Calories Printed on Menus Work—At Least for Me

A recent visit to Applebee's left me in a blind, calorie-driven panic when it came time order.

Photo from MorePixels

Last night, I ate dinner at Applebee’s. I know, I know—”Why would you do a thing like that?” you’re probably asking. Well, see, it’s not like I was dying to go there. It just so happened to be extremely convenient to the hospital where one of my best friends was laid up after having a baby earlier this week (congrats, Katie!), and the friend who I was with just so happened to have an Applebee’s gift card she knew she’d never use otherwise. So, we went. To Applebee’s.

Listen, I’m all for a little caloric splurge every once in awhile. Because, why not? If you normally eat healthfully and you’re diligent about exercise, there’s no reason you can’t indulge in an Applebee’s (or Wendy’s or Burger King) cheeseburger every once in a while. Besides, we had free money, people.

All that to say, the waitress brought us the menu (it’s massive, by the way: starters, salads, soups, steaks, pasta, sandwiches, burgers, even fish) and our group started paging through, silently. Just as I was about to decide on a cheeseburger (when in Rome—er, Applebee’s, right?), my friend’s husband said, “Wait, are those the calories?” He seemed in disbelief, and this is a guy who generally doesn’t watch what he eats or workout with any regularity. So I knew whatever he was looking at must be bad. Reeeeally bad.

I scanned to the bottom of each item description, and there, sure enough, were a string of numbers. A key at the bottom of the page revealed that the restaurant had provided nutritional values for things like calories and sodium, color coded so you could distinguish what was what. I hadn’t actually noticed the numbers until my friend pointed them out—and then I couldn’t stop staring at them. Most were shockingly, terrifyingly high.

I must have paged through the menu 20 times then, suddenly unsure of what to order. I tried to remember what I’d told myself in the car on the way over—”It’s okay to splurge a little!”—but staring at the cold hard facts, I just didn’t think I could stomach it. Quite literally.

That cheeseburger I’d been planning to order? It had 940 calories, 22 grams (!!) of saturated fat (out of 58 fat grams, total) and 1,700 milligrams of sodium—and that’s without the fries that came with it. According to the Mayo Clinic’s calorie calculator, I need between 1,800 and 2,000 calories each day to maintain my weight. This cheeseburger and fries would absolutely, positively put me over the top—and then some.

I glanced around, mildly panicked. The chicken fajita roll-up sandwich—essentially, a chicken burrito—was even worse, with 1,050 calories and 27 grams of saturated fat. The Cajun shrimp pasta packed 1,210 calories and 28 grams of saturated fat. The sodium? 3,140 milligrams.

Suddenly, my post-baby-visit calorie splurge was becoming much more than I could swallow—in good health-editor conscience, anyway. In the end, I landed on the calorie-conservative chipotle-lime chicken, a Weight Watchers pick, actually, with 490 calories (a much, much better dinner choice, calorie-wise) and just two measly grams of saturated fat.

Was it satisfying? No, not really. And that’s a shame. There’s no reason lighter food has to be tasteless. Here, the salsa lacked the punch I was hoping for, and the rice was bland and, I think, a tad undercooked. But at least I didn’t have too much calorie guilt to contend with, and I definitely didn’t feel bloated and lethargic an hour later, as I most definitely would have with a cheeseburger.

So in the end, the menu-printed nutritional information won out—they worked for me, just as they were intended. The scary numbers, printed right there in cheery blue and yellow ink, persuaded me to skip the burger and go for something more sensible.

And besides, I still splurged a little. My friend ordered a plate of potato twisters to share as a starter. They turned out to be deep-fried potato spirals with a queso dipping sauce. I didn’t even bother to look at the calories for those.

Tell us: Have you ever been convinced to order something else—or abstain altogether—when you learned the nutritional reality of what you were about to eat? (Surely, I’m not alone.)