Decoding Menuspeak: Navigating the Perilous World of Restaurant Menus

by | Jun 10, 2013
Photo by Toastwife

Photo by Toastwife

One of the most difficult things for a foodist is finding healthy options when you aren’t in your own kitchen.

In restaurants eating healthy is particularly tricky, since even healthy sounding dishes can harbor ingredients that add hundreds more calories than you expect. This effect is known as the health halo.

Of course, if you want to splurge every now and then I more than encourage it. The trick is making sure you know when you are or aren’t making healthy choices, and doing so intentionally.

Below is an excerpt from my new book, Foodist, on how to decode the secret language of restaurant menus to avoid unnecessary healthstyle pitfalls.

Decoding “Menu Speak”

Excerpt from chapter 12 of Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting

Deciphering what is healthy on a menu is not always straightforward. Restaurants have made an art of luring you in with their words and making dishes sound absolutely irresistible, regardless of how they actually taste. Another problem is that dishes that should be healthy, for instance, a Thai chicken salad, are often loaded with secret ingredients (usually extra sugar, salt, and processed oils) that actually cause them to clock in at way over the number of calories you’d expect (according to the nutrition facts, the Thai chicken salad at California Pizza Kitchen has 1,160 calories). To avoid these traps you need to first learn to decipher menu-speak and then tailor your ordering and special requests to remove the worst offenders.

You already know to avoid foods that are obviously very processed, focus on whole foods, and make sure there is something green on your plate. Once you’ve gotten that far, the biggest issues are usually sauces and toppings. Sugar, oil, and salt make foods taste better, and when restaurants use low-quality (i.e., bad-tasting) ingredients, they aren’t shy about compensating for this by using as many sweet or creamy sauces as possible. Think of these ingredients—the flavor trifecta of sugar, fat, and salt—as makeup for your food. A small amount of the good stuff (e.g., butter or cheese), used tastefully and with restraint, can enhance and beautify a dish. But too much of it is a sign that people are covering up something they don’t want you to see.

How do you know if a restaurant is trying to mask its food with shameless flavor enhancers? Several code words and descriptions can tip you off to this sort of culinary cover-up. Sugar, for example, tends to be sticky, so words like “glaze” and even “sticky” itself are a good sign there is extra sweetener around. Similarly, anything that’s “crispy” or “crusted” has likely been covered in a batter made from processed wheat or corn and soaked in oil at high temperatures. Fortunately, there are also words that signify more healthily prepared dishes. “Roasted,” “grilled,” or “spiced” foods have extra flavor without extra calories.

Sometimes it’s hard to find something on a menu that isn’t smothered in sugar or dredged in bread crumbs. At this point try to simply find the dish that sounds the best and ask your server to leave off the crispy wontons and bring you a side of spinach instead. Once you know what to look for, making the right call will start to come naturally.


Decoding Menuspeak


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What code words tip you off to the healthfulness of restaurant dishes?

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21 Responses to “Decoding Menuspeak: Navigating the Perilous World of Restaurant Menus”

  1. Kari says:

    You know, sometimes you just want a pile of melted cheese.

    But if not… I’ve noticed some menus seemingly intentionally tip you off with words that sound tasty but you KNOW are bad like “sweet” or “indulgent”. (tons of sugar.) Then there’s “loaded” or “super”, which seems to mean there are a million ingredients, and two of them are cheese and bacon.

    But I often go for the vegetarian options (being a partial veg) and then I have to tell them to render it “less healthy.” I don’t want their weird mystery fat free sauce, fat free cheez or their fake eggs. The veg option is often, at least in the midwest, a “diet” option, and they mean the kind of diet we were all on in the nineties. (Ugh.)

  2. Scott says:

    I’ve done a lot of research about this too, Darya, and I always suggest that people go online and look up the nutrition facts before going to a restaurant (most chain post nutrition information now).

    It can be humbling to see that your favorite pasta dish has 1,500 calories.

    And of course opting for the vegetable of the day instead of fries is an easy way to save several hundred calories too (assuming those veggies are drenched in butter and oil).

  3. Dee says:

    When I go to restaurants, I go for taste and treat. Of course I won’t intentionally go to sabotage my health or physique…. I would go for dishes that wold require advanced cooking techniques or skill or even uncommon but healthful ingredients… Cheesy, glazed just won’t do it for me – would be a waste of time and not worth the calories!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Totally. Traveling can be tough though, and eating out on the road is not always a treat.

      • Dee says:

        Yes Darya, true… Being on the road can be tough… Well in that case i choose by cuisine type available – I tend to stick to Japanese or Mediterranean restaurants then, because they normally serve vegetables and seafood in the quantities I require

  4. Jennifer says:

    Great tips! It can be uncomfortable to ask the server how everything on the menu is prepared. But those ninja-like calories hide in even the seemingly healthy dishes at restaurants. I often order “grilled vegetables” to find they have been doused in butter. And let’s not talk about the time I ordered a ” Crispy Monte Cristo” sandwich, unaware that it was deep fried.

