A classic dining-out dilemma: Should you stick with what seems healthy or treat yourself to something delish? Well, what if you could do both? Parents asked four dietitian moms to dig into 15 chain-restaurant menus and come up with appetizers, entr?es, sides, and desserts that have drool-worthy ingredients without being too high in calories and fat. Grilled chicken and steamed broccoli may be the default healthy dinner on most adult and children's menus, but our experts investigated further, consulting chefs when necessary. Feast your eyes on these smart, surprising picks for you and the kids.
For Kids The Fried Shrimp from the kids' menu (230 calories, 14g fat) is a surprisingly good pick because it's fairly low in saturated fat and packs heart-smart omega-3 fatty acids. Applesauce is a healthy side pick to go with any kids' entr?e; avoid the nutritious-sounding celery with ranch dip because it contains more fat than the sundae from the children's menu.
For You The Creamy Parmesan Chicken (shown) sounds like it would be a calorie bombshell, but it's actually a new addition to the chain's Weight Watchers menu. The grilled chicken breast is topped with au gratin sauce, but using Parmesan rather than cheddar lowers the fat and calories while keeping the flavor. The dish comes with mushroom pilaf and steamed spinach (470 calories, 13g fat).
Who Knew? Applebee's whips up a 100-calorie SkinnyBee Margarita using tequila that has been sweetened with agave. Cheers!
California Pizza Kitchen
For Kids Since kids' pizzas aren't available on whole-grain crust and are a little too high-cal, split the adult BBQ Chicken Pizza on whole-grain crust between two children or take half home (518 calories, 16g fat for half). Get a side of kids' fruit to go with the meal. Or go for the kids' Fusilli With Meat Sauce (575 calories, 21g fat) because it has less than 350 milligrams of sodium, one of the lowest amounts for an entr?e from any chain.
For You * From CPK's New Adventures menu, which launched in August, order the Shrimp Scampi Zucchini Fettuccine (shown). CPK serves the lemon-garlic grilled shrimp primarily over long strips of squash (550 calories, 27g fat), not over noodles alone. Another option from the same menu: Quinoa and Arugula Salad (610 calories, 33g fat). It pairs the grain with sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, and red onion.
Who Knew? The kids' salads are topped with Goldfish crackers instead of croutons—a swimmingly smart idea.
The Cheesecake Factory
For Kids Bypass the kids' menu for the chain's more inspired SkinnyLicious picks. The pizzalike Margherita Flatbread (300 calories, 12g fat) and Asian Chicken Lettuce Wrap Tacos (shown, 420 calories, 16g fat) are healthy hits with kids. They can easily be modified if there's an ingredient, like the basil on the flatbread, that your kid doesn't want. Order a bowl of sliced plain strawberries or steamed edamame pods to tide your child over while she's waiting for dinner.
For You Share the Santorini Farro Salad, which pairs the whole grain with cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, red onions, and feta cheese (155 calories, 8g fat for half). Follow that with SkinnyLicious Grilled Salmon, served with seasonal veggies (590 calories, 36g fat). If you can't resist the chain's famous dessert, split the original, fresh strawberry, or pumpkin cheesecake three or four ways. Each has about 700 calories per slice—500 calories fewer than some other flavors.
Who Knew? The Cheesecake Factory makes its 100-plus sauces and dressings from scratch daily, including low-fat SkinnyLicious Sesame-Soy, which can be ordered on any salad.
Chili's Grill & Bar
For Kids Pair one of the many healthy sides—like pineapple, corn on the cob, or mandarin oranges—with the Pepper Pals Little Chicken Crispers (breaded strips of white-meat chicken) from the children's menu (375 calories, 15g fat with pineapple). Avoid the Pepper Pals Grilled Cheese Sandwich—it has 43 grams of fat.
For You From the Custom Combos menu, create a healthy surf and turf. Choose the Lighter Choices 6 oz. Classic Sirloin and Spicy Garlic & Lime Grilled Shrimp (that's the sirloin pictured) with a broccoli side and substitute corn on the cob for the mashed potatoes (660 calories, 26g fat). Chances are you'll have leftovers!
Who Knew? When you scan certain QR codes at your table, they take your phone to Web pages detailing healthy choices from the children's and adult menus.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
For Kids Go for the Kid's Single Taco Meal in a soft or crispy corn tortilla with black beans, cheese, and fajita vegetables (saut?ed green bell peppers, red onions, and a little oregano) served with brown rice and lime tortilla chips (380 calories, 14g fat). If your kid isn't a fan of beans, consider ordering carnitas, the least-spicy meat.
