Healthier Dining Out: Spanish Tapas

The last time I had tapas it took a while to pick which dishes we wanted (and to determine what exactly was in those dishes). The food was all delicious, but I realized that I should have done a bit more homework before I sat down to order. Here’s what I learned and what you should know before going out for a meal of small plates.

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The last time the girls and I went out for tapas it took us forever to pick our dishes (and then determine what exactly was in them). The food was all delicious, but I realized that I should've done more homework before I sat down to order. Here’s what I learned and what you should know before going out for a meal of Spanish small plates.

What Are Tapas?

Tapas is a collection of small plates or appetizers -- either accompanied with few drinks for lunch or dinner, or enjoyed as an early evening "snack" before a main meal.

Rumor has it that Spanish tapas came about because the Spanish wouldn't drink without having a bite to eat, too -- so bars had to start offering food. Legend says the first tapas was a slab of bread placed on top of the glass to keep the flies out (my food-safety red flag is waving at this one). Considering "tapa" means “cover” or “lid” in Spanish, I could believe that.

Ordering

Although they may be appetizer portions, eating several small plates of any food together can make a meal. Typically, when dining on tapas, everyone at the table orders a few dishes and then shares. This can lead to some dangerous temptations. Maybe you want to keep it light, but another pal opted for something deliciously fried. Your best bet is to team up with a partner or a friend (if you're in a group), talk about any limitations you might have and then order healthier dishes that you can enjoy.

Pitfalls

Yes, small portions are traditional with a tapas spread, but so are fried foods like fried squid, battered and deep-fried olives and Spanish chorizo (Spanish-style sausage). Many menus also offer a selection of yummy cheeses -- a taste is fine, but several pieces can quickly rack up your fat calories.

If you find these words in the description, it’s probably best to avoid or, at the very least, limit the orders:

  • Fritura or frito: deep fried (i.e. Fritura Mixta de Pescado = mixed, deep-fried fish)
  • Al aceite: cooked in oil (i.e. Gambas al Ajillo = shrimp cooked in garlic, oil and parsley)
  • Cortes grasos del filete: Fatty meats

Spanish tapas and alcohol go hand in hand. My tapas restaurant comes around with a pitcher of wine that's passed around the table -- each person pours it right into their mouths. Although I just take a sip, some others in my group (I'm not naming names) sometimes guzzle down much more. Sangria -- a fruit flavored wine drink -- is a favorite. When adding drinks, either stop after one, or forgo the alcohol and keep filling your water glass.

Healthier Choices

Many Spanish menus use their native language in their menu descriptions. Here’s a quick lesson and some healthier phrases you should be looking for (remember, you can always ask your server):

  • Asado: roasted (i.e. Verduras Asadas = roasted vegetables)
  • A la plancha: grilled (i.e. Camarones a la Plancha = grilled shrimp)
  • Dorato: salmon

There's lots of variety on tapas menus and you should experiment to find what you like. To get started, here are some options:

  • Ceviche: typically raw fish marinated in fresh citrus juice and spices; the acidity actually “cooks” the fish.
  • Gildas: usually made from anchovies, Spanish chile pepper and olives
  • Stuffed tomatoes: includes a classic Spanish, spiced-up stuffing
  • Gambas a la prancha: pan-grilled shrimp with a light garlic sauce or chili pepper marinade
  • Catalan beans: can be served alone with spices or mixed with veggies
  • Tortilla de patatas: a personal favorite dish that's typically made from fried potatoes, onions and leeks — ask to skip the potatoes or just grab a forkful for the taste
  • Artichoke rice cakes: ask your server if it’s served with cheese (typically manchego); if so, order it without it to cut back on the fat.
TELL US: What's your favorite tapas dish?
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