    But on the brighter side, some restaurants are becoming aware of consumers concern. For instance, I visited an Italian eatery that had a separate menu which listed the calorie contents of the dishes, all of which were a bit healthier than the original menu. (My mother and I still had to split one dish because of the size.)

    • Dee says:

      I ordered spaghetti squash @ pappadeux and found that it was soaked in butter. I brought this to the attention of the server and got an exchnge she did it over to my standard…

      • Darya Rose says:

        I’m usually happy when I get extra butter 😉

      • Dee says:

        Yes Darya 🙂 you’re beautiful and skinny with no kids (yet)… I am always moving between 5-15lbs over where I’m supposed to be ….. So no extra butter for me 🙁

      • Ashley says:

        Bleh, there is nothing more disappointing than expecting a yummy plate of food and getting a plateful of greasy butter. I could not imagine soaking spaghetti squash in oil or butter! Good on you for letting the server know, though… not everyone would have been so bold.

  5. TK says:

    lol everything on the “do not order” list makes me salivate :X.

  6. Alyssa says:

    I love this list. Cooking at home always seemed like the best solution to eating healthy, but sometimes it’s nice to just go out for dinner. I am definitely going to remember these two lists when deciding on what to order!

  7. Spud says:

    The word ‘seasoned’ always gets me. Most places seem to use this as a substitute for ‘we have loaded this with salt… oh, and a few spices’. Bleh!

    Maybe this is why I try to cook for myself as much as possible…

  8. christophe says:

    Surely it depends on the restaurant in question. I mean, if we were in Paris then all the words to avoid will just be heavenly..

  9. Ashley says:

    As a vegan, my options in most restaurants can be quite limited. I prefer to eat things with a bit less fat and fewer calories, but not something ‘diet.’ High-fiber, flavorful, and full of veg (mushrooms please!!). No fake cheese, either. Blech!!

    Japanese food and indian food nearly always fit my fancy. At vietnamese restaurants, I typically order vegetarian Pho, and I must recommend it to anyone and everyone who loves to be absolutely stuffed full of veg, broth, mushrooms, rice noodles, and that warm fuzzy feeling of a delicious, warm, flavorful meal!

    When eating indian, it is a good idea to ask whether they use ghee (clarified butter) in their dishes if you are trying to avoid dairy or extra fat calories. I recently ordered indian rice and I noticed it seemed a bit greasy. I realized later (being lactose intolerant) that there must have been ghee in the food. Not only did it not enhance the food, it just made it taste extra heavy and greasy. It would have been such a beautiful meal without all the extra fat!

    When I am in a pinch, I order tofu (if available) or salad with vinegar and oil. This is a last resort, but I don’t feel guilty afterward and I can fill up on something a bit healthier once I am home.

  10. jack says:

    Relax and enjoy life once in a while. It is all about common sense and moderation.

    If I go to a restaurant, is to indulge, not to stress out about this being too fatty, being too carnivore, being too vegetarian, it has gluten, it has traces of baby fish that where yelled at by the fisherman

    enjoy life!!!!!!!! one day you will die and non of this will matter

    • Darya Rose says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that not everyone goes out to eat because they are enjoying life. Some people go because they are traveling a lot for work, or they don’t know how to cook, or they just have bad habits. This post is for people who want to choose something healthier at a restaurant every once in awhile, but don’t know how.

  11. Tammy says:

    Great tips! Another thing I’ve found works: call the restaurant in advance (during a non-busy time) and ask your questions. Then you know what to order when you get there and the waitress/waiter (and the people you’re with) won’t be the wiser.

    Often others I’m dining with (i.e. coworkers) don’t really want to know there is TBHQ and beef tallow in the fry oil, or that there is msg and corn syrup in the sauce. So this method avoids social embarrassment and awkward conversations.

    Calling during an off-peak time means you might get transferred to the chef/cook; I’ve had them read off the labels (for cooking oil or dressings) while on the phone.

  12. George says:

    This is so informative! I really like the list of words to avoid/order. I feel sorry to say that I can’t remember the last time I saw the word ‘rubbed’ or ‘spiced’ on a menu around here. I guess I must be going to all the wrong places!

  13. Matheefaru says:

    Yes that’s true, they do make their menu so beautiful that people fall for the items. We may need to keep special instructions to have a healthy diet. All dishes will be having 1 or 2 unhealthy item. If something is good for me the same would be not so good for someone else. The list here, those simple words – like the saying its always the simple things that make the big difference. But this, I never knew I could simply avoid just by looking for these keywords. This is going to be very helpful for a ton of people.

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