10 Chain Restaurants with Diet-Friendly Options

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When you're trying to lose or maintain weight, it seems like "restaurant" becomes a four-letter word. When taken out of your kitchen (aka meal-prep headquarters)—with no measuring cup, food scale or nutrition chart in sight—it's as if you've been thrust into a food free-for-all, with no control over portion size, calorie count or fat content. But while you might not be able to actually prep your meals at a restaurant, you can do a little research beforehand to find smart menu options that won't undo all of your hard work.
 
Although these 10 restaurants certainly feature some unhealthy indulgences on their menus, they all offer at least a few sensible choices to keep you on track toward your goals.
 

Panera

Location: Throughout the United States

Toby Amidor, registered dietitian and author of “The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook,” recommends Panera to her clients as a good source of healthy food choices. Between soups, salads, sandwiches and broth bowls, the menu selections are wholesome and the calories are within reason. "I also recently lost about five pounds, and it’s so refreshing to be able to dine out and be able to select a meal that I know won’t sabotage my weight loss efforts," Amidor says.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Jason's Deli

Location: Throughout the United States (28 states)
 
Jason's Deli got our attention by being one of the first quick-casual restaurants to remove trans fats from their menu. Since then, they’ve continued to impress by also removing MSG, high-fructose corn syrup and all artificial colors and flavors. This ensures that there's plenty of room for the good stuff—like real, whole, clean foods. In addition to their standard deli menu, Jason's also offers a vegetarian menu and one for gluten-sensitive customers. It's easy to see why they've garnered so many awards.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

LYFE Kitchen

Locations: 13 U.S. locations (California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas)
 
Since launching in 2011, LYFE Kitchen has offered "craveable classics with a contemporary twist." All of the items on its American cuisine menu are prepared with sustainable ingredients with plenty of low-calorie options, making LYFE a perfect breakfast, brunch or lunch destination for diet-conscious diners.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Noodles & Company

Locations: 500 locations throughout the United States
 
Originally founded in Colorado in 1995, this fast-casual restaurant has expanded to more than 500 locations in 39 states throughout the United States. All of the meals in their core menu are made fresh from real ingredients, with no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors or colors. In addition to their namesake noodles, they offer hearty soups and fresh salads, with an abundance of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. They also have a separate menu that contains only foods with 500 calories or less.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

First Watch

Locations: Throughout the United States
 
The first meal of the day is an important choice when you're trying to lose or maintain weight, and First Watch helps to ensure that breakfast or brunch gets you off on a healthy start. Headquartered in Florida, First the original daytime café now has hundreds of franchises around the country. Although some of their menu items creep into high-calorie territory, there are plenty of options that won't endanger your diet.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Subway

Locations: Throughout the United States
 
This quick and convenient deli chain has become synonymous with healthy eating. While not everything on their menu is perfectly healthy, it's true that there are plenty of low-fat, low-calorie options—as long as you don't add extra ingredients that aren't on the nutrition fact sheet. Keep in mind that their calorie counts don't include items like condiments, extra meat or extra cheese.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Chick-fil-A

Locations: Throughout the United States
 
As a general rule, fast food has no place in a nutritious, calorie-controlled eating plan—but there are a few exceptions that serve up healthy options in a hurry. While it's best to steer clear of their original (aka fried) chicken sandwich and waffle fries, there are plenty of diet-friendly choices on their menu.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Bob Evans

Locations: Throughout the United States

Although much of the items at this homestyle restaurant are a bit heavy on the calories and fat content, they do offer some lighter fare that will keep your goals in check. Plus, the "Savor Size" section features their standard favorites in more sensible portions.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Applebee's

Locations: Throughout the United States

You might assume that a trip to Applebee's means your diet is doomed, but the chain restaurant offers more than just heavy, fattening foods. The key is to avoid supersized portions and to steer clear of anything described as battered, breaded or fried.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices

Outback Steakhouse

Locations: Throughout the United States

Who says you can't enjoy dinner at a steakhouse without sending your calorie intake skyrocketing? While the Bloomin' Onion and Aussie Cheese Fries should be avoided at all costs, this popular Australian chain also offers some healthier options that won't send your goals down under. They even have a menu dedicated to dishes under 600 calories.
 
Diet-Friendly Choices
What are your favorite "safe restaurants" where you know you can find plenty of healthy options? Share your smart selections in the comments!

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Comments

Thanks for pulling this together. I was amazed to discover--I've never heard of most of these places. Report
Thanks Report
Thank you Report
You don't list the sodium on these lists. The sodium of some of these foods is way too high to be healthy Report
I feel you can always find diet friendly options in any restaurant, you may just need to adjust the entre somewhat. I’m vegetarian and I find if you ask... they can help you :) Report
I eat at 5 of these places and thank them every time for their options. I love Paneras salads Report
AZMOMXTWO
thank you Report
Thank you for taking the time to make up this list for us! Report
Thank you Report
Pity I don't live in the USA Report
While some of these calorie counts are great, wow on the sugar content. My lifestyle now is low sodium and sugar and so many of these contain a lot of both. One of the reasons I won’t eat out often is because of the sodium content. Now I’ve added sugar to that equation. It is amazing how much added sugar there is in food you least expect to contain it at all. Good to know lower calorie choice but still some of these are not great choices either. Report
Excellent article thank you Report
Great help! Report
Great help! Report
The most diet friendly restaurant is my own kitchen. I don't trust restaurants. Report
I will keep these in mind. Very good info. Report
Thanks Report
nice to learn of options for eating out. thanks. Report
god information Report
This list is wonderful, but I would also suggest Panda Express for stir-fry vegetables and a filling low calorie meal if you stay away from the batter-fried calorie bombs,,,

