Tips for Reading Restaurant Menus

Written by Healthline Editorial Team and Rena Goldman | Published on March 24, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on March 24, 2015

9 Restaurant Lies To Watch Out For

Eating healthy doesn’t mean always staying at home and nibbling on rabbit food. Luckily, more restaurants are offering healthier alternatives, so eating out comes with less guilt. But you still need to be watchful for fancy menu language. Some items may be promoting good marketing rather than good nutrition.  

Sneakily Unhealthy Salads

Salads may sound like a healthy alternative, but that’s not always the case. Fat, calories, and sodium sneak into your greens via dressings, croutons, and fixings. For example, a salad topped with bacon loses its healthfulness pretty quickly. Many restaurants also add salt while mixing the greens with the dressing.

To avoid unwanted extras, ask for dressing on the side. Better yet, ask for a side of olive oil. Olive oil is rich in healthful, omega-3 fatty acids.

What Is Aioli, Anyway?

Many restaurants are using the term aioli to add a bit of flair to their menu, but don’t be fooled by the fancy wording. “Aioli” is typically nothing more than an emulsion of eggs, oil, and a kick of garlic. It’s essentially the same thing as mayonnaise. If you’re watching your weight, watch out for aioli.

Not-So-Fresh Fish

“Fresh” is yet another popular buzzword on menus. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has warned people about eating fish on Mondays: Most fresh fish markets are closed on Sundays, so the fish bought and sold on Monday may be a few days old.

While this might be a bit of foodie snobbery, still be cautious of the word “fresh” on a menu. Don't be afraid to ask the waiter about when and where the fish was purchased.

Cooked Veggies

Eating veggies is good, but too much heat and water during cooking can suck out the vitamins and nutrients. Raw veggies are always best, but steamed is another good option. Boiling, grilling, or roasting veggies takes out some of their nutrients.

Stir-fried can also be healthful, as long as too much oil isn’t used. Ask your server to request that the chef limit the oil when preparing your dish.

Serving Size vs. Portion Size

The terms portion size and serving size are sometimes confused for one another. Portion size refers to the amount served while serving size is the recommended measurement of how much you should actually eat. So, you may get a heaping “portion” of salad, but the “serving” may only be half of what’s on your plate.

Serving sizes in restaurants have ballooned to convince diners that bigger is better. You may feel you’re getting more bang for your buck, but this isn’t necessarily good for your waistline. Just remember that getting a plate piled with food doesn’t mean you have to eat everything that’s on it.

The Iced Tea Misconception

Iced tea may be one of the first beverages your server mentions. It sounds healthier than soda, but unless the tea is unsweetened, you may as well have ordered a soda.

Sweetened iced teas are often loaded with sugar and caffeine. As you keep sipping to quench your thirst, you only get thirstier and are more likely to order another drink. Stick with water to avoid unnecessary calories.

Fat-Free/Sugar-Free

“Free” isn’t necessarily free. For example, what certain foods may lack in fat, they make up for in sugar, flavor additives, and carbohydrates.

Instead of offering vitamins and minerals, “free” versions sneak in unhealthy calories in the form of refined carbs and sugars that your body converts to triglycerides, a type of fat that can lead to heart disease. Your body likes and needs fat, but only the “good” kind found in foods like avocados, almonds, fatty fish, and olive oil.

Understand the Meaning of "Reduced Fat"

Low-fat items don’t necessarily mean low-calorie. Similar to fat-free claims, reduced fat foods make up for what they lack in extra sugar or carbohydrates.

Making smart choices can sometimes be better than always going for the “reduced fat” option.  

Beware of Buzzwords

For an appetizer, you’ll have a side salad with the “fat-free,” “house-made” dressing, and then the “gluten-free,” "artisan" pizza with "farm-fresh" topping for an entrée. These buzzwords are eye-catching, but beware of what lurks behind the hype.

For example, “gluten-free” was originally intended to alert those with celiac disease that foods didn’t contain wheat, rye, or barley. Gluten-free items may be higher in price and fat. No gluten means no wheat, but manufacturers often add fat or sugar to the substitute flour for taste.

More Healthy Eating Information

You don’t want to blow your diet just for a night out, but some diets allow for a bit more flexibility than others. Read our 23 Diet Plans Reviewed: Do They Work? to see which diet is the right for you.

If you’re looking to add a little healthy touch to your life, you might want to read 10 Seemingly Healthy Foods That Could Make You Fat and then whip up some delicious drinks with our Healthy Summer Cocktails recipes.

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