Sit-down chain restaurants like the The Olive Garden and Chili’s vary in quality from very bad to mediocre to maybe-not-as-bad-as-you-might-think. But one thing we can say about them with confidence is that they are ubiquitous. Every small town and suburban neighborhood I’ve ever been to is sprinkled with sit-down mega-chain restaurants, and chances are you will find yourself in one eventually.
(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food) and part two is Neighborhood Convenience. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)
Is it possible to navigate these calorie minefields without damaging your waistline or destroying your taste buds?
As was made clear in the recent debate over The Cheesecake Factory, there is a reason restaurants like this exist. For one thing, they are reliable. Since they mass produce the same meal at thousands of locations throughout the country, the quality of the food is consistently uniform. You always know exactly what you are going to get.
Another reason large chain restaurants continue to thrive is they have mastered the art of crowd-pleasing. The menus are massive and you can find something for every taste. They are experts at combining sugar, salt and fat to trick our brains into believing we are eating perfect food. Huge servings and reasonable prices also create the appearance of great value–even if most of what is on your plate qualifies as junk food.
But these restaurants aren’t all bad. While you are unlikely to find an organic salad or quinoa pilaf, the large menu can be amenable to healthy options if you make smart choices and substitute liberally. (Just try not to think about where the food came from).
One of the first steps in navigating the Appleby’s menu is learning the language and knowing which code words signify unnecessary calories.
Avoid dishes that use words like:
All these words code for either added sugar, added flour (refined carbohydrates) or extra cheese and cream. Skip these items or find an appropriate substitute (see below).
Instead, look for words that signify flavor without extra calories.
Healthy menu words are:
These words can steer you in the direction of healthier food, but you will quickly find the best choice is not always clear cut. Unfortunately, most entrees involve some combination of grilled, melted and glazed.
Substitute and Modify
Once you have found the most appetizing healthy-leaning dish, figure out the one or two things about it that likely add the most calories. Get around these annoyances by making use of the giant menu to get exactly what you want out of your meal. In other words, don’t be afraid to modify your order.
Menu substitutions are not appropriate in every venue (high-end dining comes to mind), but at large chain restaurants substituting is a way of life.
The number one thing you want to avoid is refined carbohydrates. Stay away from the pastas, breads, potatoes, pot pies and anything else made with flour. Also avoid breaded and battered foods that are covered in flour then deep-fried. This can get tricky, however, because sauces and dressings can be a hidden source of sugar, starch and other unnecessary calories.
With sauces, ordering them on the side and using just what you need is an easy way to cut down on calories. For salads I frequently trade in the dressing for oil and vinegar. Salad oils are healthy, but sugar and salt can be a problem in dressings.
One of my favorite tricks for restaurant salads is substituting iceberg or romaine lettuce for spring greens. I also like to swap out bacon for a boiled egg or avocado. In essence, I try to create more balanced meals by trading empty calories for nutritious foods.
Entire side dishes can also be replaced upon request. Potatoes in any form I swap for salad, vegetables or fruit. Brown rice can sometimes be ordered instead of white rice or pilaf.
Even though you have found something reasonably healthy to order, portion sizes at these restaurants can still sabotage your health. Our brains are wired to eat everything we see on our plates–hunger has almost nothing to do with how much we decide to eat.
The best way to get combat restaurant portions is to decide in advance to find another use for half the food on your plate. Sharing with a friend is a great solution, particularly if the table is ordering appetizers as well. Alternatively you can take the rest of your food home and eat it later.
I usually estimate cake, ice cream and other desserts to come in around 50 calories or more per bite (take a minute and let that sink in). Do not be the one who orders dessert in these restaurants. Remember, just like in neighborhood restaurants this food is not particularly special. You can get it anywhere and it will always taste the same. Save the extra calories for meals that are truly special.
Deciphering the language of hidden calories is the first step to surviving a meal at sit-down chain restaurants. Take advantage of the mega menus to find healthy alternatives for the worst calorie sinks in your order. To cancel the colossal portions of less-than-special food, recruit a friend to share or have another plan to prevent overeating–you really won’t be missing anything.
How do you handle sit-down chain restaurants?
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