10 Diet-Friendly Restaurants: Stay on Track When You're On-the-Go

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Harris Interactive recently conducted a survey on behalf of Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill to gain information about food-related New Year's resolutions. They surveyed U.S. adults at the end of 2011 and found that 83 percent of those interviewed would like to eat better in the New Year but don't want to feel they are sacrificing to do it. Eighty-one percent of respondents also say that lower-calorie meal options when dining away from home would help them keep their food-related resolutions. Since nine in ten Americans that make food-related resolutions end up breaking them, help with finding lower calorie meal options is needed to point people in the right direction when they dine away from home.
Over the years, we have highlighted many healthier options in our Diet Friendly Dining series. Since many of you made food-related New Year's resolutions or goals for this year, here are 10 restaurants with calorie conscience menus to keep in mind when eating away from home.

  1. Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill  - Applebee's resolves to let patrons have it all this year with their Great Tasting Under 550 Calorie and Weight Watchers endorsed menu items. Caution is necessary especially related to overall sodium content. The Asiago Peppercorn Steak with sides (380 calories/14 g fat/1,520 mg sodium) is your healthiest meal choice. The Weight Watchers Paradise Chicken Salad (340 calories/4 g fat/2,060 mg sodium) is a good entrée salad choice as well.

  2. IHOP Restaurant - The International House of Pancakes has been an American favorite for generations. Their Simple & Fit menu highlights options under 600 calories so it can be enjoyed for more generations to come. If you are visiting with breakfast in mind, the Simple & Fit Spinach, Mushroom & Tomato Omelette with Fresh Fruit (330 calories/12 g fat/690 mg sodium) and the Simple & Fit Veggie Omelette with Fresh Fruit (320 calories/10 g fat/420 mg sodium) make great choices. If you are looking for a sandwich, aim for the Simple & Fit Simply Chicken Sandwich (500 calories/10 g fat/840 mg sodium). If you are out for dinner, the Simple & Fit Grilled Tilapia Dinner with steamed broccoli and a house salad (490 calories/23 g fat/1,270 mg sodium) is a nutrient rich option although it is high in sodium.

  3. Cheesecake Factory – With a high calorie dessert in the name of your restaurant, low calorie options isn't something people expect at this nationwide favorite casual dining chain. Have no fear if this is one of your favorite restaurants AND you want to watch your calories at the same time. Last fall the SkinnyLicious menu was created to offer calorie-conscious guests with nearly 50 choices under 590 calories. Although Cheesecake Factory doesn't publish complete nutrition information for their menu, Eat This, Not That highlights several of the better choices you can select. Good entrée options would be the SkinnyLicious Herb Crusted Salmon (570 calories/35 g fat/687 mg sodium) with assorted fresh vegetables or the 6 oz Petite Grilled Tenderloin of Beef (585 calories/38 g fat/951 mg sodium) with fresh vegetables. The Mexican Tortilla Salad (560 calories/22 g fat/1,853 mg sodium) with SkinnyLicious vinaigrette dressing provides a large, high sodium portion that would be great to share or to take half home.

  4. Denny's – Almost anywhere across the United States, you are bound to find America's diner always open. The Fit Fare menu offers nutritious meals with lower amounts of fat and calories while maintaining a great taste and price. When you visit for breakfast, check out the Fit Slam (390 calories/12 g fat/850 mg sodium) which is a healthier version of a Denny's favorite. If a lighter breakfast is more enticing, the Harvest Oatmeal Breakfast (350 calories/11 g fat/600 mg sodium) is fiber rich and filling.  Good lunch and dinner choices include the Cranberry Apple Chicken Salad (370 calories/12 g fat/610 mg sodium) or the Fit Fare Tilapia Ranchero dinner (450 calories/19 g fat/930 mg sodium).

  5. Red Lobster - Seafood offers heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and a rich protein source. Now with the LightHouse menu options, you can get those great benefits without additional fat and calorie overload when visiting Red Lobster. The best entrée selection would be the Rock Lobster (90 calories/1 g fat/490 mg sodium). Pair that with fresh steamed asparagus (60 calories/3 g fat/270 mg sodium) or broccoli (45 calories/.5 grams fat/200 mg sodium) and you have a nutrient rich, low calorie, low fat, lower sodium lunch or dinner.

