Mexican Fiesta Cheat Sheet

You don’t need a burrito the size of your head to enjoy a Mexican feast. Use our tips to stay happy in the hacienda.

When you’re watching your weight, the prospect of going to a Mexican restaurant can seem more frustrating than fiesta. First you have to face a never-ending basket of deep-fried tortilla chips. Then there’s the menu, full of landmines like chimichangas (deep-fried burritos) and one of the unhealthiest salads ever dreamed up by man, served up in a deep-fried edible bowl. They even fry innocent, low PointsPlus™ value beans. Add a couple of judgment-clouding margaritas to the mix and it’s easy to see why temptation (and sour cream) can easily win out over reason.

Of course, you don’t want to go out for a delicious meal and not order the food you want to eat just because it might not be the healthiest option. “If you know you’re going to a Mexican restaurant, the point is to plan ahead and account for it,” says nutritionist Leslie Fink, M.S. R.D.

To help you order sensibly, keep these strategies in mind as you browse the menu:

  • Resist the chips! As soon as you sit down, odds are you’ll be faced with an overflowing basket of warm, crisp tortilla chips. Mmmmm…but just 12 of these will set you back about four PointsPlus values — and who can easily stop after just a handful? To help you limit your intake, “don’t go out hungry,” advises Fink. “Or chew a piece of gum before the meal to make them less appealing.“ If you must munch, be mindful and count every single chip — they can add up quickly.

    Chef’s tip: Mary Sue Milliken, chef and co-owner (with Susan Feniger) of Border Grill restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, suggests asking for warm corn tortillas instead of chips: “They have that toasted corn flavour without the fat, and you can tear off pieces to enjoy with salsa.” (Two 6” corn tortillas have a PointsPlus value of 2.)

  • Pay attention to portion size. An entrée may be enough food to feed two (or even three!) people. Save calories — and money — by splitting the meal with someone, or ordering an appetizer portion instead. Another option is to ask for a couple of a la carte tacos (your best bet: shrimp or chicken in a soft tortilla) instead of a full meal with all the side dishes.

  • Don’t be veggie-shy. Swap rice and refried beans for a helping of grilled peppers and onions or a side salad (undressed), or even a side order of plain old black beans. Higher-end restaurants may even be willing to serve fresh vegetables instead of chips with the salsa if you ask. If it’s a salad you crave, skip the edible tortilla bowl and save yourself 8 PointsPlus™ values right there.

  • Focus on fresh and flavourful. “Authentic Mexican cuisine is very produce-heavy,” says Border Grill’s Feniger. “At our restaurants, we don’t use a ton of cheese or cream.” Milliken agrees: “The food is packed with potent flavours, so you don’t need added fat to make it taste good.” They both suggest seeking out dishes that feature meats and fish prepared simply with lots of vegetables, herbs and spices.
  • Speak up if you have special requests. Ask for salsa or pico de gallo instead of an oily salad dressing or cheese sauce. Order your fajitas with only one tortilla so you can save PointsPlus values and enjoy the rest of the filling on its own. Find out if they can bring sour cream and guacamole out on teaspoons instead of in a bowl or cup. All these little changes together will save you a lot of fat and calories.

  • Sip smarter. Be wary of frozen drinks, which are packed with sugar — and calories. A glass of sangria (PointsPlus value of 3) is better option than a margarita, which has a PointsPlus value of 9.

  • Don’t let dessert be your downfall. So you’ve made it through the meal and you want to have a little treat. Fried ice cream, a popular dessert option at some chain Mexican restaurants (although it’s not truly a traditional Mexican sweet) will set you back a whopping 12 PointsPlus values. Flan, a creamy custard with caramel sauce, also packs a hefty PointsPlus value punch of 9 per serving. Instead, consider ordering a couple of sopapillas, fried dough sprinkled with sugar — they have a surprisingly low PointsPlus value of 3 for two small pieces. Opt for honey instead of chocolate sauce for dipping, and savour the sweet taste of restraint.