Friday, January 04, 2008

How To Eat Low-Carb At Your Favorite Casual Dining Restaurants

Last week I was interviewed by my local newspaper here in South Carolina--Spartanburg Herald-Journal--for an upcoming feature story about how I've turned my weight loss success into a business and an interesting topic of conversation came up that coincides with a blog post I've been working on for a while. I told the freelance writer who was interviewing me last Friday that we were just on our way out the door to go to lunch at Denny's and she said, "Well, you can't eat anything healthy there, can you?"

Opportunities to educate never end. :)

I explained how with just a few substitutions of key ingredients that inevitably end up on all the dishes (in the case of Denny's, that would be pancakes or French fries), you can have a very nice low-carb friendly meal that will keep you on the straight and narrow as you pursue a healthier lifestyle. She was surprised because conventional wisdom is that the large portions and high calories served when dining out will prevent you from eating healthy. Not necessarily, as I'll SHOW you today.

After I shared this YouTube video about which restaurants are good for low-carbers, I decided to start taking pictures of the foods I order so you can visualize exactly what I'm getting when I go out. These were taken at various times over the past few months and are a good representation of the kind of things you can order when you visit your favorite casual dining restaurant (I may hit fast food in a future blog post, but I'm not a big fan of it).

In no particular order, here's what I ate at various places:

Christine and I really love to go to Denny's because they allow you to make reasonable substitutions with all of their meals to make them perfect for anyone who is livin' la vida low-carb. As long as you avoid the starchy (hashbrowns and French fries) and the sugary (French Toast and pancakes) menu items and choose better options instead, you'll be good to go.

Here's a sample of what I recently ate on our trip to Denny's:

This is the Meat Lover's Scramble and I substituted mixed veggies consisting of squash, broccoli, peppers, and green beans for the hashbrowns and a side salad with Ranch dressing for the pancakes. You get two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and a ham, sausage, bacon, egg and cheese scramble with it as well. One thing's for sure, you WON'T leave hungry after eating this meal!


Here's what Christine had for her meal at Denny's:

A simple two chicken breast meal with mixed vegetables and a side salad (not pictured) is plenty of protein and non-starchy carbohydrates to keep you satisfied for hours. Adding some butter to your mixed veggies will give you some much-needed extra fat to make this meal tastier and healthier.


Although I was quite upset with Ruby Tuesday when they decided to remove their outstanding low-carb cheesecake from their menu and when they pretty much turned their back on the low-carb consumer after trashing their low-carb menu in 2006, I've begun to warm back up to them because they do offer some excellent dishes for low-carbers to enjoy.

There's one meal I must get when I go to Ruby Tuesday:

The Mini-Burgers & Salad Bar deal is one of the best things around for someone following a low-carb lifestyle. You get unlimited trips to the fresh salad bar where I get a bed of spinach leaves piled high with cheese, eggs, sunflower seeds, bacon, and dried cranberries with Ranch dressing on top to start off. Then I order the mini-burgers without the buns and eat them with mayonnaise and pickles. Add a bowl of mashed cauliflower (YES!) with a couple of dollops of butter and this meal is to die for when you are livin' la vida low-carb!


I know what you're thinking--wait a minute, Jimmy, are you saying I can eat at Olive Garden on my low-carb lifestyle? Yep, as long as you can avoid the temptation of those hot buttery garlic breadsticks (a tall order to ask of low-carb newbies, but not too bad once you've ditch the carbs for a while). Load up on some of their famous salad (sans the croutons) and don't forget to put lots of cheese on top, too! But please avoid the "no sugar added" dessert sham they have to offer at the end of the meal. Not good!

Here's a wonderful dish I ordered at the Olive Garden:

A delicious grilled salmon steak with a touch of lemon and seasoning that is oh-so-yummy and full of healthy omega-3 fats along with a generous portion of non-starchy veggies (mostly broccoli) that I ate with butter to increase the fat content of the meal. You'll never eat this low-carb (about 2-3g carbohydrates) in an Italian restaurant!