  6. Bob Evans - The Fit from the Farm menu helps you find a satisfying meal to fit your nutrition conscious lifestyle. It is important to note that the guidelines for these menu items includes a calorie count of 650 calories or less which is on the high side for one meal for many calorie controlled meal plans below 2000 calories. For breakfast, consider the new BE Fit Breakfast (352 calories/3 g fat/537 mg sodium) with Lite scrambled eggs, cranberry multigrain sidecakes and fresh fruit. The Veggie Omelet (310 calories/6 g fat/581 mg sodium) is also a great choice. For lunch or dinner look for the savor-size Apple Cranberry Spinach Salad (373 calories/14 g fat/436 mg sodium) or the Potato-Crusted Flounder dinner (453 calories/12 g fat/560 mg sodium) with fresh steamed broccoli and a baked potato.

  7. Mimi's Cafe - The Fresh and Fit menu highlights options under 550 calories available any time of the day. The Five-Alarm Santa Fe Egg White Omelette (174 calories/6 g fat/516 mg sodium) turns an ordinary breakfast into an extraordinary any-time meal with spicy chipotle sauce, diced jalapenos, and cilantro to spice things up. If you are looking for low sodium entrée options, Mimi's has options for you! The Citrus Salmon is a tasty grilled salmon with greens, strawberries, and fat-free balsamic vinaigrette with only 320 mg of sodium (539 calories/37 g fat). You might also like the Broiled Chicken and Fruit Plate (425 calories/7 g fat/108 mg sodium) or the Sweet & Sour Chicken (550 calories/20 g fat/253 mg sodium) or the Tilapia with brown rice and steamed vegetables (440 calories/9 g fat/390 mg sodium) as well.

  8. T.G.I. Friday's  - The Right Portion, Right Price options, which are 750 calories or less, are the section of the menu to focus while realizing that the higher calorie level may not fit for many controlled calorie plans. Sodium content even on these calorie conscience highlighted items are high so they may not be right for everyone, especially those for people that have to limit their sodium intake for medical reasons. Although listed as an appetizer, the Spinach Florentine Flatbread (410 calories/23 g fat/1,280 mg sodium) might work as an entrée selection. The Petite Sirloin (370 calories/24 g fat/1,450 mg sodium) or Dragonfire Salmon (590 calories/ 23 g fat/ 2,090 mg sodium) with side selections of Ginger-Lime Slaw (90 calories/5 g fat/ 220 mg sodium) and steamed broccoli (50 calories/ .5 g fat/ 370 mg sodium) are your best meal options.

  9. Subway – When you are on the run and want a healthier fast food option, there is probably a Subway nearby to help. If you've ever searched "healthy restaurants near me" in Yelp, chances are pretty good that a Subway is going to pop up. That's because Subway chains outnumber McDonald's these days, which is a great thing if you're on the go and looking for a place to eat. The Fresh Fit highlighted menu items help you make a wise choice once you are there. You will find eight sub choices with less than 6 grams of fat as well as apple slices, low fat milk, 100% juice or water to round out your healthy meal. You can find three Fresh Fit Breakfast options under 200 calories like the Egg White, Steak, and Cheese English Muffin Melt (180 calories/ 4 g fat/ 620 mg sodium). For a low calorie, low sodium sandwich select a 6" Veggie Delite (230 calories/2.5 g fat/310 mg sodium). If you are looking to increase the fiber while decreasing the complex carbs, go for a salad such as the Grilled Chicken & Baby Spinach (130 calories/3 g fat/330 mg sodium without dressing) or a Subway Club Salad (140 calories/3.5 g fat/640 mg sodium without dressing).

