Healthy Eating at Restaurants Has a Whole New Look

Healthy Eating at Restaurants Has a Whole New Look January 18, 2018
By Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, and Sara Lucero
There’s a new trend in healthy eating and restaurant dining, and it is leaving behind restriction and deprivation in favor of savoring great meals at restaurants that support a healthy lifestyle.

Once upon a time, Americans ate at restaurants without considering nutrition or health, but now these factors are top priority for growing numbers of guests. Restaurant lovers are demanding more, and restaurants are delivering with dishes that seamlessly marry flavor with nutrition.

This new trend in restaurant dining is at the forefront in recent articles, such as The Healthiest Meals to Order at Fast Food and Chain Restaurants in People Magazine and a similar article on But are the qualifications for making this list of “healthy choices?”

There are many definitions of “healthy” out there, but nutrition experts, including dietitians, have a pretty consistent framework for what makes a diet healthy. It’s this framework that restaurants are increasingly using to guide their menu development decisions:

  • Fruits and vegetables: The more variety in color of these nutritional and delicious powerhouses, the better.
  • Lean protein: Seafood, poultry, lean cuts of beef, tofu and similar choices add essential protein with less saturated fat.
  • Whole grains: Whole grains and whole grain products are becoming more and more popular with consumers for the fiber and nutrients they contain along with their nutty, satisfying taste and richer texture.
  • Nuts and seeds: The wide array of nuts and seeds available today not only adds taste and interest but healthy fats, too.
  • Beans and legumes: Research continues to show the benefits of adding more plants, including fiber-rich, plant-based proteins like these, to the diet.

In 2015, to bring home the importance of consistent nutrition recommendations, a group of leading nutrition and food system experts came together and outlined healthy eating guidelines like these and more.

The most exciting part is seeing how these recommendations are now being translated into tempting menu choices like those featured in the recent People Magazine and Food Network articles. We asked Healthy Dining’s dietitians to weigh in on exactly what makes these menu items healthy and delicious. Here’s what they had to say:

Banh Mi Power Bowl at California Pizza Kitchen

(540 Calories, 33 Grams Fat, 4.5 Grams Saturated Fat, 40 Grams Carbohydrate, 28 Grams Protein)
“This menu choice checks so many boxes when it comes to healthful ingredients! Lean grilled chicken and an eye-catching variety of vegetables are paired with whole grain quinoa and a sprinkle of crunchy sesame seeds and creamy avocado for a dream bowl. True to trend, this bowl definitely doesn’t sacrifice on flavor either.” – Mary (Parsons) Fraker, MS, RD

Herb-Grilled Salmon at Olive Garden
(460 Calories, 28 Grams Fat, 8 Grams Saturated Fat, 8 Grams Carbohydrate, 43 Grams Protein)
“It’s great to see this savory salmon in the spotlight! The rich herb flavor, tender flaky fish and cheesy broccoli all contribute healthful omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber and nutrients to make this dish a perfect example of a healthy, balanced choice.” – Nancy Snyder, MS, RD

Fit Fare® Loaded Veggie Omelette at Denny’s
(470 Calories, 16 Grams Fat, 7 Grams Saturated Fat, 60 Grams Carbohydrate, 26 Grams Protein)
“Diner food has never looked so good or treated us so well! This omelette is loaded with nutritious veggies and paired with fruit and an English muffin for a combo that is pretty complete when it comes to nutrition and a big win when it comes to flavor. It’s also just one of the many choices that fit the healthy eating bill at Denny’s these days.” – Amber Caswell, MPH, RD

6-oz. Sirloin & Grilled Shrimp on the Barbie at Outback
(580 Calories, 22 Grams Fat, 10 Grams Saturated Fat, 5 Grams Carbohydrate, 90 Grams Protein)
“Even steak can fit within a healthy lifestyle, especially when it is a lean cut. Pairing with shrimp gives great taste as well as lower saturated fat content. This boost of protein and iron, paired with the asparagus or a side of broccoli gives you a delicious and well-rounded dining out experience.” – Ilana Lemberger, RD

6-oz. Sirloin with Grilled Avocado at Chili’s
(420 Calories, 20 Grams Fat, 5 Grams Saturated Fat, 23 Grams Carbohydrate, 39 Grams Protein)
“This lean sirloin paired with that vibrant, mouthwatering salad, garlic roasted tomatoes, and creamy avocado bring flavor to the forefront without foregoing the basics of a nutritious choice.” – Diana Wiggins, RD

Johnny Rocco Salad at Carrabba’s
(540 Calories, 42 Grams Fat, 8 Grams Saturated Fat, 13 Grams Carbohydrate, 29 Grams Protein)
“Carrabba’s has so many wonderful salad creations that it’s hard to focus on just one. This tempting choice combines the great taste of grilled shrimp and scallops with savory vegetables, like roasted red peppers, along with the crunch of lettuce and mixed greens in Italian vinaigrette. There is definitely no deprivation here! Not only does this salad blend of flavors and textures satisfy the taste buds, but it is also designed to be a nutritious option for a healthy lifestyle.” – Blaire Newhard, MLA, RD
There is no doubt that more and more Americans want it all when dining out and are not willing to sacrifice either flavor or nutrition. Choices like these and so many more at restaurants across the country are proof that diners can find just the delicious and healthy choices they want.
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