Olive Garden is owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc., which claims to be “the world’s largest full-service restaurant company with annual sales of more than $7 billion.” They also own and operate Red Lobster, LongHorne Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Seasons 52, for a total of 1,800 restaurant locations (and 180,000 employees) worldwide.
Rather than simply dismiss them as “Corporate America,” I’d much prefer to offer some suggestions on how to go to Olive Garden and get a healthy, delicious meal. Okay, sure, it’ll still be tough… but at least you can use this guide to make better choices.
Inexplicably, their published nutrition information doesn’t include protein or added sugars.
If you want to guesstimate the protein content, take the total calories and subtract them by 9 calories per gram of fat and 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate. Then take the resulting calories and divide by 4 (that’s how many calories are in gram of protein), and you’ll get the number of grams of protein in the dish. It won’t be exact, but it should get you close enough.
For example, the Stuffed Mushrooms Appetizer has 280 calories, with 19 g fat and 15 g carbs. So:
280 – (19 x 9) – (15 x 4) = 280 – 171 – 60 = 49 calories from protein. Divide that by 4 and you get about 12 grams of protein
One final thought, before we begin: Their lunch offerings are pretty much the same dishes as they serve at dinner, but are smaller portions.
I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t order a lunch-sized portion for dinner. Doing so, for example, would knock an 850-calorie Lasagna Classico down to a much more respectable 580 calories.
Appetizers – Better Choices
Of course, skipping the appetizer (including those refined-flour breadsticks) is the Better Choice, but if you want a relatively light bite — and one that’s easy to split with your fellow diners — go for the Stuffed Mushrooms.
280 cal, 5g sat fat, 19g total fat, 720mg sodium, 15g carbs, 3g fiber
Breadstick with Garlic-Butter Spread
150 cal, no sat fat, 2g total fat, 400mg sodium, 28g carbs, 2g fiber
Whatever you do, please don’t add the alfredo dipping sauce (see below)!
Appetizers – Worst Choices
Just about everything else on the appetizer menu is high in calories or sodium, or both. Some examples:
Mussels di Napoli
180 cal, 4g sat fat, 8g total fat, 1,770mg sodium
These would be good if it weren’t for the sodium!
610 cal, 13g total fat, 1,760mg sodium
600 cal, 11g sat fat, 36g total fat, 1,1520mg sodium
Grilled Chicken Flatbread
760 cal, 15g sat fat, 44g total fat, 1,500mg sodium
Hot Artichoke-Spinach Dip
650 cal, 15g sat fat, 31g total fat, 1,430mg sodium
1,030 cal, 21g sat fat, 63g total fat, 1,590mg sodium
Seriously?! Half a day’s calories, and all your saturated fat, in just your appetizer?
Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta
940 cal, 28g sat fat, 48g total fat, 1,940mg sodium
500 cal, 10g sat fat, 22g total fat, 1,850mg sodium
890 cal, 5g sat fat, 54g total fat, 2,340mg sodum
Calamari with Parmesan-Peppercorn Sauce
1,190 cal, 10g sat fat, 84g total fat, 2,680mg sodium
Alfredo Dipping Sauce
380 cal, 22g sat fat, 35g total fat, 510mg sodium
Marinara Dipping Sauce
70 cal, no sat fat, 2.5g total fat, 540mg sodium
Soups & Salads – Better Choices
Pasta e Fagioli (one serving)
130 cal, 1g sat fat, 2.5g total fat, 680mg sodium, 17g carbs, 6g fiber
Garden-Fresh Salad (one serving, without dressing)
120 cal, 0.5g sat fat, 3.5g total fat, 550mg sodium, 17g carbs, 3g fiber
Soups & Salads – Worst Choices
Garden-Fresh Salad (one serving, with dressing)
350 cal, 26g fat, 1,930mg sodium
Grilled Chicken Caesar
850 cal, 64g fat, 1,880mg sodium
Chicken & Gnocchi (one serving)
250 cal, 1,180mg sodium
Minestrone (one serving)
100 cal, 1,020mg sodium
Zuppo Toscana (one serving)
160 cal, 960mg sodium
Dinner Entrées – Better Choices
To be a “Better Choice” I settled on these three criteria: Under 800 calories, under 12g saturated fat, and under 1,500 mg sodium.
Remember, many of these are available as Lunch Entrées, which are smaller portions.
Also, I discuss the Never Ending Pasta Bowls separately, below.
Venetian Apricot Chicken
380 cal, 1.5g sat fat, 4g total fat, 1,420mg sodium, 32g carbs, 8g fiber
510 cal, 6g sat fat, 26g total fat, 760mg sodium, 5g carbs, 2g fiber
Personally I wouldn’t order this because the salmon is likely farmed.
