Soup or sandwich? Burrito or tacos? Pancakes or eggs? Here’s how to wade through some popular choices on restaurant menus. In some cases, a winner is clear. But win or lose, everyone could use some tips to up their restaurant game. Our numbers are from chains, but most winners and tips should hold up elsewhere.
You Pick Two: Soup, salad, or sandwich?
Winners: Salad and sandwich. At chains like Panera or Corner Bakery, salad is a no-brainer for half your “pick two” combo. Hello, vegetables!
Your second pick—a cup of soup or half a sandwich—is trickier. Don’t bet on soup. Most are salt bombs. Panera’s typically pack 700 to 1,000 milligrams of sodium—30 to 40 percent of a day’s max—in just a cup.
And soups are typically light on the protein you’d get in a sandwich. Most of Panera’s have just 3 to 6 grams of protein per cup. (Exception: the Turkey Chili with beans has 14 grams.)
Which half sandwich? Look for chicken, tuna, turkey, or hummus and veggies rather than cheese, steak, ham, or bacon. Panera’s winners: Napa Almond Chicken Salad, Tuna Salad, Turkey, or Mediterranean Veggie.
Tip: Ordering a half (or full) sandwich at Panera? The White Whole Grain bread—it’s got more whole wheat than refined flour—is the best you can do. And for your side, an apple beats a baguette (more bread) or chips (more starch).
Thai stir-fry or noodles?
Winner: Thai stir-fry. That means vegetables—not stir-fried noodles—with sautéed chicken, seafood, or tofu. Some stir-fry winners: pad pak (mixed vegetables), pad king (ginger, mushrooms, onions), and pad prik king (green beans). They’re bulked up with vegetables, not with the refined-carb noodles in dishes like pad Thai, pad see ew, pad woon sen, or pad kee mao (drunken noodles).
Stir-fries also trounce creamy Thai curries, which are drenched in saturated fat from coconut milk. You can lose some by spooning the vegetables, chicken, or whatever over the rice on your plate...leaving most of the sauce behind.
Tip: At Thai restaurants, the rice for veggie stir-fries (or curries) typically comes on the side, so you get to decide how much to have. A cup adds 200 calories.
Love noodles? To lighten yours, mix in a side order of steamed veggies. There’s probably plenty of sauce to spare.
Tacos or burrito?
Winner: Tacos. A burrito comes wrapped in a giant flour tortilla—Chipotle’s has 320 calories—plus white or brown rice (210 calories), so it doesn’t stand a chance. That’s how a chicken burrito with rice, beans, sour cream, cheese, and salsa can end up with 1,000+ calories.
In contrast, the tally for three crispy chicken tacos is about 750 calories (800 if made with soft flour tortillas).
To cut a burrito’s calories, lose the tortilla. If a bowl with lettuce, chicken, beans, cheese, and salsa isn’t enough, add brown rice.
Tip: A burrito or three tacos has about three-quarters of a day’s saturated fat. Get cheese or sour cream (not both) to drop it down to half a day’s.
Latte or macchiato?
Winner: A regular latte...or a classic macchiato. A regular latte—a Caffè Latte at Starbucks—means no flavored syrups. So you get the basics: steamed and foamed milk plus espresso. What you don’t get: the four pumps of syrup in, say, a grande (16 oz.) Starbucks Blonde Vanilla Latte. (That adds 4 teaspoons of sugar, we estimate.)
Likewise, a grande Caramel Macchiato adds three pumps of sugary syrup plus a caramel drizzle to espresso and milk, for the same calories (250) as the vanilla latte.
Tip: A classic Italian macchiato—Starbucks calls it an Espresso Macchiato—is just espresso with a dollop of steamed and foamed milk. It’s a few sips with few calories (15 in a “doppio”) and intense flavor.
Gyro or souvlaki?
Winner: Chicken souvlaki. At a Middle Eastern or Greek eatery, the red meat—typically fattier beef or lamb gyro meat—won’t do your heart any favors. Chicken souvlaki or chicken shawarma is a leaner pick for your platter, salad, or pita.
At The Halal Guys chain, for example, a beef gyro pita has about 600 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat—that’s half a day’s max. A chicken pita drops the sat fat to just 2 grams (and cuts 200 calories).
Tip: Prefer plant-based? Falafel also beats gyros. The chickpea fritters have more calories and less protein than chicken, but unhealthy fat is no problem. They’re typically fried in unsaturated oil.
Chicken tikka or chicken tikka masala?
Winner: Chicken tikka. At an Indian restaurant, chicken (“murgh”) tikka is grilled boneless chicken chunks that have been marinated in yogurt and spices. (Chicken tandoori—a grilled, bone-in half chicken—is similar.) But chicken tikka masala envelops its chicken chunks in a tomato curry sauce made with heavy cream. Incoming!
That doesn’t mean all masalas are creamy. Chana masala, for example, simmers chickpeas in a tangy, cream-free tomato sauce that’s mildly spicy. It’s a vegetarian winner.
Tip: Does the restaurant cook its dishes in ghee (clarified butter) or (typically unsaturated) vegetable oil? You can’t tell unless you ask.
Salad or bowl?
Winner: Salad. At a build-your-own “fast-casual” place like Sweetgreen, it’s hard to beat a salad.
That doesn’t mean you should never go near a bowl, though. It’s just that the bowls’ base has grains, not just greens, so it’s easier to wind up with more food—and calories—than you might want. At Sweetgreen, for example, most of the salads have 400 to 500 calories, while the bowls go from 500 to 700. (The side of bread that comes with either one adds 80 calories.)
A Harvest Bowl—Sweetgreen’s most popular bowl for five straight years, with its wild rice, kale, sweet potatoes, apples, almonds, chicken, goat cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette—clocks in at 685 calories.
Tip: At fast-casuals, you’re the chef. Knock the Harvest Bowl down to 550 calories by swapping the rice for more greens. Or drop the cheese and sweet potato and you’re at 530. Or lose the cheese and half the dressing and you’ve hit 520.
Pancakes or eggs?
Winner: Eggs. At IHOP, even a “short stack” of Original Buttermilk Pancakes means three. That’s 450 calories—370 if you skip the butter—before you add syrup. It’s a short stack of mostly white flour.
But with eggs, you’ve got options. Take IHOP’s “build your own” omelette. You could ask for egg whites and veggies (like peppers, onions, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes) with a side of fresh fruit, for 390 calories. That’s about the same as the no-syrup, no-butter pancakes, but with more protein, fiber, fruits, and vegetables (and less sodium). You’ve also dodged the processed meat (ham, bacon, or sausage) that’s everywhere on a.m. menus.
Tip: Prefer pancakes? Go a la carte. Order a couple of scrambled eggs or egg whites, and split a short stack or a side of pancakes—and maybe some fruit—with a friend.