Restaurant Menus Demystified: The Best & Worst Items to Order

Jan 13 2017
When restaurants provide nutritional info, it's a huge help... but that data isn't always available (and we don't always have the time to seek it out). So how can you emerge from a restaurant meal without totally overdoing it? We've got a cheat sheet right here! Get in front of it...

Top 3 Restaurant-Ordering Tips

1. Start with a salad (light dressing on the side), broth-based soup, or lean-protein appetizer (like shrimp cocktail). This is how to start off a meal right. You'll take the edge off your hunger and likely eat less of your entrée. Forget about fried tortilla chips or carby bread baskets... Those can add hundreds and hundreds of calories to your meal!

2. Don't be afraid to ask questions and special order. Just do it politely, of course. If the menu description isn't clear, ask how a dish is prepared. You can request "easy on the oil" or no butter. Get sauces on the side, or ask for lighter alternatives (like salsa or lemon wedges) to flavor up your food. And ask for extra veggies in place of a starchy side!

3. Understand menu terminology. This one is critical! Certain terms signal a smart choice, while others spell disaster. To make things easy for you, we've come up with a guide to the good, the bad, and the questionable. Read on!

Menu Terms to Embrace

Broiled: Cooked under heat, typically without excess oil. Perfect prep for chicken and seafood.

Broth: Water infused with meat, seafood, and/or veggies. Look for broth-based soups and shellfish steamed in broth. Mmmm...

Grilled: Cooked over a grate with dry heat, usually without much oil. (When in doubt, ask.) Bonus: Grill marks ROCK.

Seared: Cooked quickly over high heat to achieve a slightly charred surface. Very little oil needed.

Steamed: Cooked using moist heat, either using a steamer or just by trapping the steam in a covered pan. Rarely involves oil. Ideal veggie prep!

Roasted/Fire-Roasted: Cooked in a dry-heat environment, generally a light amount of oil.

Menu Terms to Avoid

Au Gratin: Cooked in a sauce of cream and cheese. Save this for special occasions!

Bisque: Soup with a heavy cream base. Why bother, when there are so many delicious light soups?

Breaded/Battered: Coated with flour and generally fried. Skip it!

Candied: Cooked with sugar and (sometimes) butter. Common treatment for nuts.

Caramelized: Cooked until deeply browned. Typically involves a fair amount of butter.

Creamy: Red flag! This sauce description usually means high-calorie ingredients are involved: mayo, sour cream, milk, butter, etc.

Crispy/Crunchy: In other words? Fried. A combo of breading and oil is what usually achieves that crisp texture.

Glazed: Generally indicates being lacquered in a sugary and/or oily sauce.

Smothered: Code word for "drowned in cheese, gravy, or cream sauce." See also: country style, disco, and wet.

Wild Cards on the Menu

Drizzled: Lightly sauced or topped. While it's better than smothered, it can still be caloric if the sauce is creamy and the chef has a heavy hand. When in doubt, ask for it on the side.

Fresh: Contrary to popular belief, this is not synonymous with low calorie. Fresh could refer to something uncooked, freshly made, or simply made in-house. Fresh tilapia and broccoli = good. Fresh pasta in cream sauce = not so good!

Sautéed: Sometimes cooked in generous amount of butter or oil; sometimes not. HG advice: Request that a small amount of butter or oil be used.

For a ginormous roundup of specific survival guides, click here!

Chew on this:

January is National Soup Month! Check out this collection of great recipes...

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