A Low Calorie Restaurant Food Guide

In an earlier post I wrote about the easy ways to cut calories with restaurant meals . Having a strategy for making low calorie choices is essential when eating out in American restaurants. But isn’t it nice to occasionally have restaurant options for low calorie food without having to be so vigilant?

I decided to look for national restaurants that offer low calorie meals. Could I find restaurants offering nutritious choices for less than 350 calories? What I discovered is that many of the meals I might choose as being the healthier lower calorie choices typically do have fewer calories than other items on a menu. But the total calorie counts were still on the high side (500-600 calories or more). For anyone on a 1200 to 1400 calorie diet the options are limited.

Many of the fast food restaurants offer one or more salad choices for less than 350 calories and a few have sandwich options. For example, Arby’s has a Martha’s Vineyard Salad with grilled chicken, cranberries, diced apples, Iceberg/Romaine lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese at only 262 calories total without dressing. And they have a Santa Fe Salad with Grilled Chicken at 283 calories (includes grilled chicken, roasted corn and black beans, Iceberg/Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese.)

Blimpies evidently has an Ultimate Veggie Sandwich with a calorie count of 280. And Burger King offers a Chicken Whopper Jr. Sandwich on a small bun without mayonnaise for 320 calories. The Chicken Whopper is not exactly a balanced meal by itself but you could choose to order the sandwich to go and add your own low calorie fruit and vegetable such as sweet cherries for only 27 calories a half cup and sliced sweet green peppers with only 15 calories a half a cup.

O.K. so fast food restaurants do offer a limited number of choices. How about sit-down family style restaurants and not fast food?

T.G.I. Fridays started offering a variety of smaller portion entrees to meet consumer demand beginning this past spring (2007). However, I couldn’t find any menu items for fewer than 500 calories. Given that the average restaurant entree has about 1000 calories, 500 calories is a big improvement. But it isn’t clear if there is any savings with respect to cost or whether or not the meal choices are more nutritionally well balanced than any other option. So you might be just as well off ordering a regular size portion and saving aside half to take home.

Friday’s also offers two low carb choices that look good, Sizzling Chicken with Vegetables and Shrimp Key West. But the calorie counts are not provided. They note that the selections are made to order and therefore calorie counts may vary. This is a potential problem for menu items at any restaurant. However, I don’t see any reason why the average calorie count could not be posted.

Denny’s seems to have a few lower calorie choices on the menu. My research found a Chef Salad at 360 calories (but this item is high in sodium and somewhat high in saturated fat), a Grilled Chicken Breast Salad at 259 calories, and a Turkey Breast Salad without dressing at 248 calories.

Applebee’s now offers a Weight Watcher’s menu and quite a number of low fat meal choices. The Grilled Shrimp Skewered Salad has only 210 calories, 2 grams of fat and 7 grams of fiber. Wow! The Cajun Lime Tilapia has only 310 calories, with 6 grams of fat and 9 grams of fiber. Another wow! The Italian Chicken and Portobello Sandwich (grilled, marinated chicken breast topped with sliced Portobello mushrooms, a slice of tomato, and chunky marinara sauce on a wheat bun and served with fresh fruit) has only 360 calories with 6 grams of fat and 11 grams of fiber!

My personal favorite for low calorie, nutritious food has been Panera Bread. (But with so many great low cal menu items at Applebee’s, it is quickly becoming another favorite!) Panera’s offers several soup options that might be ordered along with a 2-ounce piece of bread and Iced Green Tea for less than 350 calories. The problem is that the menu items are not consistent from one time to the next. Be on the lookout for the Low Fat Vegetarian Moroccan Tomato Lentil soup at 120 calories a bowl, the Low Fat Vegetarian Garden Vegetable Soup at 90 calories a bowl, or the Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup at 160 calories a bowl. Delicious!

So lower calorie meal options can be found at certain restaurants if you do your homework first. I have found the website Calorie Lab to be very helpful in researching the calorie counts of restaurant meals. In addition, do check out the official website for the restaurant you plan on visiting to find the most up to date information on menu choices and nutrient data. Armed with a little bit of advance knowledge before heading out to eat you will be amazed at the number of calories you might save!

(UPDATE: I have now reviewed the best sites online for researching calorie counts and nutrients in all food including restaurant meals. See: Calorie Counts and Nutrients: Best Sites Online )

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  • Joanna April 16, 2012, 9:30 am

    Great article! I know from experience how much work it is to dig up all this information and appreciate having it on hand!

    • Lori April 17, 2012, 6:56 am

      Joanna,

      You have a wonderful blog! The information you are providing is valuable. Yes, it is time consuming to dig up all the information regarding the latest menu items from so many different restaurants. That’s why I am behind in providing updates. But now that I have learned of what you have to offer, I can refer people to your blog. Thank you and keep up the good work!

      Lori

  • Alyssa December 7, 2010, 12:52 pm

    My favorite at Panera is the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich, except I substitute Whole Grain White bread instead of the Tomato Basil Loaf (which cuts 200 cals), and Horseradish sauce instead of the Cilantro Hummus (saving 70 cals). Total calories-330, and it is delicious! They also have a very handy nutritional calculator on their website where you can select any menu item and add, subtract or substitute other ingredients (such as breads, sauces, and any toppings) to customize your meal! –My other favorite is if you pair the same sandwich in the You Pick Two with the Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean soup, except I normally leave the cilantro hummus on the sandwich since its only half. Total calories for the cup of soup and half sandwich-310 : )

    • Lori December 7, 2010, 1:34 pm

      Alyssa,

      Thank you! Those are good tips. I’ll have to give your suggestions a try the next time I go to Panera.

      I wish they could be more consistent with the soup offerings. I love the low fat vegetarian black bean soup but it’s not always available where I live.

      Lori

  • ashley r October 27, 2010, 3:27 pm

    I agree with you on panera. But I work there part time for the past 4 years and the amount of sodium in basically everything is extremely high. The one good thing on there menu is the classic salad. Low in calories and very low sodium compared to the rest of the menu. But if you have any questions on any items we have full nutritional guides in the cafes to show you if you ask.

    • Lori October 27, 2010, 4:41 pm

      Ashley, your comment about sodium is excellent. I’m making more of a point now to mention the sodium content when I report about restaurant food than I did when I originally wrote this article. Thanks for sharing the tip about the classic salad!

      Lori