Whether nothing else was open or you’re just looking for a cheap meal, diners have always been there for you. They’re open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
However cozy and nostalgic, diners aren’t exactly known for their calorie-consciousness. Mayonnaise and sour cream are two of the most essential ingredients for most diner dishes. Of course, some diners have made additions to their lengthy menus to account for diabetics and dieters. But so far as most diners are concerned, you’re there for the meatloaf and mac and cheese — if you wanted a heart-healthy salad, you’d have gone to Sweetgreen or something.
But somehow, you ended up at the diner. And while you’re not trying to bust your wallet, you’re also not trying to bust your gut. Diners at neighboring tables are sipping tall milkshakes and double-dipping mozzarella sticks. It seems you’re surrounded by matzo balls and thick-sliced pastrami, but you’re dedicated to your diet.
The good news is that, tucked inside those dozens of pages, between banana splits and celebrity sandwiches, are some surprisingly healthy options. You just have to know where to look.
Bagels have a bad reputation because of their carbs — and this quintessential New York sandwich looks even worse for your health since it’s slathered in thick cream cheese. But really, the meal has all the balance of a typical lunch or dinner. It’s all in the portions. Some diners think you want twice the smoked salmon they promise on the menu — if you’re watching your weight, you likely don’t. Simply be mindful of the amount of cream cheese and lox you’re really eating. Lox are great for you — filled with omega-3 fatty acids and protein — and carbs aren’t the demon you might think they are. Go ahead and enjoy your sandwich, tomatoes and capers and all.
A lower-fat option when compared to the usual mashed potatoes (which you’re probably making all wrong anyway), a baked potato is as filling as it is nutritious. The potential for topping one of these is truly endless, and as a bonus you’ll get a nice dose of fiber and vitamin B-6.
One of these famous sandwiches is sold at every diner — and so long as you keep it simple, there’s nothing excessive or indulgent about chowing down on a crispy BLT. Each sandwich only has one serving of bacon, which is a surprisingly nutritious addition to your meal. This is served alongside whole-grain bread (if you ask your server) and some vegetables to finish. If you don’t like whole-grain bread, don’t bother — just go for the white. It might not make much of a health difference, anyway.
When you think “burrito,” you’re probably not thinking “health food.” But breakfast burritos usually aren’t stuffed with rice, sour cream, and all the other components of the classic Mexican entrée that tip it over the edge. Instead, they’re filled with vegetables cooked into scrambled eggs with a bit of meat and salsa.
This hearty, spicy soup makes a nutrient-dense entrée that’s perfect for cold, winter days. Filled with fibrous beans and savory cooked vegetables, you truly can’t go wrong with a steaming bowl of bean chili. Here’s a list of the best chili in America for the die-hard chili fans out there.
They should really call these paninis, because they always are. Anyone who’s not pressing their Cuban is missing out on the glory of melted Swiss on a pickle. Instead of fattening, processed mayonnaise, the Cuban is typically served with mustard, a much healthier choice for a condiment. In addition, it’s layered with gut-friendly pickles, fermented to help you digest your meal.
Grilled or seared seafood is always a protein-rich, nutritious option. Diners typically serve their piece of protein with a side of vegetables and a grain. That’s about as balanced a meal as you can get, if you ask us.
Restaurant salads have a really poor reputation for being secretly unhealthy. However, that’s not always the case. In your Greek salad, for example, you get your pick of protein, some cheese (which is actually considered a superfood now), healthy fat-filled olives, and a simple vinaigrette. Pair it with a warm pita pocket for some carbs and you’re all set with a complete, vegetable-rich meal.
Grilled chicken is a popular lean protein featured in many a skimpy salad. We’re here to tell you that you don’t have to choose the salad to be healthy. A grilled chicken sandwich sounds infinitely more satisfying and flavorful, offering a delicious alternative that’s still nutritious. As a bonus, you can often order the sandwich with a side of vegetables in place of your fries. Or go for both — who’s judging?
You remember the Greek salad we mentioned earlier? A gyro is basically this salad stuffed inside a pita and topped with tzatziki instead of oily vinaigrette. Tzatziki is made with yogurt as the main ingredient, adding extra protein without adding many extra calories. By the way, before you try to pronounce the word “gyro” to your waiter, brush up on how to say this and 30 other words you’re probably pronouncing wrong.
Every diner has an extensive menu of varieties of omelettes. Usually there’s a classic with cheese, an Italian style mushroom and tomato, and even a wild-card omelette combo you’d have never thought of at home. You can’t go wrong with a protein-rich omelette for breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. These are perfect for every meal.
Why not add some fresh vegetables to your pasta? This is one of the least caloric pasta meals on the menu, mainly because it doesn’t involve a heavy cream-based sauce. But with garlicky vegetables and fresh basil, it truly doesn’t need one!
Potatoes are a low-calorie, high-fiber carbohydrate, despite the poor reputation they’ve acquired from being often served fried or mashed. Sautéed on a skillet with herbs, spices, and vegetables, they’re nutritious and so satisfying. These hashes are often topped with cheese, meat, or both.
A couple eggs, a couple pieces of meat, and a slice or two of toast. It’s the quintessential balanced breakfast, and it’s available everywhere. At some places, you can even ask that your bread be whole wheat.
If you’re not feeling anything on this list, we encourage you to be adventurous and try some of the diner’s specialty options. Every diner has something different, and it’s unlikely any of these exclusive menu items will be the unhealthiest diner meals in America.