I got excited about Applebee's when they introduced world-famous chef Tyler Florence into their marketing efforts to spruce up their menu in late 2006 with a fabulous covert low-carb dish called the Crispy Brick Chicken. So imagine my surprise when Christine and I went there recently and they've removed it from their menu. GASP! Why do they always remove the GOOD stuff?! Oh well, it was hard, but we found something to eat there.

Here was my choice for a meal from Applebee's:

I adore shrimp and always have since I was a kid, so imagine my delight when I got to choose a salad made with spinach leaves--my favorite low-carb veggie--along with some almond slivers, diced tomatoes, a little cheese from Christine's salad, and I substituted Ranch dressing for the warm bacon vinegarette (too much sugar in this dressing!). Not too filling, but the full-size version of this meal is a refreshing low-carb dinner.


Not to be outdone with my salad, here's what Christine ordered:

A spicy chicken breast cut up into bite-sized pieces on top of a bed of salad greens, cheese, diced tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and Ranch dressing. The chicken was quite savory with a hint of spiciness to perfectly complement the cool salad ingredients. Not too shabby for a low-carber to order and enjoy!


Finally, I can't say enough good things about Cracker Barrel. While all the other restaurants have pretty much given up on catering to the low-carb community with a specific menu, they have been one of the only major national chains to keep a low-carb menu prominently displaying options for controlled-carbohydrate lifestyles. WOO HOO, Cracker Barrel! Check 'em out for yourself:

I ordered something off Cracker Barrel's dinner low-carb menu:

Smothered Grilled Chicken Tenderloins with a side salad and a double portion of green beans (with butter on top, of course!) made this a wonderful low-carb meal. I'm a big fan of cheese and bacon, too, and you get plenty of it with this menu item. The green beans are those sweet kind that have a little bit of crunch to them--but what else would you expect from Cracker Barrel?"


So there you have it! Suggestions about how you can eat low-carb at your favorite casual dining restaurants. This is by no means a comprehensive listing of what you can order when you eat out, but it gives you an idea about what you can do to make virtually ANY meal a low-carb one. Steaks and salads are ALWAYS acceptable, although be careful about hidden carbs in sauces, toppings, and dressings.

Livin' la vida low-carb need not be difficult or inconvenient to follow. When you make this your permanent lifestyle change, adapting to what fits YOUR life is important. And that will include the occasional visit to restaurants.

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Blogger lovinglife said...

Hi Jimmy,
First let me congratulate you again on your very fine information filled blog. I always find something new and exciting in the controlled carb lifestyle news on your site. It's excellent.

I read with your piece on restaurants with great interest. As a diabetic and weight loss coach, I tell everyone I work with that you don't need to be buying special low carb foods, and you don't need to stay away from your favorite restaurants -- you need to know the carb counts for everything you eat and stay within the carb count range that you have determined is right for you.

However, I have found out some very interesting things about restaurants. When you think you are making some very good choices, you could actually be eating many more carbs than you think.

For example, a Wendy's Chicken Caesars Salad. Sounds like a good choice over the typical hamburger or fries - however - take a closer look - right from Wendy's Nurtition Sheet on their web site at, As you will see in the list (from Wendy's site) below, there is "sugar" in the chicken, there is corn startch and "modified food startch" . There are a total of 34 grams of carbs in this "chicken" salad., Many of the people I work with have been fooled into thinking a salad like this would have few if any grams of carbs - then they can't understand why their blood sugars are up and why they haven't lost any weight.

I've been told that much of the foods that you eat in a restaurant including steak and chicken are marinated in some type of sugar to enhance the flavor of the meat.

So while I still feel you can go to restaurants and eat low/controlled carb, I also caution, especially diabetics to check out the restaurants web site and nutrition sheet BEFORE going to that restaurant. Then you can make an informed decision as to what you will and will not order in that establishment. Your life could depend on it.

Thanks again, Jimmy for all your work and efforts at helping and informing everyone about the wonders of low/controlled carb living! It's the best!

