Though brunch is often synonymous with indulgence, this meal doesn’t have to derail your health journey. Use these smart strategies to stay on track.
If you enjoy weekend brunch, you already know it can be an easy meal for splurging. After all, brunch is usually a laid-back, lengthy affair where it’s tempting to have a cocktail and a rich entrée, as well as other treats you wouldn’t normally have during the week, especially if you’re dining out.
Overindulging during any meal can spell trouble for your health and weight. But if you’re mindful about what you eat, you don’t have to choose between enjoying a delicious brunch and skipping it altogether! Use these expert-approved tips to navigate a brunch menu the healthy way.1
Sip Alcohol Selectively and in Moderation
“Liquid calories add up fast,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, the New York City–based author of Smoothies and Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. Aim to order only one alcoholic drink for the duration of your meal, and be sure to sip plenty of water. “I’d stick with straight-up Champagne if you’re looking to keep calories in check; one 4-ounce glass has just 84 calories. Skip mimosas: They’re generally made with cheap sparkling wine and additional sugar in the form of juice,” she says. Bellinis, margaritas, and other drinks made with premade mixes are an easy way to tack on loads of added sugar to your meal, too; best to keep it simple.
“But if you’re making brunch at home and want to make your own fruit puree with no additional sugar, or homemade Bloody Marys with tomato juice and spices, those can be healthier additions — just remember to limit it to one,” says Largeman-Roth.
Don’t Shy Away From a Favorite Comfort Food
Two brunch standbys, pancakes and waffles, are obviously going to be on the heavy side — and that’s okay. “If you want pancakes or waffles, get them,” advises Largeman-Roth, who notes that there’s virtually no difference between the two in health terms.
When looking for a healthy choice, also consider how these brunch staples are made. “If the pancakes are whole-grain or buckwheat, they’ll be more nutrient-dense than the waffles. But if not, they’re pretty equivalent calorie-wise,” Largeman-Roth says. As for toppings, skip the butter. Then, instead of adding sugary “fruit” syrups, maple syrup, or whipped cream, ask for a side of fresh fruit and pour that on top for sweetness, Largeman-Roth adds. And watch those portion sizes: One or two small pancakes or waffles is fine, but if they’re the size of your whole plate, more than one pancake or waffle is too many.3
Create Your Own Omelet to Pack in Produce
“An omelet is a great way to get in lots of food groups, including vegetables and dairy,” says Jessica Levinson, RDN, a culinary nutrition expert in New Rochelle, New York.
You may have heard recommendations to make your omelets with a combination of whole eggs and egg whites to cut back on calories. But Levinson says to go ahead and enjoy whole eggs on their own, as long as your doctor or dietitian hasn’t told you to limit eggs in your diet for a health reason. For example, Harvard Health Publishing notes that people with risk factors for heart disease or who are managing diabetes may want to eat a maximum of three whole eggs per week. For the general public, though, up to seven whole eggs a week is considered perfectly heathy.
Egg whites provide protein (3.6 grams [g] per cooked egg white), while egg yolks offer some vitamin D, 111 milligrams of choline (an excellent source), and 0.3 micrograms of vitamin B12 (a good source) per cooked yolk, according to the USDA. Adding veggies to your omelet will help you reap even more nutritional benefits, says Levinson. According to a small study published May 2015 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pairing the healthy fats found in egg yolks with vegetables helps your body better absorb carotenoids, which are antioxidant-rich pigments found in plants. Smart ingredient picks include spinach, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, and onions, advises Levinson. Avoid roasted vegetables, like peppers, that are marinated in oil, as well as fattening bacon or sausages (choose a small amount of turkey bacon or ham instead), advises Levinson. A dash of cheese is also okay, but go light on this ingredient as it contains saturated fat, which can be unhealthy in excess, per the American Heart Association.
Avoid Rich Egg Dishes, Which Are Calorie Bombs
Speaking of eggs, keep in mind that more elaborate egg dishes, like eggs Benedict or huevos rancheros, tend to pack loads of calories and fat. “Unless you’re making either of these entrées at home, they’ll both weigh in at over 500 calories at most restaurants,” says Levinson (and, depending on how the restaurant prepares these plates, that figure could be substantially higher). Still, she adds, huevos rancheros is your better bet because it’s a bit more nutritionally balanced than eggs Benedict, which typically comes drenched in heavy hollandaise sauce. When ordering huevos rancheros, ask for black beans instead of refried, and get a side salad instead of the typical side of rice to help keep calories in check and balance out the nutrients in the meal, says Levinson.
