Eating healthy while out and about is tough. Even the healthiest restaurants offer iffy selections — and it isn’t always obvious they’re terrible for you. When a restaurant food looks promising on the menu, but is actually as bad as or worse than fast food, making healthy choices becomes much more challenging.
Thankfully, it’s not all a guessing game. Though you might not know it, menu titles and descriptions leave clues as to whether or not a food is healthy to consume. If a restaurant food is unhealthy, there are signs — and these are the ones to watch out for the next time you’re deciding what to order next.
1. The menu description is long, detailed, and colorful
Menus are as important to a restaurant’s success as its waitstaff and cooks. The Huffington Post shared an infographic detailing the intense strategy that goes into writing and formatting a restaurant menu — and there’s more psychology behind it than you’d think. Whether or not you decide to order a certain item often comes down to what its description says — perhaps even how long the description is.
According to Mental Floss, several studies have suggested longer menu descriptions, and those that use words like “farm-raised” to describe meat, push customers closer to ordering more expensive items. That doesn’t mean they’re any better for you, though. A farm-raised slab of beef buried in gravy is still probably harboring enough saturated fat for the whole table. Foods that are sizzling, smoked, or bursting with flavor are questionable at best.
2. ‘Sautéed’ doesn’t mean what you think it means
Better Homes and Gardens describes sautéed food as anything cooked quickly in hot oil. Restaurants sauté meat, fish, vegetables, and even fruit to give them a unique flavor and texture in large amounts as quickly as possible. However, this comes with a cost — mainly, instead of enjoying protein-packed meat with healthy mushrooms, you end up eating mostly fat.
Sautéed food might be healthier than anything that’s breaded and deep-fried, but it’s still technically fried. Just like any other fried food, it improves the flavor, but loses major points in the nutrition category. Instead, opt for fresh vegetables and sources of protein that haven’t been doused in oil before arriving to your table.
3. Sauce is (basically) the main ingredient
Though “Spaghetti with Meat Sauce” sounds like a standard item on any Italian-style menu, that says a lot about how much sauce you’re actually getting. About half of that plate is probably sauce — and that’s bad news for your blood pressure. Like most condiments, sauces should only compliment a food — in very small amounts. Otherwise, you’ll overload your system with sodium before you’re even halfway finished with dinner.
At least when a food comes with a side of sauce or dip, you get to decide how much of it goes into your mouth. If a food is already “smothered” (watch out for that word, too) in any kind of sauce, you can bet its sodium and fat content is too high to justify. It’s easy to order salad dressing on the side, but when an entree comes that way, it’s probably best to skip it — or order a smaller portion, if possible.
4. It’s ‘crispy’
Crispy chicken, even in a salad, isn’t worth the crusted, crunchy goodness. Livestrong.com says regularly eating fried food increases your risk for a number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Though it’s sometimes hard to imagine today’s chicken nuggets could give you cancer, habits are difficult to detect — and even harder to break.
If you’re trying to avoid fried food as much as possible, keep an eye out for other words that imply something is fried. Fritters, breaded or crusted vegetables, and anything browned or golden usually signals trouble. Also, frying something in a pan isn’t any healthier than deep-frying it. When you have the option, always choose grilled meats or steamed veggies to make a meal much healthier.
5. It’s ‘creamy’
It’s not uncommon to see the word “creamy” next to a dessert or blended drink. You might also see it appear on other menu sections as well — and in that context, it might throw you off. Soups, salad dressings, gravies, and pasta sauces are salty, high in calories, and full of fat. Yet when paired with your favorite less creamy foods, you might be tempted to let those details slide.
Something creamy usually means there’s cream in it — and that’s almost never a good sign. Olive Garden’s creamy Alfredo sauce, for example, is a blend of flour, garlic, butter, milk, heavy cream, black pepper, and two types of cheese. That’s a lot of saturated fat — and salt — in just one sauce. Smothering your pasta in cream sauce makes for a great texture and taste. Your heart and tongue simply won’t agree on whether or not it’s a risk worth taking.
6. What is aioli, anyway?
That juicy burger topped with aioli looks heavenly — but it’s not nearly as glorious as it sounds. While its name implies something exotic — maybe even something healthy — aioli is just a fancy term for “garlic mayonnaise.” According to Food Republic, it did technically originate in France. However, like french toast and french fries, the aioli on your burger is about as American as the burger itself.
Aioli, like mayonnaise, is a mixture of egg yolks, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Add a few garlic cloves and you’re left with a creamy, flavorful sauce that’s exceptionally hard to resist. You can resist, though. You don’t need a fancy-sounding not-actually-French sauce to complete that burger. You’re better off without it (and so is the burger).
7. ‘Served with your choice of … ‘
Restaurants will take any opportunity to make you feel like you’re in control. Many menu items involve making at least one choice in addition to having you pick what you want from a list. Denny’s takes it to the extreme, offering 14 side options to choose from along with a Country Fried Steak. There aren’t many healthy sides on that list — and the wording suggests you absolutely have to pick two before you can place your order.
Here’s what they don’t actually tell you — you can choose one; you can choose neither. While many restaurants charge for specific substitutions and additions, it doesn’t cost extra to say no to a side dish. Menus are much more customizable than you think — they just aren’t written that way. If you don’t want to choose between creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables, create a third option — say no to both.