Restaurant Menu Tricks

The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Americans eat 29 percent of out. But trying to order healthy choices can get tricky. Calorie counts found in many restaurants can make it easier, but with so many boobie traps many folks end up more calories than they bargained for. Luckily, you can use our smart tips for making healthier choices the next time you eat out.

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  allmenus.com.

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 »

Keep Reading

Next Up

High Calorie Restaurant-Menu Shockers

Find out which high-calorie menu items to skip when you're dining at Chili's, Olive Garden, Dunkin' Donuts and Cheesecake Factory.

Food News: Darden Restaurants and Michelle Obama Team to Revamp Menus

Darden Restaurants, the company who owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden recently pledged its commitment to revamp menus in an attempt to reduce calories.

Old Tools, New Tricks

Learn how to take old tools and turn them into beautiful new tricks!

Duff's Halloween Tricks and Treats

See his coolest, scariest recipes.

Vegetarian Thanksgiving Menu

Growing up with a vegan chef (my mother), I’ve had the most wonderful vegetarian Thanksgiving experience. Our table would be loaded with the most creative and delicious dishes made from seasonal fruits and veggies, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. We’ve put together vegetarian (and even some vegan) options for Turkey Day—and you don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy them.

Spring Brunch Menu

Invite some friends over for a weekend playdate or make moms smile with this effortless, yet elegant (and kid-friendly) brunch spread.

Memorial Day Picnic Menu

Throw the best tasting picnic on the block by combining classic favorites with some fresh ideas. You’ll find healthy and delicious recipes with lots of things you can make ahead of time. Set it up buffet style and let your guests dig in!

Summer Picnic Menu

Divide and conquer your next potluck picnic with these delicious and nutritious dishes. Don’t forget the warmer weather also increases the risk of food spoilage, so be sure to keep your food safe by following our simple tips.

On TV

Food Network Apps

In the Kitchen

Get over 70,000 FN recipes on all your mobile devices.

Facebook Messenger

Ask our bot for recipes, meal ideas and daily food trivia.

Amazon Echo

Just say "Alexa, enable Food Network skill" to get started.