It’s a huge understatement that Americans like to eat out. Did you know that for every dollar spent on food, 49 cents of that is spent at restaurants? According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), if the NRA was a country, it would have the 18th largest economy in the world! So, it’s time to look closely at what we eat at the most popular chains and how to eat smart. The good news is that many chains have started some form of “low calorie” or “good nutrition” menu.
Discounts have abounded during this recession including all courses and cuisines. Here are just a few: Outback Steakhouse offered 15 meals for under $15, Bob Evans offered 30 dinners for $5.99, Mimi’s Cafe had coupons for a free breakfast entree, the Melting Pot offered free chocolate fondue for joining their email list, and even the high- end chain Morton’s The Steakhouse used major discounts to sell more steak dinners.
Unfortunately, more food for the money often translates into a loss of will power. One free appetizer and logic flies out the window! These bargains usually mean American’s are subjected to an industry that is based on excessive salt, oil, and sugar. A single dish at many chains can often contain a day’s worth of sodium.
The good news is that picking correctly from the menu can help change these odds dramatically. The best way to look at these picks is to contrast them with their high calorie counterparts from some of the biggest national chain restaurants, plus their fat and sodium contents. Here are the passes and picks on a few of America’s top chains, some will surprise you:
Cheesecake Factory-Pass on the Fettuccini with Chicken and Sun-Dried Tomatoes with 1,832 Calories, 70 grams of saturated fat, 876 mg of sodium. Sounds healthy right? Keep in mind that the average male should not eat more than 2000 Calories per day! Pick instead-Grilled Salmon with 713 Calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, and 320 mg of sodium.
Red Robin-Pass on the A1 Peppercorn Burger with 1096 Calories, 64 grams of fat, and 1,899 mg of sodium. Go with the Chicken Caprese Sandwich with 665 Calories, 29 grams of fat, and 1153 mg of sodium.
Olive Garden-Skip the Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara with 1440 Calories, 88 grams of total fat, and 3000 mg of sodium. Try the Chicken Scampi with 740 Calories, 52 grams of fat, and 1350 mg of sodium.
Applebee’s-Pass on New England Fish and Chips with 1,910 Calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, and 3,140 mg sodium. Pick-Steak & Honey BBQ Chicken Combo with 520 Calories, 5 grams of saturated fat, and 1,840 mg of sodium.
P.F. Chang’s-Avoid the Almond & Cashew Chicken Lunch Bowl which is served over white or brown rice at 991 Calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, and 4,963 mg of sodium. Instead, try the Buddha’s Feast Lunch Bowl served over brown rice which is 550 Calories, 1 gram of saturated fat, and 1,833 mg of sodium.
Red Lobster-Resist the Admiral’s Feast with 1280 Calories, 73 grams of fat and 4300 mg of sodium. Go with the Ultimate Feast with 600 Calories, 28 grams of fat, and 3660 grams of sodium. Both of these are entrees listed in the Signature Combinations part of the menu.
Boston Market-Pass on the Meatloaf Carver Sandwich with 940 calories, 18 grams of saturated fat, and 2,430 mg of sodium. Pick-Roasted Turkey Open-faced sandwich with 330 calories, 1 gram of saturated fat, and 1,480 mg sodium.
Denny’s-Pass on the Heartland Scramble with 1,160 Calories, 63 grams of fat, and 2,930 mg of sodium. Instead, try the new Fit Fare Omelette with 390 Calories, 18 grams of fat, and 870 mg of sodium.
There are also many things you can do to save money, calories, and fat at ANY of your favorite restaurants. You can now look up the nutrition of many chains on the web so that you can even plan your meal before you go. Many states and cities now require this nutritional information, if not on the web than at the restaurant, so ask your server. Another web source is HealthyDiningfinder.com.
Restaurant jargon can be decoded. The words “crispy”, “crunchy”, and “fritto” tell you that the item is likely fried which ads calories and fat. The same is true for “creamy” which implies butter, cheese, cream, or all three have been added.
On the good side, “steamed” is the healthiest way to cook. Poached, blackened, broiled, baked, and grilled are generally smarter ways to prepare food. You can also request that minimal or no oil be used and that any sauce can be placed on the side.
At restaurants, be aware that a smart salad choice can be at risk. High calorie salad dressings, croutons, cheese, and crispy noodles are another caution that can ruin an otherwise satisfying, low calorie meal. Ask for salad dressing on the side and lightly dip your fork for each bite.
Giant plates of food at chains like the Cheesecake Factory can be shared with a friend or boxed for another meal at home. Some restaurants even offer half portions, smaller sizes, or kids sized meals to adults.
Drinks, appetizers, coffee, and dessert are generally the most expensive per calorie so avoid them if possible. For that after dinner sweat tooth stock healthy desserts at home, fresh fruit salad, popsicles, and low-fat yogurt.
With restaurants trying to conserve water you may need to order water to drink. Takeout food doesn’t require tipping and makes it easier to resist dessert and unlimited bread being placed at the table. Two appetizers might be cheaper than a main course while at the same time giving you more variety and smaller portions.
Portion control is a complete topic of its own to be covered in my next article. In the mean time… healthy dining!