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The 10 Healthiest Menu Items of 2011

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We have seen many restaurants update their menus this year to provide patrons with healthier options. The new Kids Live Well campaign provides families with healthier choices when eating away from home to help kids maintain a healthy weight. While some reports suggest the new healthy options aren't popular, many restaurant chains aren't giving up and are striving to be on board with the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign.
Throughout 2011, we have highlighted some of the healthier fast food and casual dining options in our Food on the Run and Diet Friendly Dining reviews. Here are 10 of the healthiest menu options we've seen this year:


Starbucks Chicken & Hummus Bistro Box
Calories – 270
Fat – 8 grams
Sodium – 520 mg
Carbohydrate – 29 grams
Fiber – 6 grams
Protein – 16 grams
What They Say: The new Bistro Box options make it easy to enjoy fast, deliciously wholesome foods while on the go.  
What We Say: The wheat pita, fresh cucumber, carrot sticks, and grape tomatoes with hummus and grilled chicken do provide a nutrient-rich meal away from home. We really like that this option contains a sodium level that easily fits in many meal plans. One negative is that not all Starbucks locations offer lunch while others only offer a few of the new box options so this one might not always be available.

IHOP Simple & Fit Spinach, Mushroom & Tomato Omelette with Fresh Fruit
Calories – 330
Fat – 12 grams
Sodium – 690 mg
Carbohydrate – 31 grams
Fiber – 5 grams
Protein – 29 grams
What They Say: This nutritionally-conscious update of an American breakfast favorite makes it easy to eat out when you are trying to eat right.
What We Say: This protein rich omelet, made with egg substitute, is filled with fresh spinach, mushrooms, onions and Swiss cheese with diced tomatoes on top to offer a nutrient-rich breakfast with a reasonable sodium content. The fresh fruit side creates a well-balanced breakfast that will stick with you all morning long. To minimize sodium, remember to request "no added salt" when ordering.

Applebee's Asiago Peppercorn Steak with Herb Potatoes and Seasonal Vegetables
Calories – 380
Fat – 14 grams
Sodium – 1,520 mg
Carbohydrate – 25 grams
Fiber – 5 grams
Protein – 44 grams
What They Say: A classic 7 oz. sirloin, grilled and topped with cracked peppercorns and melted Asiago cheese served with steamed herb potatoes and seasonal vegetables provides an unbelievably great tasting meal.

What We Say: Though it's a step in the right direction, this meal still has a day's worth of salt! If you're watching your sodium intake, choose another option. But at under 400 calories--with plenty of protein and iron--this meal is a big plus for this casual dining restaurant.

McDonald's Hamburger Happy Meal with Apple Slices and Low-fat Milk
Calories – 390
Fat – 11 grams
Sodium – 650 mg
Carbohydrate – 51 grams
Fiber – 2 grams
Protein – 20 grams
What They Say: With busy family lives, finding the balance between grabbing a quick bite and choosing a meal can be a challenge. The new, healthier Happy Meal can help by providing more nutritious options than ever before.

What We Say: Although any food can be incorporated into a healthy diet in moderation, offering a Happy Meal without fried foods and a serving of a fruit and milk is the healthiest meal possible. These new meals that focus on fruit and milk help families take small steps to new lifestyle choices.

Cheesecake Factory SkinnyLicious Grilled Chicken
Calories – 560
Fat – 2 grams saturated
Sodium – 1,252 mg
Carbohydrate – 20 grams
What They Say: A lightly pounded and charbroiled chicken breast topped with a tomato and arugula salad and parmesan. Add a nice garnish of steamed white rice and asparagus and you have a health conscious meal.

What We Say: Large portion sizes at this restaurant are the norm, but with this dish they have maximized the nutrition. By pounding the meat so it is thinner, they create a plate-size meal without the plate-size calories. Add the fiber-focused topper that lends a bruschetta flavor and you get great taste for the right portion and calorie size where you wouldn't expect to find it. This high sodium meal might not be right for everyone, but you can lower the impact slightly by asking for "no added salt" when ordering.

