Get it your way!

Get a healthier meal by customizing your order

Sure, the price is a bargain – but look at the calorie costs!  That might be your reaction when you see the recent addition of calorie counts to menu items as chain restaurants nationwide follow the government-mandate to post these values. While I’m personally happy to see calories posted, I’m not convinced it will have a dramatic effect on public health.  Let’s face it, 2014 marks twenty years since the addition of nutrition facts label on packaged foods and we all know how our waistlines have changed over the past twenty years.  Still, I think this information can be a useful tool, especially if you’re among the many Americans who eat 40% of their meals away from home – many at restaurants. However, using numbers is not as straightforward as one may think. They’re also not something you have to overlook if you want a meal that you enjoy.  With the help of the calorie counts, you can order a meal that both satisfies your food cravings, within reason, and fits your weight management budget.  Here’s how.

  1. Know what the numbers mean.  Typically, the calories are for menu item as described. If a salad specifies a dressing, the calories are usually included. If a sandwich is automatically served with fries, those calories are probably included.  However, if the menu says you get a choice of dressings or side items, those calories are likely not included.  Extras like mayo, sour cream, other condiments, breadsticks, or crackers are also not typically included in the calories, and they do add up.
  2. Consider what you’re getting for your calories.  A garden salad and soup may sound like a smart low-calorie selection but if you’re left feeling unsatisfied or hungry, your strategy may backfire.  You want to select options that satisfy taste and hunger that aren’t complete calorie bombs.  Best bets usually include lean protein and plenty of high-volume vegetables to fill the plate.  That may be a soup and salad with grilled chicken or a lean steak paired with seasonal veggies.
  3. Customize your preferred order.  Maybe you really want a roast beef sandwich. Have it, but hold the mayo and cheese to easily save a few hundred calories.  Other calorie cutters include ordering dressing on the side and using it sparingly, skipping croutons or other salad toppings, ordering egg whites instead of whole eggs, specifying “no oil or butter” for side vegetables, potatoes, sandwich buns, or toast buns, and downsizing the bread (or do without by ordering your burger a top a large salad).  The goal is to get a good meal within your calorie budget by making some low-sacrifice adjustments.
  4. Do your homework.  If you know where you’ll be eating, check their website beforehand. Many have nutrition information and some even have tools to help you customize your orders. Play around or do some math to see how different side items, condiments or bread selections impact the final calorie count.  You may be surprised that simply leaving off a sauce or swapping out bread choices can save hundreds of calories.  Or you may find that what you would have thought was a healthy choice is actually higher in calories than many other more indulgent sounding items.  Checking this information ahead of time makes ordering a lot easier and helps you look forward to your meal.
  5. Remember that a single meal doesn’t break a diet. Likewise, a virtuous order doesn’t deserve a calorie-containing reward. A successful weight management program involves making healthier choices without sacrificing the enjoyment that food and dining has to offer.

For more personalized on-the-spot menu guidance try using Zestar® Diet Pilot™ or Zestar® Menu Pilot™ on your iPhone. Bon appetite!


Jeannemarie Beiseigel, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian with a doctorate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise. She’s worked with academia, government and industry and has several published research studies. She recently started her own practice as independent nutrition consultant for businesses and individuals. You can e-mail Jeannemarie at jbeiseigel@gmail.com. Read Jeannemarie's full bio.

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