  10. McDonald's – While there may not be a special section for healthier options on a McDonald's menu board, you will find over 20 health conscious choices available. Whether you are looking for a healthier breakfast option, a kid's meal, or a fruit smoothie, you can certainly find a calorie conscious option nearby.  A fiber rich, low sodium breakfast choice is the Fruit & Maple Oatmeal (290 calories/4.5 g fat/160 mg sodium). You might want to pair it with a Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait with Granola (160 calories/2 g fat/85 mg sodium) or Snack Size Fruit & Walnut Salad (210 calories/8 g fat/60 mg sodium) for even more fiber, flavor, and crunch. Smaller portion sizes for kids and adults can be enjoyed with the new Happy Meal (390 calories/11 g fat/650 mg sodium) with a hamburger, Apple Dippers with Low Fat Caramel Dip and 1% Low Fat White Milk. A good salad option is the Grilled Chicken Southwest Salad (290 calories/8 g fat/650 mg sodium) with Newman's Own Creamy Southwest Dressing (100 calories/6 g fat/340 mg sodium). If a sandwich is more to your liking, consider either a Grilled Chipotle BBQ or Honey Mustard Snack Wrap (250 calories/8 g fat/660 mg sodium) or Classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich (350 calories/9 g fat/820 mg sodium).
You can also use these tips to make any menu opportunity a more health conscience choice.
  • Select reduced fat or fat-free dressings when possible.
  • Request that dressings, sauces, and glazes be served on the side whenever possible.
  • Look for healthier substitutions for fried options such as fries, onion rings, or hash browns. Most places offer side salads, fresh fruit or steamed vegetables.
  • Substitute grilled or baked meats like chicken or shrimp in place of fried offerings.
  • Select the smaller portion of entrée salads when available.
  • Select water with lemon or lime or unsweetened tea to drink.
  • Select the smallest size sandwich or fries in place of the "supersized" options.
  • Request that foods be "unsalted" or have "no additional seasoning" if possible to reduce the sodium content.
Eating away from home can limit weight loss success especially if you do it more than a couple of times each week. However, if you limit the number of times you eat away from home AND make nutrient wise choices when you do, you can stay on track with your weight loss goals.   

Did you think there were this many healthy options available? What other calorie conscious suggestions do you have when eating away from home that might help people new to weight loss?

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LEANJEAN6 3/21/2018
I am being treated for a thyroid problem Report
HAWKTHREE 2/24/2018
I think the Cheesecake Factory is the worst offender in the list. I ate what seemed to be a healthy choice of protein plus veggies plus a sauce. It had over 2500 calories. The sauce is the likely culprit. Report
NITEMAN3D 1/21/2018
Some of these have changed since this article was written and not all for the better. Having said that, I think something happened recently that is forcing restaurants to be more forthcoming with their nutrition info. Many are more complete and even including sodium content. Steps in the right direction. Report
A great list of what to eat at restaurants I choose not to patronize Report
Thanks! Report
Thanks! Report
ROCKS8ROX 9/10/2017
Good list of restaurants! Report
KATHYJO56 6/2/2017
What a great list with good information Report
How strange it is - last comment before this one was also from me. This isn't the first time it's happened. We need more articles rotating in and out. Report
Don't do fast food and don't like chain restaurants so I avoid them, altho' independents are a dying breed. This means I eat many meals at home before going out with friends. Then I have coffee. No one minds. Report
Ask for the senior citizen menu. The portions seem to be smaller + cheaper. Report
My problem with eating out is usually sodium, not calories. If I know I'm going out, that morning I look up the menu and nutrition info, plan my dinner, then budget the rest of the day around it. Report
My #1 rule for dining out.

When ordering your food: Be specific with your requests. If you don't want sour cream, mayonnaise or other condiment, SAY SO.
Waiters don't bring you things you don't order (and if, on occasion they do...send it back.)

I love Culver's salads, they are fresh and the chicken is hot. Ruby Tuesday's also has some smaller portions on their menu. You can eat in a healthy manner without marketing gimmicks (WW points, catchy name), you just have to do your research first. Report
Applebee's is off my list because their meals remind me of a frozen dinner entree. Plus, the service was abysmal.

