats and any kind of vegetable that isn’t fried or smothered in sauce,” suggests Kelly Pritchett, National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Milk or water is generally the best choice for drinks. And when getting a smoothie, make sure they’re made with real fruit and no added sugar.”
Registered dietitian Joy Dubost adds: “I have seen more food trucks at breweries, wineries and distilleries. When considering your choice of food, you should consider that the calories from alcoholic beverages can add up quickly.”
Here are some tips from Pritchett, Dubost, and other experts on what to order, and avoid, when you belly up to a food truck:
Greek: Nutritionists may rave about the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, but that doesn’t include some of the most popular items you find at Greek food trucks. Gyros with their fatty meat, gobs of tzatziki sauce, and carb-heavy pita bread are belly busters. So too are spinach pies and fried falafel balls. Better choices are a Greek salad, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, hummus, grape leaves, and chicken souvlaki.
Mexican: Tacos are a good bet. Go with grilled or blackened fish, shrimp or chicken rather than beef, and choose the corn tortilla, which is typically smaller and less processed than the flour version. Stick to one sauce, preferably salsa or guacamole, and skip the cheese. In other dishes, choose black beans over refried, and go easy on the rice. Forget about — or at least limit — tortilla chips.
Caribbean: Heavy on chicken, fish, beans, and tropical fruit, Caribbean food is typically healthy when it’s not fried. So forgo the conch fritters and meat pies. Spicy jerk seasoning is filled with herbs that have been used in traditional medicine, such as garlic, cinnamon, thyme, and Scotch bonnet pepper. Order the chicken or fish as opposed to pork. Try some fresh mango and papaya to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Asian: Unfortunately, the most popular Asian truck food is also the unhealthiest. Egg rolls, spare ribs, fried rice, and lo mein noodles are all tasty but high in calories and filled with salt, fats and/or empty carbs. Ditto for anything that’s been battered and fried, such as sweet and sour dishes, and General Tso’s chicken. Even stir-fried dishes can be sodium- and calorie-laden. Spring rolls in rice paper, wonton soup, steamed dumplings, satay, and chop suey are better choices.
Indian: On the healthy side, curry dishes are cooked with turmeric, a super food spice. Tandoori chicken is baked rather than fried. Aloo goobi is cauliflower and potatoes cooked in turmeric, ginger, garlic and other beneficial spices. And chana masala is made with nutritious chickpeas. Avoid fried samosas and pakoras as well as cream-based korma dishes and that delicious but nutritionally bankrupt naan bread.
Italian: The ever-popular pizza may seem like a bargain, but white flour dough topped with processed meats and cheese is no great deal for your body. If you must, go with a thin crust (whole wheat, if available) topped with veggies. Other good dishes to avoid are Paninis, calzones, lasagna, and anything Alfredo. Truth is, there’s typically not much to choose that isn’t loaded with fat, sodium and simple carbs. The healthiest choices include minestrone soup, bruschetta, and pasta primavera.
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