Eating Healthy at the Olive Garden

Raquel StecherAbout Me
Blogger at Thoughtful Eating and Vintage Brand New. Please add my to your circles.

Kate over at Scathingly Brilliant wrote a few times recently about her love for Olive Garden. She made a very fine point, that even though it's a chain restaurant and a lot of people give it grief, it does offer a great menu and very nice ambiance. This is what Kate said:
People here knock Olive Garden all the time because it isn't authentic enough, and they're right -- the food from the real Italian restaurants here is out of this world! It's just that the atmosphere combined with the food and the rarity of going there makes Olive Garden a special treat to me. The food at the real Italian places might be better, but sometimes I want that stucco surrounding and dim lighting instead of plastic booths and framed, signed photos of all the NJ governors.
That's actually very true. Chances are your local Italian restaurant doesn't have the same ambiance as the Olive Garden. And if you want that atmosphere, you'll have to be willing to dish out some serious $$$ (1 and a quarter - $125 for two people as my beau Carlos likes to say) for a fancy Italian restaurant. For most of us, it's just not in our budget and while the Olive Garden isn't the cheapest place around it's the closest a lot of us will get to a nice Italian dining experience without breaking the bank.

Kate inspired me to take a field trip out to Olive Garden. I hadn't been in years because let's face it, I love the Olive Garden but it doesn't love me. I contribute some of my stomach problems (lactose intolerance and inability to thoroughly digest big meals) as well as the cellulite on my thighs and jiggle on my stomach to all of those Olive Garden meals I've had over the years. The last time I ate there I got so physically ill that I swore off the Olive Garden forever.

But I miss the Olive Garden and Kate made me nostalgic for that experience. Even though I won't be an Olive Garden regular any time soon, I thought I would try to make one visit and eat as healthy as I can.

Before I went to the Framingham, MA location, I researched the Nutritional Values of Olive Garden's various options for lunch. (Lunch is automatically healthier for you because the portions are smaller but it's only served during the week). Olive Garden hides it pretty well but they have a Nutritional page with all the calorie counts for their various meals.

Now let's say you went to the Olive Garden and got an appetizer, meal (along with the soup or salad that comes with it), and a dessert. A 4-course meal. How much would that cost you health-wise? I picked out my top favorites from the menu and took a look at the total calorie counts. The end result was quite shocking.

Appetizer: Stuffed Mushrooms - 280 calories
Salad: Garden Fresh Salad with Dressing - 350 Calories
or Soup: Pasta E Fagioli 130 Calories
Breadsticks: 150 calories each (I would have 3)
Meal: Seafood Portofino: 800 calories (ouch)
Dessert: Tiramisu 510 calories

Total: 2,160 to 2,380 calories

The recommended daily calorie intake for someone my age, height and weight is 1,500. I would have blown all of that in one single trip to Olive Garden. Granted, I may not go for the appetizer, I may not eat all of my meal and I might split my dessert with someone. But it still adds up.

So I chose my menu in advance.

Salad: Garden Fresh Salad with Dressing - 350 Calories

Soup: Minestrone - 100 Calories

Dessert: Vanilla Cream Soda - 190 Calories
Delicious and more than enough as a dessert! (Thanks to Kate for mentioning it on her blog)

That's 640 calories. Much much better but still quite a lot. The salad and the minestrone both had a lot of veggies so I felt good about choosing both as my meal. And quite a meal it was, I didn't even finish the whole thing.

I had 1-1/2 breadsticks so I would have to add 225 calories back on to my total. But considering I didn't eat the entire meal, I want to say that my total calorie count was probably anywhere from 650-750 calories. I left the Olive Garden feeling like I didn't over-indulge and that I successfully stuck to my diet. That's a much better feeling than indigestion and I'll take that any day.

I love that Olive Garden still sends off each customer with two Andes mints. I've been eating Andes since I was a little girl and I love to see them keep on as a tradition at this restaurant. Two was all I needed to feel like I had a special treat after my great meal.

The waitress (who was very nice, I wish all waitresses were like her) told me that she sometimes has clients who will consume 6 bowls of soup. Why? I know it's a deal but good grief that's a lot of soup. I think culturally, we value a good deal over health when it comes to eat out. You can spend very little money at a buffet and get lots of food but the cost to your health should be considered as an extra expense.

It pays to be aware of the calories and portions of food you are eating. If you have to indulge, make sure you take some of your meal home with you for leftovers. Spread the calories over time so you can burn them effectively. Don't make these huge meals a regular event. When you do go out to eat, make sure you are smart about your choices and to stop eating when your stomach feels full. That way, you can still eat anywhere you want, even at the Olive Garden.

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