if you choose vegetables instead of rice or noodles as your side, you can get a lot of food for less than 400 calories! Report
What about Chipotle? Or Elevation Burger? I do really well at both places and their food to cleaner than most restaurants. Used to like Chick-fil-A but they have soy and msg in their food. Report
KHALIA2
Great info! Thank you! Report
So much salt in everything, though. That’s my biggest issue. Report
We rarely eat out at restaurants, but I've found that salad dressings can double the calories at restaurants. The grilled salad at Chick Fil A is only 200 calories without dressing, but they have a good lite Italian that is only 25 calories! I generally only get soup at Panera, but all restaurant soup is high in sodium. I rarely order sandwiches or salads at restaurants - I can make my own at home - cheaper and easier! Report
Thanks for the tips!!! Report
I agree with @PrettyLilHeffer - I make the "unwhich" sandwiches from my Jimmy John's sandwiches. To be fair, I basically only eat Jimmy John's every 8 weeks - as we can order a lunch delivered by them to the work site where we host the American Red Cross Blood Drive (eight weeks apart).

But - yesterday we ate at a new-to-us local diner after a funeral, and it was all the usual fried stuff and carb-loaded pancakes or waffles etc. I'm doing more of a KETO low-carb thing for now, and so I simply asked the waitress - can I please have this item, hold the ham and bread, wrap it in lettuce, etc. and described what I was doing. She knew what I was talking about and even knew people who were successfully shedding weight with a similar lifestyle. It doesn't hurt to ask. If they want to know, they'll ask. If they don't, you don't have to go back. Or in this case - they understood. So it generally works out with a friendly smile and positive attitude. Report
I am being treated for a thyroid problem Report
I think the Cheesecake Factory is the worst offender in the list. I ate what seemed to be a healthy choice of protein plus veggies plus a sauce. It had over 2500 calories. The sauce is the likely culprit. Report
Some of these have changed since this article was written and not all for the better. Having said that, I think something happened recently that is forcing restaurants to be more forthcoming with their nutrition info. Many are more complete and even including sodium content. Steps in the right direction. Report
A great list of what to eat at restaurants I choose not to patronize Report
ROCKS8ROX
Good list of restaurants! Report
What a great list with good information Report
How strange it is - last comment before this one was also from me. This isn't the first time it's happened. We need more articles rotating in and out. Report
Don't do fast food and don't like chain restaurants so I avoid them, altho' independents are a dying breed. This means I eat many meals at home before going out with friends. Then I have coffee. No one minds. Report
ESTHERWAAYENBER
Ask for the senior citizen menu. The portions seem to be smaller + cheaper. Report
My problem with eating out is usually sodium, not calories. If I know I'm going out, that morning I look up the menu and nutrition info, plan my dinner, then budget the rest of the day around it. Report
TEXASTOPAZ15
My #1 rule for dining out.

When ordering your food: Be specific with your requests. If you don't want sour cream, mayonnaise or other condiment, SAY SO.
Waiters don't bring you things you don't order (and if, on occasion they do...send it back.)


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I love Culver's salads, they are fresh and the chicken is hot. Ruby Tuesday's also has some smaller portions on their menu. You can eat in a healthy manner without marketing gimmicks (WW points, catchy name), you just have to do your research first. Report
Applebee's is off my list because their meals remind me of a frozen dinner entree. Plus, the service was abysmal.

For those avoiding chain restaurants, one of the tricks I've found (besides "dressing on the side") is to order appetizers plus a salad, or sometimes all sides. Report
CLREYES55
I eat at Applebees alot, but I also got their nutrition information on line and a lot of their entrees are very high calorie and salt. I order walleye, grilled with double vegetables alot. They are very receptive to requests to replace french fries or potatos, or rice with steamed vegetables. Report
Of all those restaurants listed, Applebees seems like it should be such a great choice. The menu there is really geared towards healthy choices. But, I've stopped going there because the quality of the food varies so much. After three not so great meals, I decided I was through. Subway is the one I go to the most. If I don't have time to make my healthy lunch or dinner, Subway is my backup plan. There is one near my home and one near my work. Report
ANSWRGAL
Helpful information! I would never have guessed that Cheesecake Factory has options for me. So far, I have been able to find somewhat healthy items avaiable, but the sodium continues to be a challenge when dining out. Report
I've had the peppercorn steak dish from Applebees, it was fabulous! Report
Great article. I generally eat lunch out and wouldn't have chosen any of these restaurants for a healthy meal. Today though, I went to IHOP for one of its Fit meals. It was great and a reasonable calorie offering - 330 - for a lunch.
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You have to take this information with a grain of salt (pun intended). I agree that the healthy options are great, though I don't understand why restaurants and manufacturers charge more for smaller, right-portioned sizes. You still have to be careful. I ate at Fridays very frequently for years. In the last four years, since I started SparkPeople, I have been there maybe 4-5 times and eat sensibly. I do still enjoy it. However, I strongly agree with some of the posters who advocate eating at local restaurants. I love keeping those people in business, and they tend to be more accommodating to diet related requests. Report
JULES80420
i wold rather not et at any of these restaurants for the most part!!! especially if I was trying to be healthy Report