Parmesan Crusted Tilapia
590 cal, 10g sat fat, 25g total fat, 910mg sodium, 42g carbs, 6g fiber
Cheese Ravioli with Marinara Sauce
660 cal, 11g sat fat, 22g total fat, 1,440mg sodium, 84g carbs, 7g fiber
Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
710 cal, 8g sat fat, 22g total fat, 1,340mg sodium, 94g carbs, 9g fiber
Not to be confused with the Spaghetti & Meatballs, which has 1,110 calories and 2,180mg sodium. The Spaghetti & Italian sausage is even worse, with 1,270 calories and 3,090mg sodium.
Dinner Entrées – Somewhat Better Choices
To be a “Somewhat Better Choice,” it has to meat at least two of the these criteria (those that aren’t met are in bold):
Under 800 calories, under 12g saturated fat, or under 1,500mg sodium.
480 cal, 3g sat fat, 16g total fat, 2,250mg sodium, 35g carbs, 7g fiber
That’s a pretty high sodium-to-calorie ratio.
Ravioli di Portobello
670 cal, 17g sat fat, 30g total fat, 1,400mg sodium, 74g carbs, 15g fiber
Parmesan Crusted Bistecca
690 cal, 19g sat fat, 35g total fat, 1,480mg sodium, 40g carbs, 7g fiber
740 cal, 2g sat fat, 12g total fat, 1,640mg sodium, 110g carbs, 14g fiber
770 cal, 5g sat fat, 37g total fat, 1,800mg sodium, 59g carbs, 16g fiber
840 cal, 3g sat fat, 17g total fat, 1,250mg sodium, 141g carbs, 19g fiber
Dinner Entrées – Worst Choices
It’s a large menu, so I’m just going to highlight a few items here. Hopefully this will give you an idea of some of the worst offenders.
Create Your Own Pizza (with cheese and sauce only)
910 cal, 12g sat fat, 28g total fat, 2,970mg sodium, 129g carbs, 8g fiber
If you split this with a friend, the calories and fat aren’t too bad. But it’s still insanely high in sodium. And that’s without any additional toppings. Adding any of the veggies — except black olives — are good choices, though. The olives add 350 mg of sodium.
Chicken Alfredo Pizza
1,180 cal, 40g total fat, 3,330 mg sodium
Tour of Italy
1,450 cal, 33g sat fat, 74g total fat, 3,830mg sodium
1,510 cal, 37g sat fat, 87g fat, 3,100mg sodium
Spaghetti & Italian Sausage
1,270 cal, 24g sat fat, 67g total fat, 3,090mg sodium
1,090 cal, 3,380mg sodium
1,220 cal, 47g sat fat, 75g total fat
850 cal, 1,900mg sodium
Braised Beef & Tortelloni
1,020 cal, 22g sat fat, 53g total fat, 2,060mg sodium
Lasagna Rollata al Forno
1,170 cal, 39g sat fat, 68g total fat, 2,510mg sodium
1,440 cal, 48g sat fat, 82g total fat, 2,070mg sodium
Garlic-Herb Chicken con Broccoli
960 cal, 18g sat fat, 41g total fat, 2,180mg sodium
Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara
1,440 cal, 38g sat fat, 88g total fat, 3,000mg sodium
1,020mg sodium, 31g sat fat, 52g total fat, 2,430mg sodium
Grilled Shrimp Caprese
900 cal, 17g sat fat, 40g total fat, 3,490mg sodium
Never-Ending Pasta Bowls
Okay, I’m hesitant to even discuss these, since if you’re getting more than one bowl — which is the point — completely misses my point. Then again, there’s a wide range of options here, between the pastas, sauces, and “add-ons,” so what you order can make an enormous difference.
Pastas are listed below, in order of increasing calories (exception: I put the Whole Wheat Linguine at the top of the list!)
Whole Wheat Linguine
370 cal, 7 g fiber
300 cal, 5g fiber
380 cal, 4g fiber
390 cal, 4g fiber
430 cal, 4g fiber
450 cal, 4g fiber
460 cal, 3g fiber
Never Ending Pasta Sauces – Better Choice
If you want meat with your pasta, it’s better to get the Marinara and then add Meatballs or Roasted Chicken, rather than getting one of the meat-based sauces.
90 cal, 700mg sodium
Never Ending Pasta Sauces – Worst Choices
610 cal, 35g sat fat, 56g total fat, 820mg sodium
Chianti Three Meat
340 cal, 11g sat fat, 25g total fat, 1,400mg sodium
Creamy Parmesan Portobello
560 cal, 28g sat fat, 49g total fat, 900mg sodium
Five Cheese Marinara
280 cal, 1,040mg sodium
260 cal, 1,210mg sodium
Never Ending Pasta Bowl Add Ons – Better Choices
130 cal, 4g sat fat, 9g total fat, 280mg sodium
140 cal, 1g sat fat, 3.5g total fat, 270mg sodium
Never Ending Pasta Bowl Add Ons – Worst Choice
280 cal, 8g sat fat, 23g total fat, 880mg sodium
Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.
indicates the “best-of-the-best,” and indicates the “worst-of-the-worst,” more or less.
Olive Garden Nutrition Information (online)
Photo by agroffman.