Restaurant Survival Guide Part I: Sit-Down Restaurants.

Different people eat out for different reasons. Whether you live a hectic lifestyle, you are on the road for work or you just enjoy eating out, it is important to make good food choices. Knowing how to select healthy menu items is especially important if you are someone who eats out very often. Unfortunately, this is sometimes easier said than done. Restaurants offer so many enticing options that it can be hard to determine what the healthiest selections are.

That’s where I come in. In today’s article I will review the menus of seven of the highest grossing sit-down restaurants in Canada and provide you my suggestions for the healthiest food items available on these menus. I will not be including traditional fast-food chains ( McDonalds, Subway,KFC, Harveys,Pizza Pizza) in today’s analysis but will include Tim Horton’s due to its strong presence in the Canadian food market. When I make my selections, I will primarily consider how healthy I believe the dish to be, but will also try to take into the account the general appeal of the food item.

Sit Down Restaurant Survival Guide

In order to arrive at my selections, I carefully reviewed each and every menu. It’s safe to say that some choices were easier than others and that some restaurant’s offerings were not very impressive. I also tried my best to actually make palatable and intriguing selections so that you won’t always be seeing green salad as the primary selection.

I will not go into great detail to justify each of my selections, but know that I am selecting what I feel to be healthiest choice for most people. I took into consideration the way the food is prepared, calorie-content, nutrient content and food group balance. If I appear to have picked something that seems inherently unhealthy , keep in mind that it probably represents the best of a group of unhealthy offerings at that particular restaurant. I adopted the mindset that I was sitting down in this restaurant, and I had to order something, so what would I order? ( Presented in no particular order)

1) Moxie’s

Best Starter: Sushi Cones / Lettuce Wraps – A tie, select the one that appeals to you.

Best Soup/Salad: Kale & Quinoa Salad – Served with chicken, pumpking seeds, currants.

Best Brunch: Mediterranean Scrambler – Eggs, tomato, spinach, feta with potatoes. 

Best Main: Haddock with lemon quinoa – Served with sauteed kale and edamame.

Best Burger/Sandwhich: Chicken Souvlaki / Fish Tacos – A tie, choose what suits you.

2) Montana’s

Best Starter: Meatless Nachos/ Steak Bites/ Southwestern Potato Skins – Three-way tie. 

Best Main: Fire Grilled Pineaple Salsa Salmon – Served with rice and veggies.

Best Sandwich/Burger: Chicken Tacos – Tacos with grilled chicken, cheese and veggies.

Best Salad: Apple-Pecan Harvest Salad – Mixed greens with apples, pecans, cheese etc.

Best Lunch: Fire Grilled Salmon – It looked so good that I had to pick it a second time.

3) Earl’s

Best Starter: Tuna Tataki/ Dynamite Prawn Roll/ Singapore Cauliflower – Three-way tie. 

Best Noodle/Rice bowl Bibibamp – A Korean dish with rice, egg and veggies.  

Best Main: Steelhead Salmon – Served with brown rice, arugula AND vegetables. A+!

Best Salad: Kale Salad – With potatoes, chicken, veggies. Ask for dressing on the side.

4) The Keg

Best Start: Tuna Tartare – Seasoned Ahi tuna served on a fresh avocado.

Best Salad: Mixed Greens-  Field greens and garden vegetables in a vinaigrette dressing.

Best Steak: Top Sirloin – Selected for its cominbation of leanness, flavour and value.

Best Non-Beef Main: Oven Baked Salmon – Served with rice and asparagus.

Best Side: Mixed vegetables- You also have the option to ask for them steamed. 

5) Boston Pizza 

Best Salad: Garden Greens – A blend of garden and artisan greens served with balsamic. 

Best Main: Lemon Baked Salmon Fillet – Wild salmon served with veggies and greens.

Best Pizza:  Make your own – Include veggies and avoid smoked/processed meats.

Best Starter: None that I can honestly suggest-  Roll the dice on the soup of the day?

6) Swiss Chalet

Best Main:  Quarter Chicken (white) – with side garden salad/ vegetables/baked potato.

Best Starter: Garden Salad – Lettuce, tomato, carrots, peppers, cabbage and more. 

Best Pasta/Rice: Chicken Teriyaki Stirfry – Rice, chicken and tons of veggies.

Best Entree Salad: Sweet Heat Salad/ Spinach Mandarin Chicken Salad- A tie.