How about the mandarin chicken salad - see those ingredients and the 49 grams of carbs below also.

As you read these ingredients, don't forget that sugar comes in various forms such as maltodextrin, xanthan gum, corn starch,

Chicken Caesar Salad, Caesar Chicken Salad with Romaine Lettuce, Diced Chicken, Grape Tomatoes, Parmesan Cheese, Diced Chicken, Chicken Breast with Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning (maltodextrin, salt, autolyzed yeast extract, onion powder, spice, natural flavors, garlic powder, iodized salt, modified corn startch, sugar, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, lactic acid, citric acid, artificial flavors), Modified Food Starch, Sodium Phosphates., Mandarin ChickenĀ® Salad, Iceberg, Romaine and Spring Salad Mix, Mandarin Oranges and Diced Chicken, Spring Mix, Contains five or more of the following lettuces: Red Oak, Red Romaine, Red Mustard, Granada, Lolla Rosa, Brunia, Red Bibb, Radina., Diced Chicken, Chicken Breast with Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning (maltodextrin, salt, autolyzed yeast extract, onion powder, spice, natural flavors, garlic powder, iodized salt, modified corn startch, sugar, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, lactic acid, citric acid, artificial flavors), Modified Food Starch, Sodium Phosphates., Mandarin Oranges, Mandarin Orange Segments, Water, Sugar."

Or McDonalds (from their nutrition site), Grilled Chicken Breast Filet:
"Chicken breast filets with rib meat, water, seasoning (salt, sugar, food starch-modified, maltodextrin, spices, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed [corn gluten, soy, wheat gluten] proteins, garlic powder, paprika, chicken fat, chicken broth, natural flavors (plant and animal source), caramel color, polysorbate 80, xanthan gum, onion powder, extractives of paprika), modified potato starch, and sodium phosphates. CONTAINS: SOY AND WHEAT."

Notice the maltodextrin and wheat, xanthan gum (which is a fermented corn sugar polysaccharide a derivative of corn syrup).

1/05/2008 12:07 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

Oh I agree you need to be careful about hidden ingredients in foods you EXPECT to be low-carb. Think about what IHOP does with their scrambled eggs and omelets unless you request them NOT to--they put PANCAKE BATTER in it to make them fluffier. Presentation and taste are all most restaurants care about and screw your low-carb lifestyle. But that's why YOU should remain in control of what goes in your mouth.

1/05/2008 7:47 AM  
Blogger shellslyn said...

Just a heads up...Cracker Barrel here in Marana, AZ no long is using the low carb menus. This could be a beginning to the end of this in all Cracker Barrel restaraunts...sad, very sad : (

1/05/2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

That's interesting shellslyn! I've been to ones all over the Southeast and they all include the low-carb menu within the main menu. Hmmmm...if I hear anything about it going away, you'll see me blog about it. But the good thing is you can make your own low-carb meals even when there's not a "low-carb menu."

1/05/2008 1:28 PM  
Blogger Steelerfan71 said...


All of these restaurants are within 15 miles of my house. It is great to know that there are so many choices out there. I often go out and just order steak or chicken breast and a salad to be safe. Thanks for the pictures, they are a great help. Also, I am shocked at the pancake mix in the eggs at IHOP!!!!

1/06/2008 5:43 PM  
Blogger HunBun said...

Have you tried Applebee's creamed spinach side yet? It is to DIE for! It actually tastes very Parmesan cheese-y and VERY yummy...2 sides of this with a steak and I'm set! You can also get Ruby's buffalo wing appetizer sans sauce...that's my usual meal along with the salad bar. Their wings have no breading on them at all...just good, plain, healthy chicken. I just wish that there was a Cracker Barrel close by - the closest one is now well over an hour away! :o{

1/07/2008 2:07 PM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

I saw that on their menu, HunBun, but I was concerned it had some hidden carbs in it somehow. It did sound good though.

1/07/2008 4:33 PM  

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