For You Try the Burrito Bowl with grilled chicken (it's marinated in chipotle pepper adobo), brown rice, fajita vegetables, and romaine lettuce (375 calories, 11g fat). You can feel good about the ingredients at Chipotle—naturally raised meat, some organic and locally grown produce, and some pasture-raised dairy products.
Who Knew? The chain doesn't use peanuts or tree nuts in anything it cooks, making it a safe haven for kids with these allergies.
For Kids If your kid is a fan of grilled cheese, order it here because Cos?'s Gooey Grilled Cheese on multigrain flatbread has about half the calories and sodium of what you'll find at most other chains. It comes with a drink and a choice of raw baby carrots or a small fruit cup (427 calories, 15g fat, with fruit and low-fat milk). All children's meals also include a small chocolate-chip cookie for dessert.
For You Try the chain's new Autumn Apple Chicken Salad (shown), which pairs roasted red apples with candied pistachios, dried cranberries, mixed greens, grilled chicken, and feta cheese in a caramel and cinnamon vinaigrette (515 calories, 26g fat). For a lighter pick, order the Hummus & Veggies Sandwich. The creamy spread is topped with red onions, tomatoes, cukes, and basil (397 calories, 7g fat).
Who Knew? For a special dessert, your family can roast s'mores on a tabletop fire pit. When you divvy it up among four people, each portion works out to less than 180 calories.
For Kids Get your kid his own mini steak. From the children's menu, opt for the Kid's Sirloin, which comes with fruit and a choice of broccoli or fries (285 calories, 10g fat, if you go for broccoli and grapes). For nugget-loving kids, LongHorn also makes Grilled Chicken Tenders. They're so low-cal and low-fat that even with fries, the meal is healthy (420 calories, 15g fat).
For You From the Flavorful Under 500 menu, choose the 6-ounce Renegade Sirloin, a lean steak prepared with less finishing sauce than other steak options on the menu. Request that it be served with seasonal vegetables and a salad (400 calories, 11g fat). Top your salad with the LongHorn's fat-free raspberry vinaigrette (60 calories for 3 tablespoons) or oil and vinegar.
Who Knew? The chain has been buying its sweet potatoes from the same North Carolina farm for more than 30 years. You can swap the spud for seasonal veggies in any entr?e.
For Kids Choose the kids' menu Cheese Ravioli. If you prefer, chefs will put tomato sauce on the side for dipping. Broccoli and grapes come with the meal (345 calories, 8g fat). Your server will bring a basket of breadsticks; limit yourself and the kids to one each (140 calories, 2g fat). Even better: Order them without butter or garlic salt.
For You The chain's Venetian Apricot Chicken (shown) is popular. The fruity-glazed grilled breast comes with broccoli, asparagus, and diced tomatoes (400 calories, 7g fat). All adult meals also include soup or salad; order the Pasta e Fagioli (130 calories, 3g fat), because it has the least sodium and the most fiber of the soup picks.
Who Knew? Olive Garden gives you Andes candies with the check—a great way to enjoy a little something sweet if you felt too full to eat dessert.
For Kids Pick the Joey Sirloin Medallions from the kids' menu, and request to pair it with the sweet-potato fries from the adult menu (633 calories, 29g fat). Take some fries home. Other side picks: fruit and green beans. If your child insists on the popular Spotted Dog Sundae, have her choose between the chocolate sauce and cookie crumbs because having both results in nearly 500 calories.
For You If you're craving a juicy steak, order the 6-ounce Sirloin served with seasonal vegetables and house salad with tomato dressing from the chain's Under 600 Calories menu (568 calories, 26g fat). Otherwise, try the grilled Hearts of Gold Mahi with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes in a lemon sauce (713 calories, 34g fat, including a side of veggies).
Who Knew? The cheesecake (shown) is the lowest-calorie dessert option. When you split a piece in half, it works out to just 167 calories.
For Kids Catch the opportunity for your child to order seafood. The Garlic-Grilled Shrimp and Broiled Flounder, from the children's menu, are healthier picks that even fussy kids might actually not complain about eating. Pair the dishes with orange wedges or broccoli for a balanced meal (220 calories, 3g fat for the broiled flounder and oranges). All kids' meals also come with low-fat milk.
For You Go for the chain's new Island Grilled Mahi-Mahi and Shrimp (shown), which is brushed with papaya barbecue sauce, topped with fresh pineapple salsa, and served with wild rice pilaf (510 calories, 5g fat). It also comes with a salad and your choice of another side. If you can't resist the chain's famous Cheddar Bay Biscuits (150 calories, 8g fat), it's okay to have one and get your second side to go.
