15 Healthy Meals to Order at Chain Restaurants, According to Dietitians
Choosing a healthy meal while you're out to eat at (or ordering in from) a chain restaurant can be daunting, but it's definitely not impossible. In fact, in recent years popular chain restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden have made a concerted effort to bring healthy meals to their lengthy, often calorie-packed menus.
Still, picking the right meal, especially when you're starving and a waiter saunters by with a plate of fettuccine alfredo or a juicy cheeseburger, is no easy feat. That's why we spoke to several registered dietitians and asked them to pick out a few healthy meals at chain restaurants you can order next time you want to watch what you eat.
"I never want clients to think eating healthy means never enjoying restaurant food," says John Fawkes, a NSCA-certified personal trainer, Precision Nutrition-certified nutritional counselor, and managing editor at The Unwinder. "In fact, plenty of national chains make the cut with menu options that star nutrient-dense proteins and sides without unreasonable salt, unhealthy fats, or sugar."
The bottom line: There are plenty of nutritious options available at chain restaurants, so long as you know what ingredients to look for and, conversely, which ones to avoid.
Below you will find a list of healthy meals from chain restaurants. The nutrition for each item is the total calculation for the entire order (some meals have you ordering multiple items!) and they're all under 1100 calories. And for more healthy eating tips, check out our list of 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
Olive Garden's Grilled Chicken Margherita
"A great option is the Grilled Chicken Margherita," says Emily Danckers, MS, RD, and the founder of Emily RD Nutrition Coaching. "This entree checks off three boxes: it has lean protein (chicken), it comes with a side of broccoli, and it's served with delicious cheese on the chicken so it tastes great, all while staying at about 500 calories."
For more healthy Oliver Garden picks, check out our list of The Best & Worst Menu Items at Olive Garden.
P.F. Chang's Spicy Tuna Roll
"Sushi is typically a nutritious choice and the sushi offerings here don't disappoint," notes New Jersey-based based dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, and author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. "With only 300 calories and the lowest sodium on the sushi menu, the spicy tuna roll is a great option. For a warmer option, P.F. Chang's spicy steamed chicken is lower in calories and fat than many entrée offerings with a moderate sodium content compared to other options."
Speaking of sodium, here are 25 Foods High in Sodium You Should Watch Out For.
The Cheesecake Factory's Vegan Cobb Salad
"The Cheesecake Factory offers many healthy choices on their superfoods menu!" notes Bansari Acharya, RDN, with a master's degree in nutrition and food science. "But I would say that the healthiest item amongst them is the vegan Cobb salad. The salad boasts the most delicious combination of the healthiest vegetables, grains, legumes, and even nuts. Eating this may not even make you feel as guilty for eating a piece of cheesecake after!"
This meal does bring in a whopping 1,080 calories, but you can always cut it in half and safe the other half of the salad for lunch the following day!
Not feeling this plant-based option? "Mostly everything on the SuperFoods section of The Cheesecake Factory menu is a great choice," Acharya says.
Only have time for drive-thru? Here are 11 Meals To Order at Fast-Food Restaurants, According to a Dietitian.
TGI Fridays' Simply Grilled Salmon With Jasmine Rice and Lemon-Butter Broccoli
"The simply grilled salmon entrée will be your best bet here as the salmon comes grilled and full of omega-3 fats which are heart-healthy," explains Talia Hauser, a registered dietitian in The Colony, Texas. "It comes with a side of jasmine rice and lemon-butter broccoli but put a hold on the lemon-butter topping to cut some fat and calories."
California Pizza Kitchen's Bahn Mi Power Bowl
"One of the healthiest choices on the menu at California Pizza Kitchen is the banh mi power bowl. This is packed with lean protein, healthy fat, and fiber," says Donna Rose RDN, LDN and founder of Nona's Nutrition Notes.
The meal is made with quinoa, baby kale, fresh cilantro, and mint. It's topped with grilled chicken, watermelon radish, fresh avocado, cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts, scallions, and sesame seeds. The bowl is also served with housemade chili-lime vinaigrette and serrano peppers, and was recommended by multiple dietitians we spoke to.
"The quinoa adds antioxidants and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, copper, folate, iron, and zinc," adds Rose. "At only 540 calories, it's a great choice!"
Get even more quinoa into your diet with these 34 Quinoa Recipes for Weight Loss.
