Even if you live in a city with endless restaurant options, chances are you still end up at Olive Garden from time to time. (Those breadsticks are everything.) But with “endless,” “bottomless,” and “never ending” options galore on the menu, sticking to a health-minded eating plan isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Fortunately, there are a decent amount of healthy options to choose from if you know what to look for, says executive chef and registered dietitian Jessica Swift, RD.
Her general advice: Share your order or take half home for later, since Olive Garden’s serving sizes are pretty massive. “I would also suggest taking advantage of the vegetable side dishes, like asparagus with minced onions, instead of just focusing on the pasta,” Swift says. But if you’re craving pasta, opt for one that has a tomato-based sauce rather than a creamy sauce to save on calories and saturated fat. And unless you have a gluten allergy, you don’t need to sub their GF pasta for the sake of better health. “Nutritionally, the gluten-free pasta is right in line with the regular pasta,” she says. “It’s actually lower in protein because it’s made with potato starch and not wheat.”
However, if you’re on an eating plan like Mediterranean diet, ketogenic, or Whole30, things can get a little more challenging when navigating the menu. Here, Swift gives tips on how to enjoy Olive Garden—in all its glory—while still sticking with your health goals.
What an RD says: Win for the Med diet: Olive Garden has an entire Tastes of the Mediterranean menu. While Swift says it might be somewhat of a marketing ploy, she says it’s generally the healthiest section of the menu (regardless of what eating plan you’re following) because everything is lower in calories.
The Herb-Grilled Salmon and Chicken Giardino are her top picks for anyone following the Mediterranean diet. “The Herb-Grilled salmon is a very reasonable 460 [calories], and comes with a side of broccoli, while the Chicken Giardino offers a way to satisfy a pasta craving while also getting some protein—thanks to the chicken—and veggies, which are mixed in,” she says.
Order tweak: “The Mediterranean Diet definitely calls for lean protein, which you will get with the Chicken Giardino, but be mindful that it is loaded with simple carbohydrates because of the pasta,” Swift says. She suggests asking the waiter if you can halve the pasta serving in place of extra steamed veggies—and going lighter on the sauce for a healthier version with the same flavor. “And as for the Herb-Grilled Salmon, I would ask if it could be cooked in regular oil instead of the butter sauce, which will cut down on saturated fat,” Swift says.
Side-dish recommendations: Famous House Salad: “Salad is definitely one of those items that falls in line with almost any diet, and especially the Mediterranean Diet,” Swift says. But she has some major caveats. “First of all, bottomless anything isn’t healthy,” she says. Because the chain’s salad is served in a big bowl on the table for everyone to share, it can be tricky figuring out how many servings you’re actually eating.
Wait, but how is having a lot of salad a bad thing? “The vegetables are great, but both the dressing and the Parmesan cheese have a lot of sodium,” Swift says. One serving of the house salad dressing—two tablespoons—has 80 calories and 520 milligrams of sodium. (FYI: 520 milligrams of sodium is roughly 21 percent of your recommended daily value of sodium, making this a high-sodium food.) “It’s just something to be mindful of if you have cardiac issues,” she says. She says that just switching the house dressing for the low-fat Italian on the side will save you over 100 mg of sodium.
What an RD says: The Minestrone Soup is a win if you’re keto *and* vegan or vegetarian, which isn’t easy to find, making it a major score. Swift loves this soup because it’s packed with protein and fiber. “It has 4 grams of protein per serving, which is pretty good,” she says. Just note: It has 13 grams of net carbs (and most plans advocate for 30 grams of carbs or less per day) so just keep that in mind when assessing your keto macros for the rest of the day.
Not in the mood for soup? Swift says that the Mediterranean diet-friendly Herb-Grilled Salmon works for anyone doing keto, too (only 4 grams of net carbs)—and you don’t need to ask for oil in place of the sauce since butter gets a keto pass.
Menu tweaks: None needed.
Side-dish recommendations: Famous House Salad: Once again, Swift recommends the Famous House Salad, which falls in line with all diet types. Because there are no carb-based veggies—like corn or potatoes—mixed in, it aligns perfectly with the keto diet. Again, just ask for that dressing on the side to cut down on sodium.
Menu picks: Herb-Grilled Salmon
What an RD says: The Herb-Grilled Salmon is a triple diet win—score! Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only menu item at Olive Garden that’s conducive to the eating plan’s strict guidelines. And you will need to tweak your order. (See below.)
Order tweak: The butter sauce is going to be a no-go if you’re doing Whole30. “If they’re able to make it using regular oil instead of the butter sauce, then it will work,” Swift says. (Just ask specifically what oil they use, since not all cooking oils are OK on the Whole30.)
Side-dish recommendations: The Famous House Salad: This one is do-able on Whole30, but you’ll have to make a few changes. Ask for olive oil and vinegar instead of the traditional dressing (or bring your own), and hold the croutons and Parmesan cheese. Swift says it can work as a main meal if you want.
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