7) Tim Horton’s

Best Breakfast: Homestyle Oatmeal – Opt for the plain variety most often.

Best Baked Goods: Timbit – Yes, a single timbit. The best 45 calories you will ever have.

Best Beverage:  Regular Coffee/Tea – Skip the other fancier drinks most of the time.

Best Lunch: Grilled Lunch Wraps – The lesser of some other evils.

8) Hooter’s***

*** This is not a joke. Hooter’s is a bonus selection which I have included on the advice of my good friend who is an airplane pilot. He travels frequently and often is in new places at late hours. For those that may not know, Hooters happens to be one of the only sit-down restaurant chains that is regularly open very late. 

Sides: Side Garden or Caesar Salad – Have you ever been to Hooter’s? This one was easy.

Sandwhiches/Burger: The Big Fish Sandwich – Get it grilled rather than fried.

Main: Steamed Shrimp/Alaskan Crab Legs/Oysters –  All reasonable choices.

Appetizers aka Hootertizers: Chicken or Beef Quesadilla – Not great but another tie. 

If I omitted a category at a certain restaurant ( ie: wings at Hooter’s) it is because I felt that I could not respectfully endorse any of the options available. Please remember that the selections above represent my best interpretation, as a dietitian, of the healthiest food selections available at each restaurant for each category. For those of you who frequent sit-down restaurants that do not happen to be in the list above, I provide some quick tips below for you to follow to help guide your menu selections. 

Quick Tips for Dining Out

1) Choose vegetables as a side whenever possible. Even if they are not always listed on the menu, most restaurants will offer some form of vegetables as a side dish and also as a substitute for items such as french fries in main dishes. Ask for your vegetables steamed whenever possible, especially if you are concerned about your calorie intake. Salad’s are often a great choice as well ( more on this below). 

2) Choose whole potatoes. Most restaurants will serve potatoes in a variety of forms across their mains and side dishes. Choose a plain baked potato most often over higher calorie, higher fat alternatives such as mashed potatoes or french fries. Add any potato toppings yourself so you can control the amount.

3) Avoid dishes that appear to be heavy on cheese or cream as these ingredients tend to add alot of calories to a meal without much extra nutrient value. You can also ask to hold the cheese on certain mains and salads that might otherwise sound very appealing. 

4) Ask for sauces and/or dressings on the side. If a dish you are interested in appears heavy in sauces or dressings, ask for these on the side so you can better control the amount that goes on your food. If you are having a salad, opt for oil and vinegar. Keep in mind that most sauces and dressings are high in calories and sodium.

5) Be strategic about appetizers. I will  be honest in saying that many of the appetizers I encounter are not great health-wise. If you do eat an appetizer, try to select what you feel is the healthiest one and share it amongst those you are with. You can also select a salad to start, which would be an even better option. Try to choose salads that contain mostly vegetables (skip the cheese and bacon bits) and contain dark leafy greens, the darker the better. 

6) Choose protein-based mains that are grilled, baked or broiled rather than fried. Whenever possible, select proteins such as sirloin, chicken breast, salmon over wings, ribs and burgers. Avoid regularly selecting protein-based mains that are heavily dressed with cheese or sauces.

7) Choose higher fibre grain options whenever possible. Opt for brown rice and whole wheat pasta over white rice or white pasta. Not all restaurants will offer this alternative, but it does not hurt to ask.

8) Pass on the bread at the beginning of the meal. This applies particularly if you are trying to watch the amount you eat. Ask your server not to bring it out at all if that is okay with the people you are dining with. The bread on offer is generally low in nutrients and fibre and your better off saving your appetite for a more nutritious main or a starter salad. 

9) Hold the drinks. Drinks can be expensive and also an unexpected source of additional calories. If you are drinking, try to be mindful and moderate.

10) Desserts are always tough. Ideally you would not order dessert too frequently, but I suppose the best alternative is to select desserts that are smaller in size and opt to share them with multiple people. Feel free to disregard this advice if it’s a truly special event. 

I sincerely hope that today’s article has proven useful to those of you who eat out frequently and sometimes struggle to make the healthiest choices. Please keep in mind that the selections I have provided today represent a combination of my personal and professional opinion. Many of these restaurants offer multiple dishes that I would consider healthy, but the point of today’s exercise was to provide you with a selection in each category that I deemed to be best. I sincerely hope this compilation will be of some value to you. As always, I wish you the best of luck on your food and nutrition journey.


Until next time, Eat Up!
Andy De Santis RD MPH