Denny's Fit Slam Breakfast
Calories – 390
Fat – 12 grams
Sodium – 850 mg
Carbohydrate – 46 grams
Fiber – 5 grams
Protein – 27 grams
What They Say: This complete breakfast combines scrambled egg whites with fresh spinach and grape tomatoes with two turkey bacon strips, English muffin and a side of seasonal fruit.
What We Say: Fresh spinach, grape tomatoes, and egg whites--key ingredients in this breakfast--are staples in many healthy restaurant breakfast options these days. They provide appealing nutrition, color, texture, and taste. This meal has a moderate amount of sodium and fat, making it suitable for a variety of individuals' needs. It is a protein-rich breakfast that will stick with you all morning long without breaking your calorie bank.

T.G.I. Friday's Spinach Florentine Flatbread
Calories – 410
Fat – 23 grams
Sodium – 1,280 mg
Carbohydrate – 31 grams
Fiber – 3 grams
Protein – 19 grams
What They Say: This Right Portion, Right Price menu option provides a great tasting creamy spinach and artichoke heart spread over an over-baked crispy flatbread. Topped with a bruschetta mix of diced tomatoes, garlic and chopped basil and you get a great tasting appetizer.
What We Say: Although intended to be an appetizer, this flatbread makes a great calorie-conscious entrée option. Add a side of seasonal fruit to round out your meal (and add a boost of potassium), and drink plenty of water to balance out the high sodium content.

Red Lobster LightHouse Rock Lobster with Fresh Broccoli and Garden Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Calories – 305
Fat – 10 grams
Sodium – 985 mg
Carbohydrate – 23 grams
What They Say: This smart choice is naturally low in fat and a good source of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids as well as a delicious meal that fits into a healthy lifestyle.

What We Say: This is one of many LightHouse options that offer nutrient-rich and calorie-conscious meals away from home. The restaurant's Smart Meal Calculator provides an easy way to plan ahead to find the right combinations for you that are less than 500 calories and 15-20 grams of fat.

Bob Evans Fit From the Farm Apple-Cranberry Spinach Salad with Reduced-fat Raspberry Dressing
Calories – 372
Fat – 14 grams
Sodium – 437 mg
Carbohydrate – 48 grams
Fiber – 6 grams
Protein – 15 grams
What They Say: Enjoy a bed of fresh baby spinach topped with slow-roasted chicken, crisp apples, sweet dried cranberries, and honey-roasted pecans without ruining your healthy eating efforts.
What We Say: This salad, as well as many of the other Fit from the Farm items, helps you meet your recommended meal guidelines. Finding a complete restaurant meal with less than 500 mg of sodium is difficult. For those who are sodium sensitive, this is one of your better options when eating away from home--and it's low in calories with a moderate amount of fat.

Carl's Jr. Teriyaki Turkey Burger
Calories – 470
Fat – 14 grams
Sodium – 1,120 mg
Carbohydrate – 55 grams
Fiber – 3 grams
Protein – 32 grams
What They Say: Few regional chains have tried including turkey burgers on the menu until now. Now you can enjoy a charbroiled turkey burger with grilled pineapple, teriyaki glaze, Swiss cheese, red onion, lettuce, and tomato on a honey wheat bun.
What We Say: Calorie-wise, turkey burgers are a better choice than other burgers, with almost half the calories. However, if you're watching your sodium, you'll want to skip this one. The burger and the teriyaki sauce contain a great deal of salt.
While restaurants still have a long way to go, these better-for-you options are a step in the right direction. We hope other eateries are taking note and planning to make 2012 their healthiest year ever.  

Which restaurant chain would you like to see update their menus in the New Year?