For those avoiding chain restaurants, one of the tricks I've found (besides "dressing on the side") is to order appetizers plus a salad, or sometimes all sides. Report
I eat at Applebees alot, but I also got their nutrition information on line and a lot of their entrees are very high calorie and salt. I order walleye, grilled with double vegetables alot. They are very receptive to requests to replace french fries or potatos, or rice with steamed vegetables. Report
Of all those restaurants listed, Applebees seems like it should be such a great choice. The menu there is really geared towards healthy choices. But, I've stopped going there because the quality of the food varies so much. After three not so great meals, I decided I was through. Subway is the one I go to the most. If I don't have time to make my healthy lunch or dinner, Subway is my backup plan. There is one near my home and one near my work. Report
Helpful information! I would never have guessed that Cheesecake Factory has options for me. So far, I have been able to find somewhat healthy items avaiable, but the sodium continues to be a challenge when dining out. Report
I've had the peppercorn steak dish from Applebees, it was fabulous! Report
Great article. I generally eat lunch out and wouldn't have chosen any of these restaurants for a healthy meal. Today though, I went to IHOP for one of its Fit meals. It was great and a reasonable calorie offering - 330 - for a lunch.
You have to take this information with a grain of salt (pun intended). I agree that the healthy options are great, though I don't understand why restaurants and manufacturers charge more for smaller, right-portioned sizes. You still have to be careful. I ate at Fridays very frequently for years. In the last four years, since I started SparkPeople, I have been there maybe 4-5 times and eat sensibly. I do still enjoy it. However, I strongly agree with some of the posters who advocate eating at local restaurants. I love keeping those people in business, and they tend to be more accommodating to diet related requests. Report
i wold rather not et at any of these restaurants for the most part!!! especially if I was trying to be healthy Report
Great article! Report
Two words: Portion Sizes!!! Report
It is nice to know that there are Restaurents you can go to that offer low calorie food items that you can chose from. God Bless You and Have a Wonderful Week. Report
I would like to see more low calorie vegetarian options, too. Report
Why do restaurants have to take these healthy choices and add so much salt to them? Let the customer add his own salt at the table. I would eat out more often if everything wasn't so salty.
I've been eating at home most often now, but in the earlier stages of my weight loss we were eating out a lot. I found it really didn't impede my progress. I am careful about staying away from the obviously high calorie items (fried or heavy creams, etc) but otherwise ordered pretty much what I wanted but adhered to the "half" suggestion earlier stated. I would immediately cut the meal in half and only eat one portion. I would save the other half for lunch or dinner the next day. Or I might order an appetizer and soup instead, although you do need to be careful of the calorie content of these as well. I would usually order jello or fruit for dessert with my tea. I never felt deprived and still lost the weight I wanted (30 pounds at that time.) Report
Thrilled to see these places stepping up, but don't plan to eat at any of them any time soon. I am lucky enough to live in Ann Arbor, where the locally-owned indie restaurants cook from scratch using local, sustainable ingredients. We should all work to make this a reality for everyone! Report
Longhorn and Outback also have under 500 calorie meals on their menu as well. PF Chang's also will prepare meals steamed with sauce on the side..just be aware of the portion size when you're eating there. Report
I have enjoyed both the Denny's & IHOP low cal menu and find them to taste very good. Also if you order off the over 55 menu the meals are smaller and have less calories then their counter-parts on the regular menus. Report
good stuff to keep in mind when on the road! Report
Why not go to a locally sourced and locally owned restaurant and don't fear making substitutions. Think about consumer choices, even if you order a salad at McDonalds you are supporting an industry which is built on the obesity epidemic, processed food, cruelty to animals, human/worker rights violations, and aggressive advertizing to children. Think before you eat and vote for the world you want with your dollars. I won't eat at any of these places. Report
If you choose apple bees as one of your fitness friendly resturants, be sure to decide on your meal before you go. Where as the two listed above are good choices, allot of there other choices labeled "550 calories" does not fit the bill of being light weight. Such as the steak with shrip which labels itself as being 550 calores, with 45 grams of fat, 11+ as saturated fat. Also watch the Cholestoral and sugar quantities in their food, their all very high, even in the "550" calorie meals. Report
I love being able to find healthy alternatives while still being able to go out with friends and family! Report
I often share a meal with my husband, who is on a low-fat diet for his cholesterol. Or I order a meal and a box, and immediately put half away for a meal later. I decline the free chips and/or bread. Yes, I really do, and that amazes even me because I love "free" and I love bread. But it is not worth it! Report
