Dinner without reservations: Average entrees are 1,128 calories—what to do?

Today’s blog was inspired and co-authored with my Bowling Green State University dietetic intern Denise Woods. It was a great collaboration!Denise Woods

Eating out shouldn’t be filled with guilt and regrets. It should be a pleasant experience. When choosing a restaurant, what do you look for—ambiance, convenience, price, taste of food, healthier options?

Study showed average entrees are 1,128 calories in chain restaurants

Just because you aren’t going to a fast food place, doesn’t mean you’re getting lower calorie, healthier, better options. According to a Toronto study, the researchers discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories—about 56% of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. That’s just one meal!

Popular fast food items often have fewer than that. Excessive amounts of calories aren’t only seen in dinner entrees but are hiding in breakfast and lunch options as well.

Here are a few examples of popular menu items from restaurants. Their numbers are unbelievable!

On The Border Classic Chimichanga—cheese, pico de gallo, seasoned ground beef with queso

  • 1,740 calories, 117 g fat, 40 g saturated fat, 3,570 mg sodium
  • This classic entree is double the sat fat recommendation and 1.5 times sodium for one day
  • Taco Bell anyone? Maybe a steak quesadilla, chili cheese burrito, cheese nachos, and 5-layer beef burrito instead and for the same calories?


Olive Garden Spaghetti with Italian Sausage—spaghetti with meat sauce and Italian sausage

  • 1,400 calories, 83 g fat, 29 g saturated fat, 2,790 mg sodium
  • That’s without the breadsticks and unlimited salad!
  • And McDonald’s gets such a bad rap. Equivalent to a Big Mac, medium fries, and 12 oz McFlurry® with Oreos®


Cheesecake factory - louisiana chicken pastaThe Cheesecake Factory Louisiana Chicken Pasta—parmesan crusted chicken served over pasta with mushrooms, peppers, onions in a spicy New Orleans sauce

  • 2,050 calories, 58 g saturated fat, 1940 mg sodium (and this entree is not the worst on the menu)
  • Nearly 3 times recommended sat fat per day—ouch.
  • Why not go to Jack-in-the-Box instead and order: a Sourdough Jack sandwich, two tacos, 10 piece chicken nuggets, and medium curly fries? This fast food meal—although well over the daily limit—is 30 grams lower in saturated fat, yet double the sodium.


Lest you think, ‘Maybe stick to a salad?’ Think again. Unless you’re careful what you order, many can exceed 1,000 calories as I blog about here: Choosing salads because you think they’re healthier? .

TGI Friday’s Pecan Crusted Chicken Salad—crispy pecan-crusted chicken breast served over mixed greens with dried cranberries, mandarinTGI Friday's Pecan Crusted Chicken Salad blog oranges, sweetened pecans, blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.

  • 1,380 calories, 102 g total fat (sat fat 21 g), 2030 mg sodium
  • Nutrition information includes 2oz of dressing. Save 300 calories by ordering without or you’ll need to double if you ask for extra dressing.
  • Maybe dine with the Colonel instead? KFC’s two piece drumstick and thigh, biscuit, mac and cheese, potato wedges and a slice of chocolate chip cake has the same calories but less fat (72 g total fat vs 102 g) and saturated fat (20 g sat fat vs 21 g)

Obviously none of the fast food alternatives are ‘good’ choices but it’s merely information to point out how challenging dining out can be if you’re trying to manage weight.

What to do?

Being aware portion sizes have significantly increased over the years is important—some individual entrees can feed a family of 4.

To their credit, all the above restaurants have better options on the menu and they are good!

Healthy Dining Finder logo

If a restaurant does not offer healthier options, here are a few tips:

Appetizer or starter

  • A mixed green salad with plenty of veggies and without the extras like cheese and croutons is lower in calorie and a good source of fiber, which helps you feel full. Ask for dressing on the side, so you can portion how much to put on your salad. Dip your fork into the dressing and then into the salad.
  • Order a broth based soup instead of a cream based soup. Bean soup is excellent as well—loaded with fiber and higher in protein.

Portion sizes

  • Portion control is very important. Order an appetizer as your meal or split your entrée in half with your dining partner.
  • Take half home to have as leftovers the next day. Ask for the to go box when the entrée arrives to put half (or more) away.

Cooking method

  • Be mindful of how your dish is prepared. Look for menu terms like broiled, baked, braised, grilled, poached, roasted, and steamed, as these are healthier ways in preparing foods.
  • Steer clear from terms fried, pan fried, buttered, creamed, crispy, breaded.


  • Italian food is very popular and it’s a personal favorite of mine. Order a red sauce as opposed to a cream based or white sauce. Marinara or tomato sauces are generally better options for your pasta topping.
  • Ask questions and beware of most sauces in general.

Special requests

  • Many restaurants take special requests to make your meal healthier—don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Ask for sauces and dressings on the side and use sparingly.
  • Substitute items like baked potato for French fries, fresh veggies instead of coleslaw, low calorie condiments.


  • Don’t forget liquid calories from beverages! Sodas and other sugary beverages add unnecessary amounts of calories, and the endless refills don’t help either.
  • Alcohol has unneeded calories too, and tends to increase appetite.
  • Opt for water instead or non-caloric beverage. If you hate the taste of water, ask for lemon or lime slices to put in your glass to give added flavor.


  • Order one dessert for the whole table to share, so you still can satisfy that sweet tooth, but not overindulge. It’s usually just the first and second bite anyway that’s the best
  • More restaurants are offering mini desserts such as the Olive Garden pictured here. They give just a few bites but those are often all you need!
Olive Garden mini desserts

Olive Garden Mini Desserts

Eat slowly. It takes time for your brain to receive a message from your stomach that it has had enough. Eating out tends to be a social experience, so enjoy the company. Engage in conversation. (Neily’s tip: Be chatty! It will keep food out of your mouth!)

From the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics here are some additional Tips for Eating Out





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