How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Sit-Down Chains

by | Jul 22, 2009
by alicereneztay

by alicereneztay

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).

Menu Language

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:

  • Glazed
  • Crispy
  • Melted
  • Smothered
  • Breaded
  • Creamy
  • Honey-dipped
  • Crusted
  • Gooey
  • Cheesy

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:

  • Roasted
  • Baked
  • Broiled
  • Rubbed
  • Seared
  • Grilled
  • Scented
  • Sauteed
  • Spiced
  • Seasoned

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?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
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9 Responses to “How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Sit-Down Chains”

  1. Lori Carraway says:

    new trend at these restaurants (red robin, cpk, bj’s) they are now listing the calorie and fat/sodium content of their menu items. Oh, the shock and horror! To my surprise the bbq chicken wrap at red robin that I thought was healthier than the burger has a whopping 1,100 calories! (this is without the fries) WTF? According to their website if you remove the bbq sauce and ranch dressing from the wrap it drops to around 650 or so – take off the cheese and you are under 500 cal. So apparently the sauces alone account for half of the calorie content – who knew? BJ’s fish tacos are fairly reasonable at 650 cals for the two tacos, not including the salsa, chips or guacamole served with it – but the sodium content is almost a days worth. As an avid restaurant goer this has really opened my eyes to the hidden calories, fat and sodium in what I previously thought were healthy choices. I appreciate this restaurant trend and maybe this will encourage these restaurants to revamp their menus and make the choices healthier all around!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Wow! Thanks for the story, Lori. The sauces at these places are so full of sugar it’s almost like pouring syrup on everything. Glad to know that the legislation is actually helping.

  2. Jan says:

    Oh man thanks for this article! Love the food language portion of it. But why would “cheesy” be bad? I’ve always been a big lover of cheese and when I was at my healthiest and thinnest, I ate cheese all day. It was so delicious and give me so much energy! Love your writing.

    • Darya Pino says:

      You’re right Jan, there are worse things then cheese. However, it is certainly a source of a lot of extra calories. At places like Chilies, the cheese doesn’t usually come alone and is often melted all over bread, fries or chips. Also a cheese “sauce” is going to have starch and other fillers in it. I love cheese too, but I still avoid it at places like this.

    • monica says:

      keep in mind you probably bought good cheese too. the ones at food chains are really cheap cheese

  3. Katie says:

    Love it, Darya! Sometimes you just can’t avoid going to these mid-level places, usually most things on the menu are unhealthy; ya gotta be careful! How often do you go out to a place like this?

  4. Cheesecake Factory is my favorite chain restaurant. Lots of CHOICES, but look out, some are 1000 calories, but also large enough to share. We often get the tuna tataki salad which is a good choice. Now they have small plates also. Good article..good reminder to take responsibility. After all, the restaurant will determine their future menu on what we want.

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