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An attempt to order in a restaurant a healthy meal and not the special. Report
Thanks. Report
I just don't go to fast food places. If I eat out, it's usually Thai. I ask for an extra portion of steamed vegetables in place of the rice, so I get fish or seafood + lots of vegetables. Perfect! Report
I would love to see Sonic come out with something healthy!! My family goes there often because it is so close to my house, and it would be nice to order something there that it healthy!!
I also love the information and just wish that more restaurants would create healthy meals that didn't involve white meat chicken, because I'm allergic to it!! Report
Real good info, getting ready to go be there for the birth of my first grandchild, 700 miles away... lots of miles and fast food temptaions.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!!!!!! Report
great info Report
great info Report
great info Report
We eat food from something other than home about twice a month. I was expecting to see something I could make. Report
I agree with DBClarinet, Subway is gross! If you are going to go somewhere know that they aren't going to be making things that healthy. For example, McDonalds is a fast food joint, not a cool bistro for healthy folks in CA. Cheesecake Factory is for a treat, but lets not be glutenous. Take some home for the next day.

Research and be ready. I know I will no longer eat the broccoli soup at Ruby Tuesdays!! Holy Cow! I thought it was good with broccoli and veggies, thanks spark for teaching me the ropes. Sonic really doesn't have anything so I just drive by. You live and you learn.

rumbamel Report
Subway is disgusting. Rubber chicken, anyone?

I appreciate that restaurants are trying to incorporate more healthy choices, but I wish a "healthy" breakfast didn't mean egg whites. They're so boring and flavorless, and the yolks are good for you anyway!

Out of this list, I think the Red Lobster choice is the winner. It's all real food: no "low fat" salad dressings full of added sugars, no "egg whites no yolks" b.s. going on, just lobster, broccoli, salad, and dressing!

For the record, if I'm going to Cheesecake Factory, I'm not worrying about my diet for that meal. No, I'm not going to pick the biggest cheese-laden thing I can find, and I am going to split my cheesecake with my husband, but I'm definitely not going to worry about calories with that one. If you're worried, don't eat there! Report
For all of you who keep saying these are NOT healthy choices......of course they're not! The point of this article is to say that these are healthiER options than the regular menu items you find at most chain restaurants. It's letting us know that we can make BETTER choices if we're going to go out to eat. When I crave a hamburger, I'm going to have one. It's just good to know that I can get the happy meal hamburger and fulfill my craving but not completely sabotage my diet. We're all smart enough to know that McDonald's is not a healthy place to eat. Nor is T.G.I.Fridays, etc. But let's be honest......you wouldn't exactly have a line out the door if someone opened a restaurant that served only truly healthy meals. The health and wellness industry is a billion dollar industry because most Americans want the quick and easy way to health and wellness. The fact that our chain restaurants are ALSO billion dollar money makers tells us we're not TRULY interested in the common sense approach to getting healthy. There are some of us who really are willing to do whatever it takes to get healthy and stay that way. But even then, we want to splurge every now and then. I know a hamburger isn't good for me. But sometimes, if I haven't had one for months, I just want one. I think the point of the article was that, even when you are going to splurge, you can still do so responsibly. But splurges still have to be in moderation. Okay, off my soap box now. :) Report
realize that these menu items are not exactly healthy,but spark didn't say that they are healthy...they are just the healthiest on the restaurant menus... Report
I had the I HOP omelet on Saturday (thanks to having read this article! otherwise I probably would have ordered something disgusting and "bad"). It was actually very good. I would happily order it again if I find myself at IHOP.
Martha Report
Subway...Subway...Subway. You control what they put in and doing a veggie wrap or veggie 6" whole wheat - no cheese - no dressing - has to blow all of these away. The sodium contents of these suggetions certainly has them off my list. Report
Any of these restaurants are bad for you regardless of what you order if you make a steady diet of them. Some of the worst food for you are the ones ignorant folks want to force you to eat.

Anything with over 550mg of Sodium is bad for you regardless of how much fat, carbs, or calories it contains.

