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Crack the Menu Code

Dining out doesn’t need to be a dilemma. Break through the restaurant-speak and make smart choices with the help of these insider tips.

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It seems like an easy test: Pick the meal with the most calories, the least calories, the most fat, and the least amount of salt in a multiple-choice quiz. But when 500 people were asked to do just that using common restaurant foods, most weren’t able to get one right answer—regardless of education or income level. 

Here’s what you need to know to make smart choices and crack the menu code most of the time. 

Forget About Intuition
“It’s no surprise that consumers are confused by all the messages about food,” says chef Michelle Dudash, RD, owner of Chef Dudash Nutrition. We’re inundated with phrases like “low fat” and “low carb,” and we think these labels mean “healthy”—but that’s not necessarily the case. 

Think about components. It’s just not intuitive to guess that a chicken Caesar salad has more fat than lasagna—until you consider that mound of buttery croutons, all the cheese, and the slathering of dressing. Deconstruct your food to better understand what you’re getting in every bite. 

Know your goal. It’s only natural to think a “guiltless” chicken platter would have less salt than a Cajun chicken sandwich. Until you realize “guiltless” refers to fat and calorie content—not salt—and using those tasty Cajun spices means less salt is necessary. Don’t let a message that seems healthy derail you from your own health goals. Remember that: 

  • Cholesterol free doesn’t necessarily mean low fat.
  • Low carb doesn’t mean low calorie. 

Menu Navigation Tricks
Though many menus may tell you the process to make a dish, not all will. Ask your server how foods are prepared. Once you know, it’s easy to ask for changes to make the dish healthier. 

Consider red-light words. Be on the lookout for these keywords: 

  • Fried and deep-fried means cooked in fat, which translates to added calories.
  • Breaded can often mean fried.
  • Creamed or creamy may indicate a high-fat component.
  • Dressing usually is a high-fat addition. Ask for a reduced fat version or request dressing on the side.
  • Sweet describes sugar, honey, or other sweetener added, which means calories.
  • Au gratin literally says “with cheese” (but it can often include bread crumbs mixed in butter)—extra calories and fat.
  • Bisque is a rich, creamy soup that is high in fat.

Seek green-light words. Words like these will usually point to a more healthful choice.

  • Baked
  • Grilled
  • Roasted
  • Blanched
  • Boiled
  • Steamed
  • Poached

Personalize Your Order
No menu is carved in stone, so make your meal what you want it to be. Because not all chefs have extensive nutrition knowledge, it’s smart to make specific requests, warns chef Dudash. For example, ask to have your food grilled instead of fried. And ask to have your condiments and dressing placed “on the side.” To limit the use of dressing, dip your fork into the dressing and then the food.

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