Restaurant Quiz: How to Avoid Empty Calories

Make healthy choices when dining out.

The choices you make when you eat away from home can have a huge impact on your waistline. Can you spot the best choices in restaurants? Take this quick restaurant food quiz and find out if you’re savvy when you dine out.

The typical American eats in a restaurant about four times a week. Even if you’re not sitting down at a restaurant, there are plenty of other times when you may be picking up foods prepared away from home. Examples are your mid-morning coffee drink, your afternoon snack from the vending machine, or the prepared meal you pick up on the way home. When you add up all of the calories Americans eat in a day, nearly one-third of them come from foods prepared away from home. That’s why making careful, wise choices when you eat away from home is so important.

Think you know the best choices when you dine out? Take my restaurant quiz and see how savvy you are.

(Note: Portion sizes and calorie counts vary from restaurant to restaurant. The suggested “best choices” in my restaurant quiz below will generally be the lowest calorie choice, as well as the choice that provides the best nutritional value. Examples are not meant to represent any particular dining establishment or restaurant chain, but are used to highlight typical choices you might face when dining out.)

Restaurant Quiz: What’s the Best Choice When You Eat Out?

You’re meeting a friend for coffee. You decide to skip breakfast at home and plan to eat at the coffeehouse. Which of the following would be the best choice?

a. Low-fat muffin and some nonfat hot cocoa
b. Half a multigrain bagel with light cream cheese and a small nonfat latte
c. Slice of coffee cake and black coffee

Answer = b. Don’t be fooled by the low-fat labels on the muffin and the cocoa. Many low-fat baked goods often have nearly as many calories as traditional items. Even though they have less fat, they often have a lot more sugar. Typical coffeehouse muffins, even low-fat ones, can have nearly 500 calories, because they’re enormous. A medium-sized nonfat cocoa can have nearly 200 calories, due to all the sugar. A slice of coffee cake and black coffee sounds light because it’s relatively small, but it could still run you at least 400 calories. The bagel and the nonfat latte would be the best choice of the three. Half a bagel with cream cheese has about 200 calories, and the nonfat latte would cost about 100 calories more. You’d also be getting some protein from the latte.

You’re running late to pick up a friend at the airport, and you’re starving. The only place to stop is the drive-through window of a hamburger chain. Considering both calories and nutrition, which would be the best choice under the circumstances?

    a. Fish sandwich without mayonnaise and a diet soda


    b. Hamburger with mustard and ketchup only, and iced tea


    • c. Green salad with two packets of ranch dressing and water

Answer = b. In most fast food places, the fish on the fish sandwiches is fried, so the calories can climb as high as 400 per serving—without any mayonnaise or spread. Your best bet of the three selections above would be the hamburger, which would have about 300 calories. Why not the green salad? The salad alone has a low calorie count, but adding the two packets of dressing dumps about 350 calories of fat onto your greens. And without any protein in your meal, you’ll be hungry again in no time.

After a busy day of shopping at the mall, the Chinese food at the food court smells good to you. Which of these items would be your best choice?

    a. Stir-fried vegetable chow mein


    b. Chicken and broccoli with half a bowl of steamed rice


    • c. Two egg rolls and a bowl of wonton soup

Answer = b. Chicken and broccoli would be your best bet of the three. Stir-fried vegetable chow mein is typically very oily, because the noodles soak up a lot of grease. This dish at one popular chain adds up to about 500 calories—and there’s almost no protein to satisfy your hunger. Two egg rolls and a cup of wonton soup sounds like a light meal, but the two fried egg rolls add up to 400 calories and the soup adds another 300 or so. Chicken and broccoli with a small portion of steamed rice offers protein and vegetables and not nearly as much fat as the other two options. This meal adds up to about 450 calories.

The appetizers at your favorite steakhouse all sound tempting, but you want to be sure you have calories left over to spend on your main course. Which of the following would be the best appetizer choice?

    a. Chicken wings with barbecue sauce


    b. Sliced tomatoes and mozzarella with basil


    • c. Spinach dip with pita chips

Answer = b. The sliced tomatoes and mozzarella is probably your best bet of the three. Mozzarella is a low-fat cheese and does contribute some protein, and the tomatoes contribute a vegetable serving at a low calorie cost. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the dip is healthy, because it contains spinach. Typically, spinach dip is loaded with rich, creamy ingredients and is very high in calories. And a single pita chip will cost you about 12 calories, so even a few handfuls can bust your calorie budget in no time. Chicken wings, while small, are usually fried and the portions are often generous. At one popular chain restaurant, an order of wings with barbecue sauce has about 500 calories.

After finishing up a restaurant meal with friends, you’d like some dessert but don’t want to go overboard. Which of these would have the fewest calories?

    a. Slice of strawberry cheesecake


    b. Scoop of ice cream with berries and a drizzle of chocolate syrup


    • c. Slice of carrot cake

Answer = b. Of the three, the ice cream is probably your best choice. A single scoop of ice cream will have about 150 calories, the fruit doesn’t add much, and chocolate syrup has only about 50 calories per tablespoon. So, you’re looking at around 250 calories total. Even a small slice of cheesecake can have close to 500 calories because it’s so rich. Carrot cake is loaded with oil and is typically frosted with sweetened cream cheese, so the calories are comparable to the cheesecake—sometimes even higher.

You’re on a vacation and you head down to the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Which of the following would be the best choice?

    a. 3 large pancakes with just syrup, no butter, and a large glass of orange juice


    b. 2 scrambled eggs with diced ham and some fresh fruit.


    • c. A bowl of granola topped with raisins and low-fat milk and a glass of cranberry juice

Answer = b. Don’t be fooled by the healthy-sounding granola. Some granolas have as much 450 calories a cup. So, unless you really control your portion, you could run up a hefty calorie bill by the time you add raisins (at 30 calories per tablespoon), low-fat milk (120 calories) and wash it down with a glass of cranberry juice (160 calories). The pancakes with syrup and orange juice could cost you nearly 600 calories. With almost no protein in the meal, it won’t have much staying power. Ham is a relatively lean meat, so the calories aren’t nearly as high per serving as fatty bacon and sausage—and the fresh fruit adds fiber to help keep you full. This meal adds up to about 400 calories, making the egg breakfast the best choice of the three.

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