Learn how to eat in moderation and try a little exercise. Eating a Big Mac isn't bad for you in moderation, drinking water can kill you if you over do it to extreme. Report
I have a local (non-chain!) Asian restaurant that offers a section of the menu for health-conscious people. There are several low fat and sodium and even no fat and sodium selections. They also offer brown rice! Needless to say, this restaurant get a lot of business from me! I do like the Applebees Under 550 menu, but can't eat there often because of the sodium. I'm hoping they get the message about salt. After all, people can use the shaker on the table if it isn't salty enough for them! There are a lot of us out here who eat only at restaurants where we know we can eat a healthy meal. That's a lot of money. I hope more and more of them get the clue. Report
Hmmmm, think this blog is deceiving being called "healthiest". While the calorie content of many of these dishes are low (for a restaurant) in order for something to be "healthy" it needs to be balanced. Many of these items have too much sodium, fat & carbs in proportion to the fiber and protein offered. Report
I would love to see Chili's update their Menu. Denny's and Chili's are the only options available where we live. (And hubby prefers Chili's over Denny's) Report
I usually avoid chain restos like the plague. That said, I do like Starbucks for a breakfast/lunch option when I'm traveling, especially now that they have smoothies and sandwiches. Good to know that there are some decent real meals there for me!

Like another commenter said, I'd love to see sugar content for these meals. You'd be shocked by how many savory restaurant entrees have corn syrup in them! I try very very hard to avoid all added sugars, so I really like having that information. Report
Is there any way you could list sugar content? Report
Thanks for the great suggestions/food to watch for! We don't eat out often but it REALLY helps to have those ideas in mind if/when the occasion arises.

I ESPECIALLY appreciate your pointing out the SODIUM content!! Alot of things are touted as "healthy" --- yet I find I can't TOUCH them due to such high sodium content!!! Very frustrating since I have to be very careful with my sodium intake (like I can't eat most grilled chicken -- often a healthy option at restaurants -- but not for me!)... Report
It is great to see so many making more healthy options. Report
I don't frequent chain restaurants. Living in Canada, most of these restaurants are not available, not much of a loss I'd say, and those that are, often don't offer the same chouces on the menu. Report
Most people eat out to enjoy the food, so "healthy" isn't their first concern. My DD works as a waitress at a "Steak House" and she talks about this all the time, how people come in and say to each other "Oh, I'm on a DIET, but I'll have this just for now....." LOL Report
I'm very happy to see restaurants creating healthier meals. Of the ones listed, I've had Cheesecake Factory's Skinnylicious Grilled Chicken. I found it to be quite delicious and I didn't feel as though I was eating "diet" food. Report
Unfortunately I was at Applebee's last weekend and they have removed the Asiago Peppercorn steak from the menu. I went on line and lodged a complaint with them as there is now no longer any gluten free items on the under 550 calorie menu! Report
These foods might go to the gym, workout & see their Dr regularly, making them healthy, but they are definately NOT healthful! A lot of them have well above the recommended amounts of sodium! Report
It seems funny that I read this blog this AM. My BF wanted to know what I wanted at McDonald's last night. I told him a happy meal. He looked at me like I was nuts. Of course my meal was like a total of 400 calories. His was 440 calories for the sandwich. Super Size fries another 610. And he's the diabetic not me. It all comes down to choices. Either you choose wisely, or you don't. Today, I am happy I made the wiser decision because all of those add up in the long run to a healthier me. Report
I never knew Starbucks offered that! I will have to keep my eyes open at the different ones I pass to see if they have food. Thanks! Report
Great list. The Starbucks meal looks especially appealing. I never go there. Maybe I will now. Report
I live on a military base in Korea. We only have Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Subway as choices. Report
Great list, but we don't have any of those places here, but McDonald's and we don't go there very often. =) Sounds like some yummy food, though! Report
I'd love to see more with drive thru foods like Taco Bell and Burger King. Thanks for this list tho. Report
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