Give Your Brunch Sides a Healthy Makeover
Potato sides like home fries and hash browns are usually served with a side of toast, but Levinson recommends choosing either whole-grain toast or the potatoes — not both. “Otherwise, you end up with too many carbs on your plate,” Levinson says. In place of potatoes, Levinson suggests asking for sliced tomatoes or a side salad to add some low-calorie, high nutritional value to your meal. Tomatoes, for example, are low in calories, yet provide a good source of vitamin C. Many brunch places offer seasonal vegetables prepared in different ways, so look for something you like that’s prepared by steaming, grilling, or roasting.
Beware Supposedly Healthy Brunch Foods
Oatmeal and granola may seem like prudent picks on a brunch menu, but be careful: While “‘house-made’ granola sounds wholesome, it may be loaded with oil, butter, and sugar, so ask your server how it’s prepared before ordering,” says Largeman-Roth. “The same is true for ‘brûléed’ oatmeal, which is oatmeal topped with a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar that’s then melted under the broiler. It’s better to order the plain oatmeal and add your own sugar — less than a teaspoon — along with fresh fruit.” (You may find that fresh fruit provides enough sweetness without any table sugar.)
Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian and nutrition coach in New York City, suggests pairing oatmeal or granola with eggs or Greek yogurt to incorporate protein, or add a healthy fat like nut butter for a more balanced dish.7
Build a Better Burger With Nutritious Fixings
Leaning toward the “lunch” side of brunch? If a burger sounds tempting, there are ways to make it healthier. Step one: Add some veggies. “Choose sliced or mashed avocado in place of cheese, and add lettuce, tomato, and onion on top to ‘veggify’ the burger,” says Levinson. “Skip the bacon, and replace fries with a side salad.”
Opt for a whole-wheat bun if available, or go bunless to cut back on carbs if you’d prefer, such as if you’re on the low-carb ketogenic diet.
You could also swap your beef patty for one made from veggies, turkey, or salmon to lower the saturated fat and calories in your meal. For example, a veggie patty can have 280 calories and 23 g of fat (2 g saturated fat), according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Compare that with a beef patty, which can have 381 calories and 30 g of fat (12 g saturated fat).
Go for the Avocado Toast for Fiber and Healthy Fat
Avocado toast is one popular brunch item that’s a healthy choice. “Avocado is full of healthy fat and fiber, two nutrients that help maintain satiety and keep blood sugar levels stable,” Levinson says. Half of this fruit provides 11 g of fat (only 1.6 g saturated) and 5 g of fiber, making it a good source, per estimates from the USDA. A small study published April 2019 in the journal Nutrients found that when participants who had obesity or were overweight added a whole avocado to their breakfast, they reported less hunger and greater satisfaction than when they added half an avocado or ate a low-fat breakfast. Be sure the avocado comes on whole-grain or sourdough toast, as Levinson notes these are higher in fiber than white toast, and look for toppings like microgreens, radishes, and pickled onions. “I also love adding a poached egg on top for a boost of protein,” Levinson says.
Be Wary of the Added Sugar Lurking in Yogurt Parfaits
The basic building blocks of a parfait — yogurt, fruit, oats, nuts, and seeds — are all nutrient-rich ingredients. “That said, prepared parfaits often pack a lot of calories and are high in added sugar from a combination of flavored yogurt, sugar-sweetened granola, and additional honey or syrup layered on the parfait,” Levinson says. Your best move is to build your own parfait, if possible. Or, simply ask for some plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit on the side, Largeman-Roth says.
Get Plenty of Greens With a Fresh Salad
Salads can be a healthy brunch option — as long as they’re built with nutrient-rich greens (think spinach, arugula, and kale) and fresh vegetables. Just watch the add-ons, which can turn an otherwise healthy salad into a high-calorie, high-fat dish.
Typically, the most caloric part of a salad is the dressing. “I always suggest asking for the dressing on the side so you can control how much you’re using,” Turoff says. Keep in mind: A vinaigrette dressing is usually a better choice than a creamy one, and most restaurants will be able to provide you with oil and vinegar to dress your salad. If you’re making your salad at home, opt for a homemade dressing made of simple ingredients. For example, try mixing 2 tablespoons (tbsp) of extra-virgin olive oil, one tbsp of apple cider vinegar, 2 tbsp of orange juice, ¼ teaspoon (tsp) of salt, and ¼ tsp of pepper, Largeman-Roth recommends.
Nuts and seeds are calorie-dense, but are generally considered healthy additions to a salad in moderation. Caloric salad toppings to limit or avoid include cheese, bacon bits, croutons, dried fruits, and tortilla strips. If the salad you’re eyeing includes a number of these, see if you can get your toppings on the side, “and then just use half,” Turoff says. “I’d also try to add some sort of protein if that’s an option,” she says. A hardboiled or poached egg, grilled chicken or fish, and beans are all good bets.