Olive Garden is a family favorite and thankfully you can dine there while also making healthy food choices (really!). The trick is to plan what you're going to order in advance, be aware of the added calories from dressings and sauces and of course keep those Never-Ending breadsticks in check!
While it can be incredibly tempting to overindulge in yummy bread (or convince yourself that you need to get your money's worth by filling up on "free" food) keeping an eye on your portion sizes of all foods is what will benefit your health. That's not to say you can't enjoy bread — just keep count of those breadsticks. At 140 calories a pop they can add up quick (and that's not even including any dipping sauce).
When dining at Olive Garden, soup or salad and a shrimp entree are going to be your best bets. Nutrition expert Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, told TODAY Food that while these may be healthier choices than other menu items, we still need to watch the sodium levels and drink enough water to counteract all that salt.
"It’s a little tricky at Olive Garden," she said. "There are several items that are generally healthy, but their sodium content puts them in an unhealthy range. For example, the Pasta e Fagioli soup has just 150 calories, not enough for a meal, but still has 710mg of sodium. For reference, the recommended daily intake of sodium is no more than 2300mg."
When it comes to Olive Garden salad and entrees, it's also important to keep the sodium in check.
"If you choose the Famous House Salad and get the low-fat Italian dressing, the calories are a mere 80 and the sodium is a reasonable 520mg, but if you order the House Salad and get the Italian dressing, the sodium bounds up to 1380mg," said Largeman-Roth. "The Shrimp Scampi is a good choice at 480 calories, and plenty of protein from the shrimp. But the sodium is still pretty high at 850mg, so you’ll want to go easy on sodium the rest of the day and drink plenty of water with your meal."
While no foods should be off-limits, especially if you really enjoy them, there are some dishes you should order with caution at Olive Garden.
"The Asiago Tortellini Alfredo with Grilled Chicken has a hefty 1980 calories, basically, a day’s worth, and 131g of fat and 3720mg of sodium, which would put you well over the daily recommendation," says Largeman-Roth. "If this is your fave, I recommend sharing it with 3 to 4 other people, or only eating a portion and bringing the rest home to eat another day."
Likewise, the Tour of Italy, with lasagna, fettuccini Alfredo and Chicken Parmigiana is quite a meal and racks up 1550 calories, 98g fat and 3150mg of sodium. "This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it — just split it with a friend or two," she says.
One smart strategy for your next Olive Garden outing is the tried-and-true method of ordering dressings and sauces on the side. This way, you get to be in charge of what you're eating and you may find that less is more.
"You can always order the dressing on the side and then add as much as you need," says Largeman-Roth. "Some of the lunch-size pastas provide an option for meat sauce or marinara, which allows you to customize your meal and reduce the calories and fat."
Largeman-Roth reminds us, if you are going to have a meal that’s high in sodium, you’ll want to balance it out the rest of the day with plenty it potassium-rich foods like fruits and veggies and drink 8-10 glasses of water.
One of the fun things about going to Olive Garden is ordering apps for the table. If you're trying to make healthier choices, that doesn't mean you need to skip out on this fun part of your meal.
"Split them with the table!" suggested Largeman-Roth. "Most of the apps are fried and provide a large amount of food, so order one or two to share with the table, and don’t go overboard with the accompanying sauces."
Another option is to make an appetizer, or several shared among friends, your main meal. After all, it's the great company that truly makes dining out a pleasurable experience.