Chain Restaurant Nutrition: 12 Easy Ways to Less Unhealthy

One of our readers recently emailed us with a problem many of us face as part of the American workforce:

I’ve recently lost weight, got healthy and I don’t eat processed foods. I’m in a new job and my co-workers go to lunch in places like Applebee’s, The Olive Garden and Outback. I definitely can’t miss out on the socialization and networking opportunities and I won’t want to be seen as a food snob. How can I join up without a) looking like a food snob and b) going off my diet?



AR has a good point. And whether you love them or hate them, chain restaurants are a part of America’s daily lunch ritual. It’s easy to avoid them on your own, but if you’re a social animal like most people, you’ll have to make some choices every week.

Here are 12 best tips on how to eat healthier in chain restaurants – without offending anyone OR derailing your diet:

  1. Look Online: Most large restaurants have their nutrition information online. You can prepare in advance by deciding what’s least harmful to you. By the way, we’ve recently started to add some of this information into our app.
  2. Avoid the Salad Trap: Salads can be healthy, but some of the most unhealthy dishes in a restaurant can be a salad! This is usually due to the dressing. Just because something is called a salad, does not make it healthy! Applebee’s Pecan Chicken Salad has 1320 calories, almost 80 grams of fat, 17 of which are saturated and 2610 mg of sodium! Order 1/2 a portion with dressing on the side for better nutrition.
  3. Go Vegetarian or Vegan: Even if you’re not a vegetarian, veggie or vegan dishes tend to have more vegetables and grains, less processed ingredients and a better nutritional profile. Seek out those options.
  4. Soup’s the Word: Soups might not be low in salt or calories, but choosing a healthier soup can be better than a main dish. Choose fiber-rich soups like bean soups, with chili and vegetables. Avoid high calorie soups such as cream-based soups and carb-based soups like potato or noodle soups.
  5. Get Fishy: While chicken used to be the go-to dieter’s protein, baked fish dishes tend to be a bit healthier and less processed than the chicken, which can come pre-sauced, pre-breaded, par-fried or with added salt and flavor.
  6. Side Dishes as Main Dishes: Side dishes, like salads, soups, potatoes and veggies can make a healthier main dish.
  7. Avoid GMOs the Smart Way: If avoiding GMO is one of your top priorities, avoid ordering dishes with GMO ingredients as best you can. Assume that anything that can be GMO, is GMO – this means corn, soy, any frying oils, and probably salad dressings & sauces. You can avoid much of it by looking for soy in an item’s allergy warnings and not ordering anything fried.
  8. Be Demanding: Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want – even if it isn’t on the menu, like side dishes as main dishes. You can make yourself healthier combinations. Be ready to pay a little more, but don’t be bashful – most restaurants are happy to help.
  9. Take Out 1/2: No matter what you order, portion sizes can be out of control when it comes to main dishes. When the food arrives, try cutting it in half before you even start eating. If you’re too embarrassed to have it wrapped up right away, visually separate what you’re prepared to eat and what you’re taking home.
  10. Eat Ahead of Time: If you’re invited out for lunch, you can always eat the lunch you brought and then tag along to the restaurant for a coffee or tea. If you’re going for a nighttime dinner, eat before you go and nobody will be the wiser.
  11. Watch Your Alcohol: An alcohol-impaired mind can fuel overeating, grazing and bad choices. If you’re going to drink with your meal, order before you drink and don’t let alcohol decide you’re gong to have dessert.
  12. Be Polite: If you’re philosophically opposed to these chain restaurants and the ingredients they use, that’s great, but now is not the time to vocalize it. You’re going out to be with your co-workers, friends, family, etc. not to make a political statement. Be a polite guest or politely decline. Your invite out was not a request for castigation. Try steering the next outing in a more healthy direction, but do it nicely.

Lastly, remember . . . you eat healthy 95% of the time – don’t sweat the 5% when you don’t.

  • ddsprncs

    I think all but # 10 are are wise, it is rude and awkward to go out to a meal and not eat. Eating a small meal at home and then just having a bowl of soup or half sandwich or side salad is a much better way to handle this situation, I agree 100% with #1 that is what I do, for casual dining places. Most everyone I know, knows I do not eat at fast food restaurants so they do not invite me to those types of establishments.

  • Pie Hole Blogger

    I agree, if you’re going out to a restaurant with friends it’s rude not to get something. Definitely ‘pre-mealing’ at home with some nuts, bowl of soup or raw veg is a good idea.

    I especially like the get fishy idea, fish is great an recommended 2-3 times a week. This may even inspire some experimenting with fish at home.

    #6 side as main is great too. Portions in America are way too large and it’s really hard to say no to the other half on the plate. Especially if you’ve pre-mealed, a side is good. Tag on a skinny milk coffee and that’ll help fill you up too (protein in the milk).

  • Cupcake

    # 9 is the only flaw for me :)
    I normaly don’t like to bring food home from restaurants ,I like to leave it there that way I’m not tempted to eat the rest later

  • James Cooper

    Of course the AAAS and most other scientific associations say that GMOs are harmless and you should too.

  • GiGi Eats Celebrities

    My tips =

    Salad, no dressing, no cheese, no dairy, grilled protein.

    Main Dish, sauces on the side, double/triple veggies – ditch the carbs, make sure veggies are sauteed lightly in olive oil or steamed or grilled. Stick to lean protein sources, fish, chicken breast or turkey. I do not touch beef at restaurants because they’re typically grass-fed, unless otherwise noted.

  • Carol H.

    Be aware that the nutrition info provided by restaurants on their sites is very rough/imprecise at best. And often they will not include dressings/condiments, even when no one would order something without them. The more important thing is portion size. If you want fewer calories… eat a smaller amount. That simple.

  • Sarah Bindner

    I always eat a little something before going to any restaurant that I know I probably won’t like the food. That way I can order a small salad or appetizer and not be hungry and cranky. It isn’t rude…nobody has ever cared. And I still get to enjoy that social aspect of dinning out.