Navigating the confusing World of Restaurant Menus - Recipesupermart

Navigating the confusing World of Restaurant Menus

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How to Decode “Menus” and Navigate Any Restaurant Menu

Eating healthy is particularly tricky at restaurants, since even healthy sounding dishes can harbor ingredients that add hundreds more calories than you’d expect. This effect is known as the health halo. Of course, if you want to splurge every now and then I more than encourage it. The trick is making sure you know when you are or aren’t making healthy choices, and doing so intentionally.

Decoding “Menus


Deciphering what is healthy on a menu is not always straightforward. Restaurants have made an art of luring you in with their words and making dishes sound absolutely irresistible, regardless of how they actually taste. Another problem is that dishes that should be healthy, for instance, a Thai chicken salad, are often loaded with secret ingredients (usually extra sugar, salt, and processed oils) that actually cause them to clock in a way over the number of calories you’d expect (according to the nutrition facts, the Thai chicken salad at California Pizza Kitchen has 1,160 calories). To avoid these traps you need to first learn to decipher menus, and then tailor your ordering and special requests to remove the worst offenders.

You already know to avoid foods that are obviously very processed, focus on whole foods, and make sure there is something green on your plate. Once you’ve gotten that far, the biggest issues are usually sauces and toppings. Sugar, oil, and salt make foods taste better, and when restaurants use low-quality (i.e., bad-tasting) ingredients, they aren’t shy about compensating for this by using as many sweet or creamy sauces as possible. Think of these ingredients—the flavour trifecta of sugar, fat, and salt—as make-up for your food. A small amount of the good stuff (e.g., butter or cheese), used tastefully and with restraint, can enhance and beautify a dish. But too much of it is a sign that people are covering up something they don’t want you to see.

Words to Watch Out For

How do you know if a restaurant is trying to mask its food with shameless flavour enhancers? Several code words and descriptions can tip you off to this sort of culinary cover-up. Sugar, for example, tends to be sticky, so words like “glaze” and even “sticky” itself are a good sign there is extra sweetener around. Similarly, anything that’s “crispy” or “crusted” has likely been covered in a batter made from processed wheat or corn and soaked in oil at high temperatures. Fortunately, there are also words that signify more healthily prepared dishes. “Roasted,” “grilled,” or “spiced” foods have extra flavour without extra calories.


Sometimes it’s hard to find something on a menu that isn’t smothered in sugar or dredged in bread crumbs. At this point try to simply find the dish that sounds the best and ask your server to leave off the crispy wontons and bring you a side of spinach instead. Once you know what to look for, making the right call will start to come naturally.

Taking the menu as a whole, bear in mind that the majority of appetizers are likely fat traps–spring rolls, crab rangoon, dips and chips, stuffed mushrooms, garlic bread, chowders, and so on. When it comes to main courses, many dishes are naturally creamy and/or cheesy, such as lasagna, moussaka, butter chicken, coconut-milk curries. Steaks are high in fat to begin with (they’re also usually large), but they often come with high-fat toppings such as blue cheese or fried mushrooms and onions.

Other descriptions that scream ‘high fat’ are:

  • A la creme
  • aioli
  • alfredo
  • au gratin
  • battered
  • bearnaise
  • breaded
  • carbonara
  • chimichanga
  • creamed or creamy
  • crispy
  • en croute
  • enchilada
  • fondue
  • golden
  • hollandaise
  • sautéed
  • smothered
  • sweet and sour
  • taco
  • tempura
  • whipped




Remember, too, that vegetable side dishes often come swimming in butter, so be sure to ask for steamed veggies. Salads are routinely drowned in thick or oily dressings, so ask for yours on the side and dip into them sparingly.

As for dessert, well, it’s probably best you skip dessert altogether, or if you decided to forgo appetizers, you could split one. But bear in mind, almost every dessert on offer will be very high in fat: apple pie a la mode, creme brulee, cheesecake, ice cream sundae, Mississippi Mud Pie, Coconut ice cream, mousse, zabaglione, the cheese plate. It’s a healthy eater’s nightmare.

So when you eat out, scour the menu for healthier options: think grilled, broiled, steamed, baked and roasted, and watch for fatty add-ons and side dishes. If in doubt, ask, and don’t be afraid to request some modifications to suit your diet. Most restaurants will try and accommodate such requests, especially if you ask nicely!




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