MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — We are about a week into the New Year and already many of us who made resolutions to eat better are finding it harder to do than we imagined.

One of the challenges is what to order when we eat out at restaurants.

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A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that the entrees at many of the chain restaurants are not doing us any favors.

They are often very high in calories, sodium and saturated fat.

We’ve heard a lot about the menu items at fast food restaurants, but this study is different.

Researchers looked at national chain restaurants with a much wider range of foods — places like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Perkins and Applebee’s. And even higher-priced restaurants like The Capital Grille and Morton’s Steakhouse.

They looked at how well menu items at these places abide by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Ever notice how food at a restaurant tends to taste way better than it does when it’s cooked at home? There’s more to it than an experienced chef being in the kitchen.

Stephanie Skeba is a dietitian at the HealthEast Ways to Wellness Center in Woodbury.

We asked for her thoughts on restaurant food.

“Their job is to get you to come back. It’s that formula of salt is going to extract the flavor. Fat tastes really good. And we think when we see bigger portions we are getting a better deal,” Skeba said.

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She offered a healthy approach to ordering food.

“Research shows when you start with a broth-based soup or a side salad, you eat less of that entree. Kind of filling your stomach full,” she said.

This latest study on restaurant foods found that the average entree had 800 calories, a full meal with a side dish and a shared appetizer had nearly 1,500.

That’s close to what some people consume in a whole day.
So what should we order?

“The entree, try to pick — half your plate should be vegetables. Then where’s your protein? So you’re looking for the chicken, turkey or fish,” she said.

The study also found, many menu items labeled “lighter fare” or “healthier options” really weren’t.

“They want you to come back so I always make recommendations. ‘Hey can that be grilled instead of fried? Can you serve me half? Can I get a discount if I get vegetables?’ Sometimes that’s more money, which is so funny,” Skeba said.

About a third of the entrees and appetizers had sodium levels and saturated fat levels higher than the recommended daily amount. And that’s really not good for people with hypertension.

Skeba says if you are eating out once a week, you don’t have to worry so much about what you consider it a treat, order what you want.

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But if you are eating out four or five times a week, for lunch or dinner, which is what the average American does — then you do need to pay attention to your choices.