These chains are known for indulgence, but they're not a lost cause.
Restaurant food is meant to be indulgent. It’s intended to be a special treat and experience, in which a professional prepares you something decadent you couldn’t really prepare at home.
Eating out used to be an occasional delight, until Americans started to make it a habit. Between 1965 and 2008, the number of calories eaten at home decreased by about 23 percent across all income groups, yet the average total calories increased, according to a 2013 study in Nutrition Journal. This means families were eating more of their meals away from home, and it was resulting in higher calorie consumption.
With the large portion sizes and the who-knows-what ingredients being used at restaurants to pump up the food’s flavor (probably butter, oil, and sugar, tbh), all that dining out can make sticking to your health goals pretty tricky.
A simple fix would of course be to try cooking at home more frequently, but hey, that’s easier said than done. Who wants to turn down dinner invites? Instead, your best bet is to seek out healthier picks on the menu—and save the more decadent options for special occasions.
Nutritious and low-cal options at a restaurant? Yes, it’s possible. To prove it, here are five healthy meals from restaurants where you’d *least* expect it.
1. The Olive Garden
This restaurant’s claim to fame is unlimited breadsticks and bottomless pasta bowls. If you’re splurging, you could indulge in that deal and treat yourself to two bowls of fettuccine alfredo and four breadsticks. Delicious, sure, but that hefty spread is basically all simple carbs, which means it’s low in fiber and may cause blood sugar to spike.
If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, take a look at The Olive Garden’s “Tastes of the Mediterranean” menu. It’s full of delicious, filling options all under 600 calories. Try the shrimp scampi: sauteed shrimp, angel hair pasta, a garlic sauce, and veggies. The shrimp scampi clocks in at just 510 calories.
2. The Cheesecake Factory
Anything containing the words “cheesecake” and “factory” sounds like a dieter’s nightmare. But rest assured, this restaurant and its 20-page menu contains a “SkinnyLicious” section. Here you’ll find salads, grain bowls, and entrees with more reasonable portion sizes, all for under 590 calories.
Try the Mexican tortilla salad. Sure, it’s a salad, but the crunch and spice will make it feel more special than what you make at home. It’s stocked with greens, grilled chicken, black beans, and an avocado cream sauce—so you’ll actually get filled up. Did we mention it’s just 540 calories? Score.
Diner fare tends to be high in refined flours (pancakes) and saturated fat (bacon), but to balance out those not-so-healthy eats, Denny’s offers a “Fit Fare” menu, too.
Check out the veggie skillet: It contains potatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, two egg whites, and spinach, and it’s served with a flavorful side of salsa. Salsa is a healthy condiment because it’s lower in sugar and saturated fat that most options (we’re looking at you, ranch). Surprisingly, this veggie-packed and high-protein dish contains just 370 calories and 7 grams of fiber.
This restaurant might be known for oversized cocktails and saucy, meaty appetizers, but it has more to offer than just Baby Back Ribs. Look for the “Guiltless Grill” menu: It’s chock-full of satisfying, healthy options.
For example, the mango-chili chicken is a flavorful take on grilled chicken, and it comes with a side of rice and steamed broccoli—a great balance of veggies, grains, and lean protein. And the best part? It’s just 490 calories.
5. California Pizza Kitchen
If you’re looking for a healthier pizza chain, CPK is a great way to go. In addition to a variety of appealing salads (which can be ordered at “full size” or “half size”), this restaurant has several options below 600 calories. (And if you’re simply dying for pizza, here are ways to order a healthier pizza.)
One impressive option is the banh mi power bowl. It has all the flavors associated with the trendy Vietnamese sandwich: Grilled chicken, watermelon radish, cucumber, bean sprouts, scallions, and fresh cilantro and mint. All that chicken and veggies is served on a bed of quinoa and tossed with chili lime vinaigrette.
This filling bowl contains 540 calories, 28 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fiber. #Yasss
For more tips on dining out, here are 5 menu secrets that could help you lose weight.
6 tips for dining out without blowing your nutrition plan. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015. (Accessed on September 5, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/eating-out/6-tips-for-dining-out-without-blowing-your-nutrition-plan.)
7 tips for healthy dining out. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. (Accessed on September 5, 2018 at https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/eating-out/7-tips-for-healthy-dining-out.)
Smith LP, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965-1966 to 2007-2008. Nutr J. 2013;12:45.