The #1 Healthiest Order at 10 Popular Restaurant Chains
Nothing beats a fun night dining out with family or friends, especially when it happens to be at one of your favorite restaurants. There are tons of benefits to eating out at chain restaurants, like the fact that most menus cater to a variety of eating patterns and dietary restrictions, or that you can guarantee your meal will be relatively affordable. However, one downside to eating at your favorite chain is that restaurant food tends to be higher in calories, fat, and sodium than what you might make at home, and unless you check the nutrition information, it can be difficult to know which items are considered healthy options.
"Ordering healthy meals at popular restaurants can be a bit challenging, but it's definitely possible," says Mary Sabat MS, RDN, LD. When you're at a restaurant and want something on the healthier side, here are some helpful tips from Sabat to keep in mind:
- Choose grilled or baked proteins: Opt for dishes that feature grilled or baked proteins like chicken, fish, or lean cuts of beef. Avoid fried or breaded options.
- Portion control: Pay attention to portion sizes. Many restaurant portions are oversized, so consider sharing or taking leftovers home.
- Load up on vegetables: Look for dishes with plenty of vegetables. They're usually lower in calories and packed with nutrients.
- Watch for hidden calories: Be cautious of high-calorie dressings, sauces, and condiments. Ask for these on the side so you can control the amount you use.
- Choose whole grains when possible: If the dish includes grains, opt for whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, or whole wheat pasta instead of refined grains.
- Avoid super sugary drinks: Stick to water, unsweetened iced tea, or other low-calorie beverages. Avoid sugary sodas and cocktails.
- Practice mindful eating: Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues. Eat slowly and stop when you're satisfied, not stuffed.
With these tips in mind, read on to learn about the healthiest menu options from the following popular restaurant chains. And for more, don't miss The 15 Best High-Protein Fast Food Meals.
The Cheesecake Factory Turkey and Avocado Sandwich
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its textbook-size menu, with plenty of options that give you a day's worth of calories and fat with just one meal. And even though it's harder to find healthier options here, it's still possible! Take their Turkey and Avocado Sandwich, for example.
"The grilled turkey in this sandwich provides lean protein, while the avocado adds healthy fats, and you can skip the fries and opt for a side salad," says Sabat. "For just 540 calories and 26 grams of mostly healthy fat, this filling choice is also one of the best for health."
Olive Garden Herb-Grilled Salmon
It's tempting to only load up on breadsticks when you head to Olive Garden, but if you want a more balanced, healthier meal option, Sabat suggests trying their Herb-Grilled Salmon.
"Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and protein, and you can choose a side of steamed broccoli instead of pasta," she says. "For just 510 calories, 31 grams of fat that is rich in healthy omega 3 fatty acids, and only nine grams of saturated fat, you can enjoy this heart-healthy meal without any guilt."
Chili's Margarita Grilled Chicken
Many of the menu items at Chili's will bring you close to your entire day's value of calories, fat, and sodium, but you'll be fine if you know some of the healthier choices going in—like their Margarita Grilled Chicken.
According to Sabat, this is one of the healthiest items on the menu because "the grilled chicken with a side of steamed broccoli is a low-calorie, protein-rich option, and at 630 calories, 16 grams of fat, and just 3 grams of saturated fat, this dish makes a great choice at Chili's."
Red Lobster Grilled Shrimp Skewer
A trip to Red Lobster doesn't quite feel complete without their Cheddar Biscuits, but try limiting yourself to one biscuit and choosing a lighter menu item like their Grilled Shrimp Skewer if you're looking for a healthy meal.
"Shrimp is a lean protein source, and you can opt for the garden salad as a side instead of rice for a lower carbohydrate and calorie option," says Sabat. With rice this meal is only 320 calories, eight grams of fat, and one gram of saturated fat, so enjoy it without ruining your healthy eating plan."
Applebee's Grilled Chicken Breast with Steamed Broccoli
Most of the time when you see grilled chicken on a restaurant menu, you can guarantee that it's going to be one of their lighter options. For example, the Grilled Chicken Breast with Steamed Broccoli from Applebee's has only 550 calories, 22 grams of total fat, and eight grams of saturated fat—numbers that are relatively low compared to other menu items at Applebee's.
Sabat suggests ordering this healthy restaurant meal because "grilled chicken with a side of steamed broccoli is a balanced choice."
Panera Bread Asian Sesame Chicken Salad
Fall is here, and that means it becomes even more tempting to order a warm soup in a bread bowl at Panera. You should certainly treat yourself to these indulgences once in a while, but if you're looking for something on the lighter side, Sabat says to try Panera's Asian Sesame Chicken Salad.
"This salad is packed with vegetables, grilled chicken, and a flavorful, lower-calorie dressing," she says. "It has just 410 calories, 22 grams of fat, with only 3 being saturated fat, making it a good choice from Panera Bread."
Outback Steakhouse Grilled Chicken on the Barbie
It's no Bloomin' Onion, but ordering the Grilled Chicken on the Barbie from Outback Steakhouse will save you heaping amounts of calories, fat, and sodium.
Sabat suggests this meal because the grilled chicken provides a lean protein source, and you have the option to pair it with broccoli or a sweet potato. "For just 410 calories, nine grams of fat, and three grams of saturated fat, the Grilled Chicken on the Barbie will help keep you on track when watching your waist."
Ruby Tuesday Fresh Garden Bar with Grilled Chicken
It's hard to find the exact nutritional information for the Ruby Tuesday Garden Bar because this menu choice is their unlimited salad bar with your choice of toppings. Sabat suggests choosing this with some grilled chicken to give you a balanced meal that is light but filling.
"Load up on a variety of fresh vegetables from the salad bar and add grilled chicken for protein," she says. "You can also choose a vinaigrette dressing for fewer calories."
P.F. Chang's Buddha's Feast Steamed with Steamed White Rice
When heading to P.F. Chang's, you'll have a few options for finding a healthy restaurant meal. For instance, the Buddha's Feast Steamed with Steamed White Rice is a healthier choice because "this vegetarian stir-fry is loaded with colorful vegetables and tofu for protein," says Sabat.
She adds, "Including steamed rice with this dish brings the total up to only 410 calories, 1.5 grams of fat, and 0 grams of saturated fat, and makes it a perfect choice for vegans or someone that wishes to keep their dietary fat intake low."
TGI Fridays Simply Grilled Salmon with Lemon-Butter Broccoli and Mashed Potatoes
If you see salmon on a restaurant menu that isn't deep-fried or drenched in too much sauce, it is likely a safer choice than many of the other menu items. This is true for TGI Friday's Simply Grilled Salmon, which has only 530 calories and 33 grams of fat when served with broccoli and mashed potatoes.
The one thing to consider with this choice is that you'll still get a large amount of sodium at 1,740 milligrams. But compared to other orders at TGI Friday's, this is still a modest amount, so just make sure to monitor your sodium intake the rest of the day.