Red Lobster's Wood-Grilled Shrimp Skewers With Fresh Broccoli and a Garden Salad
"This would be a great healthy meal to share, since they tend to give you a few portions of shrimp," says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, who serves on the advisory board for Fitter Living. "Choose healthy sides like green beans and side salad." Shrimp is one of the most protein-dense foods you can find and it's also packed with selenium—an antioxidant mineral that is crucial for maintaining proper thyroid function, and thus, the key to a healthy metabolism.
Maggiano's Little Italy's Alaskan Cod
"Yes, you can eat healthy at an Italian restaurant. And no, you don't have to fear carbs, especially with dishes like Maggiano's Alaskan cod," says Fawkes. "It features capers, spinach, and blistered tomatoes with a lemon butter sauce that you can easily ask for on the side."
First time at Maggiano's? Here are The Best & Worst Menu Items at Maggiano's.
Cracker Barrel's Good Morning Breakfast
This meal includes two egg whites, coarse-ground grits, tomatoes, and seasonal fruit.
"Eggs can be enjoyed any time of day, and that's a good thing here!" says Palinski-Wade. "The Good Morning Breakfast is a balanced offering of lean protein, fruit, and veggies with only 300 calories."
Applebee's Strawberry Balsamic Chicken Salad
"Balanced options are limited here so go for the Strawberry Balsamic Chicken Salad which has grilled chicken on top of mixed greens, strawberries, tomatoes, onions, and almonds, making a good balance of food groups," says Hauser. "The balsamic glaze in addition to the lemon-olive oil vinaigrette may get heavy so ask for both on the side and portion it out yourself."
Not sure the proper portion size? Here's What Perfect Food Portion Sizes Actually Look Like.
The Cheesecake Factory's Shrimp Soft Tacos
"Check out The Cheesecake Factory's menu section called 'Skinnylicious' for options under 590 calories. The Skinnylicious soft tacos have a choice of spicy chicken or shrimp, topped with tomatoes, onions, and avocado, and comes with a side of escabeche veggies," says Hauser. "This dish has an awesome balance with lean protein, vegetables, healthy fat, and carbohydrates."
The Cheesecake Factory's Beet and Avocado Salad
"Avocados are most notable for their healthy fat content—monounsaturated fats in particular," says Miller. "In a 2019 systematic review that looked at the types of fat consumed and the risk of certain skin cancers, researchers found that high consumption of monounsaturated fats significantly reduced the risk of basal cell carcinoma. While this is very exciting, more research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine the correct amount of daily monounsaturated fats needed to see these results."
As for the salad's other titular ingredient? "Beets contain antioxidants, which are important for reducing inflammation in the body," Miller explains. "Reducing inflammation can also help reduce a person's risk of chronic disease. And lowering your risk of chronic disease may help prevent or delay vision changes due to diabetes."
Buffalo Wild Wings' Small Cauliflower Wings With Smoky Adobo Sauce
"When it comes to wings, the sauce you choose can add a large amount of calories, especially from added sugars. The smoky adobo sauce provides the least amount of added calories, making it a better choice," says Palinski-Wade. "The new cauliflower wings are a great option for those looking to reduce their animal protein intake, but keep an eye on the serving size since they are still fried and the calories from fat as well as the additional sauce can quickly add up."
Outback Steakhouse's Simply Grilled Salmon With a Side of Steamed Broccoli
"This is a great option for those who want that extra something without taking in the extra calories," Acharya says. "This version of Outback's salmon even comes without their sugary glaze, making it even healthier. The salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and protein, while the fresh veggies provide minerals, vitamins, and fiber for a balanced meal."
You'll also love these Healthy Meals at Outback Steakhouse, Recommended by Nutritionists.
Applebee's Grilled Chicken Breast With a Side of Steamed Broccoli
"This is a modest calorie choice that's full of lean protein," says Miller. "Choose healthy sides like broccoli or green beans. Or, save on calories by getting just one side or no side at all.
IHOP's Spinach and Mushroom Omelet
"Opting for eggs over pancakes here is your best choice, as the high-quality protein will help you to feel more satisfied, helping to keep portions in check," says Palinski-Wade. "The spinach and mushroom omelet is my top choice with the variety of veggies packed into this entrée. If you want to scale back on the calories and fat even more, opt for it without the cheese to save 100-200 calories."
This is another meal that's pretty steep in calories, so you can always eat half and save the other half for a leftover meal that you can look forward to.
Now that you know what to order, you'll want to steer clear from these 75 Dishes You Should Always Avoid at Chain Restaurants.