Healthy Menu Navigator: American

What should you steer clear of besides the bacon cheese burger? Here's how to order healthy dishes off any American restaurant menu.
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To keep your burger (relatively) healthy, load it up with veggies, Bauer says. And maybe skip the bun. (Photo:


Even if you know to steer clear of the bread basket, it turns out the average restaurant meal clocks in at a whopping 1,128 calories—yep, 1,128—making it easy for even the most health-savvy among us to think we’re eating well while eating out, when we’re not.

HealthyMenuNavigatorFinal Enter nutritionist-author Heather Bauer, of Bread is the Devil and Bestowed fame—and our culinary compass. Each week, Bauer steers us toward the healthiest choices on restaurant menus of any type.

Last week, it was eating healthy at a food truck. This week, American! Happy eating, everyone.

Heather Bauer’s American menu navigational nugget

“Stick to protein and veggies,” Bauer says—and don’t be afraid to push a tiny bit to get what you want (a life lesson, perhaps?). “Even when veggies aren’t listed as sides, I always look at the dishes on the menu to see what vegetables they’re cooking with,” she explains. “If there’s lots of kale in their dishes, for example—I know they’ll have kale in the kitchen. Then I can ask for it as my side.”



1. Any starter salad with a vinaigrette dressing—and go easy on the cheese.

2. A veggie side—as a starter. Anything sautéed or steamed is a good bet, but get it without the sauce (or ask for it on the side). Roasted vegetables, like kale or Brussels sprouts, also start the meal off right. “They provide that crunch and texture,” Bauer says. Plus, picking at them sort of approximates the experience of digging into a plate of french fries…


1. A turkey burger, veggie burger, or plain ol’ fashioned hamburger—but with some caveats. Really think about the restaurant, Bauer says. If it’s the type of joint that prides itself on its clean, high-quality ingredients, go ahead and order the burger base of your choice. But in other restaurants, “healthier” options (think veggie, quinoa, or turkey burgers) are actually packed with calories, thickeners, and “bread crumbs galore,” Bauer says. Always go easy on the cheese, and load your burger up with veggies (like sprouts, lettuce, tomato, peppers, and pickles, if you’re not salt sensitive). Maybe even bypass the bun for a lettuce wrap, or just eat it open-faced.

2. A turkey sandwich on rye. Ask for it with low-sodium turkey and lettuce, tomato, and mustard.

3. A BLT. Yes, really! But ask them to go easy on the mayo (or skip it altogether), and see if turkey bacon’s an option.

4. If you’re at a farm-to-table joint, any grilled protein with a side of vegetables is usually a good bet, Bauer says.


1. Chicken wings. Every wing is 100 calories before you dip it in blue cheese. Put that to memory.

2. French fries, and not just because they’re fried and seriously caloric. “French fries are a trigger food,” Bauer explains. “It’s difficult to eat just a few of them.” If you simply can’t resist, remember: The size of your fist equals one portion. Stop there.

3. Turkey clubs. Most restaurants stack on an extra slice of bread or two, making these extra-carby.

4. Surprisingly dense farm-to-table offerings. Sure, farm-to-table means fresh, and that’s absolutely a good thing, Bauer says. But people often confuse local and organic with low-cal. They think, “Oh, farm-to-table! Olive oil! It must be healthy!” she says. But certain pastas, eggplant dishes soaked in oil, or anything with a lot of sauce, cheese, or heavy carbs are calorie-bombs, no matter how natural.

Hungry for more? Check out last week’s guide to eating at food trucks. And check back next week for what to order at a cafe. (Freelancers and students, you’re welcome.)

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