Restaurant Menu Tricks

by in Dining Out, October 20, 2010
Salmon With Edamame
Healthy restaurant choices are possible with our menu-decoding tips.

Americans eat almost a third of meals away from home, but trying to order healthy choices can get tricky. Calorie counts found in many restaurants can make it easier, but menu booby traps may leave you with more calories than you bargained for.  Luckily, you can walk into a restaurant armed with our smart tips.

The Menu Design
Restaurants pay people to design menus so your eyes will land on certain dishes. Did you know the most ordered up dish is typically the third one listed? Take your time to read through each item thoroughly. Or, plan ahead: read through the menu on the restaurant’s Web site, or look for it on a site like

The Dish
Dishes with lots of ingredients, like casseroles, stews and chilis are tough to gauge. You really don’t know what’s added to them, which can also mean more places for hidden calories. Instead, go simple and choose brightly-colored dishes heavy on fruits and vegetables (and nutrients!).

The Wording
You may thing you’re ordering healthier fare, but watch out for tricky wordplay.  Here are some words to be very cautious of:

  • “Light” or “fresh”: There is no formal definition for these terms. The restaurant (as opposed to a registered dietitian) decides that a dish is “light.” These dishes are typically not lower in fat and calories than average fare. Even if the food is lower in fat or more nutritious, portions may still be out of control. My biggest pet peeve is when I see “light cream” on the menu — usually I find my food swimming in cream.
  • Vegetarian: Don’t be fooled: Not all vegetarian foods are healthy. Many restaurants rely on large amounts of oil, nuts and cheese to make vegetarian dishes appealing to the masses.

If you’re trying to watch your fat and sodium intake, here are a few more words to watch out for:

  • High-fat terms: Fried, crispy, creamy, rich, breaded, hollandaise, au gratin, alfredo, batter-dipped, croquette, parmigiana, tempura, flaky
  • High-salt terms: Smoked, barbequed, pickled, teriyaki, soy sauce, broth

On the other hand, these terms usually represent better choices:

  • Low fat terms: broiled, baked, grilled, poached, roasted, steamed.

The Calorie Counts
Many restaurants now provide the calories info for each dish, but don’t rule a dish with a high count automatically. If the entree looks like a good option, ask to switch out higher-calorie sides and condiments (like fries and salad dressings) with lower-calorie alternatives. You can also ask the server to “hold” certain high-fat ingredients (like cheese or nuts) to bring the calorie count on the dish down. If portion sizes are huge, cut your entree’s calorie count in half by boxing up part of your meal for later.

The Hidden Calories
They’re lurking in so many places, so leave yourself a little calorie leeway.  Butter is often the finishing touch for French toast, pancakes, noodles and vegetables, so ask for yours without. Also, if you order food from the griddle, like grilled cheese, hash browns, eggs or even pancakes, be prepared to get a little of the fat added to keep foods from sticking.

TELL US: How do you avoid menu tricks?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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