Eating Out

How to find the most nutritious choices on the menu.

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
4-minute read
Episode #35

In an effort to help people make healthier choices when eating out, New York City and some other municipalities have passed laws requiring restaurants to publish calorie counts and other nutrition information right on their menus. Usually, the laws only apply to restaurants with more than one location, such as fast food and chain restaurants.

Even if they aren’t required to put them on the menu, most chain restaurants and some others publish nutrition information on their websites. You can find a lot of this gathered together in one place on NutritionData.com..

Many Would Rather Not Know

I’ve heard from a lot of people who say that having nutrition information on the menus takes some of the fun out of eating out. And frankly, the restaurants aren’t that crazy about the idea either because they know that many restaurant goers would be horrified to find out just how many calories their favorite dishes contain.

Having spent some time in professional kitchens I can tell you that sparing calories is not the first priority of most chefs. They want their food to taste good and it’s a whole lot easier to turn out tasty dishes when no one’s measuring out the butter, if you know what I mean.

Sidestepping the issue of whether it’s fair (or even constitutional) to force restaurants to put calorie counts on the menus, I have to say that, from a public health perspective, it has brought about some positive changes. Being forced to disclose the calorie counts on menus has motivated many chains to add healthier, lower-calorie choices to their menus.

And, even if people say they would rather not know how many calories are in that plate of fettuccini Alfredo or that side of onion rings, having the number right there on the menu makes it a bit harder to remain in denial—and often results in people making healthier choices. 

Take Menu Information with a Grain of Salt

Now, I have to warn you to take the nutrition information you see on menus with a grain of salt. When preparing a sample dish for analysis, ingredients are precisely measured. But dishes are not going to be as carefully executed in the heat of battle as they were for nutrition analysis. Unless it’s a highly automated fast-food restaurant where every squirt of special sauce is premeasured, you’re likely to get portions that are significantly larger, cooked in more oil or butter, and served with more salt, sauce, or salad dressing than the version that was analyzed.