Who Knew? Red Lobster tailors its Today's Fresh Fish menu to the region. Minnesota diners can pick walleye, for instance, and Floridians can go for grouper.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
For Kids Just the right size and made from lean beef, the Rad Robin burger on the kids' menu comes with a choice of two sides. Order it with the Freckled Fruit Salad (a mix of apples, mandarin oranges, strawberries, and pineapple) and baby carrots (403 calories, 12g fat, if you hold the dressing). Or swap in another healthy pick like apple slices, broccoli, and salad.
For You Go for the Grilled Turkey Burger (shown) on a whole-grain bun (578 calories, 29g fat). Keep the lettuce and tomatoes, but ask for the mayo on the side. Use just half to save 40 calories and 3 grams of fat. Stick with a lower-cal side such as Southwest Black Beans (98 calories, 0 fat) or Freckled Fruit Salad (97 calories, 0 fat).
Who Knew? To save nearly 250 calories, you can request that your burger or chicken sandwich be wrapped in lettuce rather than put on a whole-grain roll.
Romano's Macaroni Grill
For Kids Order the Spaghetti & Meat Sauce (420 calories, 16g fat) from the children's menu. If your kid won't mind, ask to sub whole-wheat pasta for the standard noodles for extra fiber. Avoid Chicken Strips With Fries, which have 1,420 milligrams of sodium, close to the daily limit for kids age 8 and under.
For You Try the pan-seared Mediterranean Sea Bass (shown) with tomatoes, arugula, and cannellini beans (570 calories, 36g fat) because it's packed with nutrients. Or opt for the Create Your Own Pasta and choose whole-wheat fettuccine with beans, spinach, and tomatoes in pomodoro sauce (715 calories, 18g fat). Take half home.
Who Knew? Instead of grating Parmesan cheese tableside, the chain uses its cousin, Grana Padano, which a new study shows may reduce high blood pressure.
For Kids Pick the Pasta Marinara (471 calories, 6g fat) from the children's menu and supplement it with one of the chain?s healthy new sides like grilled zucchini, sugar snap peas, grilled green beans, or old faves such as apples and grapes. If your kid wants dessert, a cupcake (red velvet or carrot cake) has fewer calories than the ice-cream sundae.
For You Try the Spaghetti Squash Marinara. Strips of squash mimic pasta and are tossed in a red-pepper sauce (260 calories, 11g fat). At most locations, many entr?es come with the chain's Create Your Own Garden Bar. Fill your plate with fresh greens and veggies rather than the prepared salads and sides, which tend to be higher in calories and sodium.
Who Knew? The chain offers Organic Honest Kids Super Fruit Punch pouches; they have far less sugar than standard juice and aren't as likely to spill.
For Kids Go for the new Kids' Chicken Skewers, a smaller, more child-friendly version of an adult menu item. It features grilled meat marinated in soy-garlic sauce and served unskewered with red peppers and onions on pita bread (320 calories, 10g fat). Opt for fresh fruit, mandarin oranges, or salad on the side. For dessert, the 150-calorie orange sherbet is the best pick.
For You Go for the new Balsamic-Glazed Chicken Caesar Salad (shown). It's tossed in vinaigrette—rather than the traditional creamy—dressing (490 calories, 26g fat). Avoid getting a burger here. The Spicy Craft Beer-Cheese Burger, for instance, packs more than 1,200 calories and 2,200 milligrams of sodium. The turkey burger, at nearly 900 calories, isn't so light either.
Who Knew? The restaurant makes its own agave sour for use in its "skinny" cocktails. That move reduces sugar content and calories.
Uno Chicago Grill
For Kids From the new kids' menu, try Flake & Bake Chicken, which is coated with ranch dressing and Corn Flakes (210 calories, 8g fat). Pair it with grapes or brown rice. Little chefs will also like Make Your Own Pizza because they can top the crust with tomato sauce and cheese. Request grilled chicken topping also for a protein punch (315 calories and 11g fat for half).
For You If you're eyeing the pizza too, order the Roasted Eggplant, Spinach, & Feta Thin Crust (shown) on five-grain crust. Get half to go and eat the rest with a side house salad tossed in a low-fat blueberry pomegranate dressing (645 calories, 28g fat). Deep-six the deep-dish cheese pizza, which has a staggering 119 grams of fat.
Who Knew? You can grab free fresh apples from the hostess stand on the way to your table. They will tide your family over until the meal comes.
Meet Our Dinner Detectives Elisa Zied, R.D., Parents advisor and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips -- Joanne "Dr. Jo" Lichten, R.D., Ph.D., author of Eat Out Healthy -- Bethany Thayer, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- Sarah Krieger, R.D., dietitian in St. Petersburg, Florida
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.