Red Lobster and Subway are the two listed that I most frequently will go to. A few weeks ago when my wife and I went to Red Lobster I had ordered the wood fired grilled salmon with broccoli and when the server brought out the meals, they stated they looked like the healthiest meals they had seen all day. It was not only tasty, but a great ego booster. Subway is always great for a quick and filling meal, I try to get the veggie on wheat with the fat free honey mustard sauce. Though I had not eaten at Arby's in many years, I have eaten there twice recently and getting their roast beef without any cheese or sauce is not a bad meal. My wife had ordered that, and I a salad, she did better than I did, though both were well within reason. Report
Very helpful info.....glad to know I'm not the only one struggling. Report
It's nice to see all of the restaurants with their healthy options, but the only place that is near me and that I eat at in the above list is the Cheesecake Factory, and that's rare. Report
Dhunter- it actually adds up to 195 calories, but its not exactly the calories that will fill you up its the protein fiber and portion size (20g protein, unsure about fiber, and its the tail- not sure how many ounces but they are usually pretty beefy), 4g protein with brocoli, and 4g protein asparagus (maybe a cup each, not sure) = 28g protein which is pretty filling!!
Got this from red lobster's website nutritional info (cant post html links) Report
This may go without saying, but I find if I can plan before leaving I make better decisions out. Tonight, I know where I'm going so I already researched the menu and have added my selections on Sparkpeople, now I know how much I can snack between lunch and dinner too! Report
i'm confused at the Red Lobster suggestion...it adds up to a meal with only 135 calories?? Is there a typo? That's an insanely small calorie count for a meal! I can't imagine who would want such a teeny meal...I need 2000 calories a day so that would be a blip on my count. Even on someone looking to get 1200 calories a day would be left unsatisfied. Report
I don't know... I don't really trust restaurants and their calorie listings. Also-I know its bad to say this-I feel that if I'm paying money to eat out than I'm going to eat what I want and not pay money for some bland healthy meal I can make at home. My personal strategy is to not eat out at a restaurant more than a couple of times a month and not worry about what I eat too much when I do. Usually I know in advance and I can plan accordingly throughout the week so that its not too damaging.
I do however have a built it 'fast-food' break in the middle of the week but its usually something simple like a subway sandwich and I can see exactly what goes into it.
My "beef" with Applebee's continues to be that there isn't a single entrée on the menu that doesn't prominently feature meat and/or cheese. Although I can build a satisfactory meal of plant-based sides, as a vegan, it's frustrating to know that there aren't easy-to-spot options for people who are trying to make an effort to eat fewer animal foods but are not yet confident or knowledgeable enough to make special requests or create their own plates. It's nice that chain restaurants are trying to scale back the excess, but they're still missing a piece of the puzzle that is crucial to an increasing number of diners. Report
I travel on business every 2 months so this information is very useful to me. Thanks! Report
Very helpful information...sometimes we get so caught up (and scared) that we forget that all we really need to do is read and MAKE the RIGHT choice when selecting our food, whether it be at home or at a restaurant. Report
What about going to a grocery store and getting food from the outer aisles when you are "away from home?" I've done this for years as it is much less expensive than eating in restaurants. When you find a McDonald's, etc. you usually have a grocery store nearby in a shopping center. It doesn't take long to run in and get something & go through the express lane. If fact, you can get extra and have it for the next meal. I always take a small cooler in my car when I go on trips, since I raised five children & couldn't afford to eat at restaurants when away. Report
What other calorie conscious suggestions do you have when eating away from home that might help people new to weight loss?

Restaurant servings are so large, so I find that getting the to-go container at the beginning of the meal and putting half of the food in before I start, helps me to eat less.

And I have a great meal to take to lunch...or give to one of my kids. Report
I'm surprised Jimmy John's isn't on the list. I find them to be SO much better then Subway when I need a go to lunch. They don't offer as many veggies, but their meat tastes real, and you can make an unwhich out of any sandwhich. Report
Ruby Tuesday has a "FIt and Trim" menu with items under 700 calories. I like the Spaghetti Squash Marinara, for 257 calories, or another option is the petite portion of the same for 177 calories. Their sodium counts aren't great at 836 and 667 respectively; but in general I've found there's always a trade-off when eating out. Our local SparkPeople group has been eating at Ruby Tuesday for our monthly dinner, though, just due to the flexiblity of the menu. With vegans, carnivores, and everything in between, it's a good match for us :) Report
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