Menu Language Decoded

Decoding the nuances of menu language can clue you in to the nutritional profile of the food. Here are 10 terms that help indicate whether a menu item is a smart, everyday choice or a special-occasion indulgence.

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10 Menu Terms to Know

You already know to avoid the word "fried" on the menu if you're looking for a light meal — and for that matter, to forgo anything labeled "diet" or "low cal" if you're in the mood for a treat. But menu language has lots of other nuances that can clue you in to the nutritional profile of the food. Here are 10 terms that help indicate whether a menu item is an everyday choice or more of a special-occasion indulgence.

By Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D.


The process of curing involves covering foods in salt, brine, or cure mixtures including sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Thus, cured products tend to be very high in sodium. The same is often true of smoked meats and fish, which may be cured before smoking. Many higher-end restaurants cure and smoke their own products from scratch, but the sodium is still in there — so it's a good idea to limit intake of cured products if you’re watching your blood pressure.


This term usually means lots of butter is involved — the steam released from butter as it heats up is what gives baked goods the many layers that create flakiness. (The exception to this rule is certain types of fish, which are sometimes described as flaky because their flesh naturally breaks into discrete "flakes" when cooked, no butter necessary, although it may be used in cooking the fish too.)


This word usually indicates that a food is battered/breaded and deep-fried. "Crisp," however, is a different story (see next slide).


Unlike "crispy," the foods most likely to be described as "crisp" are raw vegetables — think salads, cucumbers or carrots. These foods may also be called "crunchy," a term that can definitely go either way (see next slide).


This term can be used to describe raw vegetables as well as deep-fried foods like tempura, mozzarella sticks or fritters. Check with your server so you know what’s in store.


No, we're not talking about X-rated bachelorette party cakes. When you see "adult" or "grown-up" on a menu, it's nearly always as a modifier for something typically associated with kids' meals: grilled cheese, mac and cheese, chicken fingers.


Literally meaning "preserved," "confit" is typically prepared by submerging savory ingredients such as poultry or vegetables in pure fat, which helps to preserve them. Sweet confits are made by covering fruit with sugar syrup. Confit is generally an indulgence, no matter how simple the original ingredient may sound.

Gratin, AKA au Gratin

Foods prepared au gratin (e.g., potatoes) are typically covered with a buttery or creamy sauce, cheese, and breadcrumbs.


This cooking method entails quickly browning meat or vegetables, then simmering them for long periods of time in an acidic liquid (such as wine or vinegar) that reduces down to a flavorful sauce. Braised meats may seem rich, but in reality braising is usually reserved for tougher cuts of meat with less fat and more connective tissue, and excess fat is skimmed from the surface of the sauce before serving. All in all, braised meats are a pretty nice balance between virtuous and indulgent. Braised vegetables (e.g., chard and carrots) are even lighter, although the cooking method also gives them a hearty flavor.


While poaching is widely thought to be a fat-free cooking method, sometimes ingredients are poached in liquids other than water, such as milk, cream or a combination of the two. Not that fat is bad (that myth has long since been debunked), but poached fish is definitely a lot higher in fat and calories when it's poached in cream.