Healthier Menu Options At Olive Garden

News flash: A lot of people like Olive Garden. It's pretty hard to go anywhere in the U.S. without finding a branch of the Italian-American restaurant chain (which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida, according to Nation's Restaurant News), and those breadsticks keep people flocking through the door year after year. In 2021 alone, Olive Garden made well over 3.5 billion dollars, according to Statista, and its popularity shows no signs of abating, thanks to its delicious and affordable food.

But where Olive Garden excels in convenience and flavor, it can be lacking in health. "It's a little tricky at Olive Garden," states registered dietitian nutritionist Frances Largeman-Roth (via Today), who points out that while the restaurant does have some healthy choices on the menu, there are others that have unhealthier ingredients lurking in them. Even choosing its famous House Salad can present problems, with certain dressing options skyrocketing your sodium levels. 

The good news, though, is that it is entirely possible to keep it healthy at Olive Garden — you just have to know what to choose. And that's where we come in. Let's take a look at the healthier menu options you can order at Olive Garden.

Herb-Grilled Salmon

Among the numerous options that populate the Olive Garden menu, one stands taller than most on the health front: The Herb-Grilled Salmon. Grilled and served with garlic herb butter (that you can ask to be left off, to make it even healthier) and a side of parmesan garlic broccoli, this dish is the go-to choice of registered dietitian Laura Yautz, as well as registered dietitian Susan Bowerman, thanks to its more nutritious qualities (per Insider). We can understand why. 

Salmon is a rich source of protein that also supplies a sizeable amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, says registered nutritionist Jo Lewin (via BBC Good Food). These fatty acids can bolster your brain health, support your cardiovascular system, and provide anti-inflammatory benefits, while the protein supports your body composition.

The side of broccoli that the salmon comes with also has some health benefits, with the fibrous vegetable full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, says Healthline. An order of Herb-Grilled Salmon will provide approximately 490 calories and 29 grams of fat (which can be reduced by asking to leave the butter off the top). Ordering it alongside the House Salad and a Minestrone Soup can create a well-rounded and filling meal, says Cut To The Chase Nutrition's Keith Ayoob (via Insider).

Minestrone Soup with Salad and Breadsticks

One of the true pleasures of Olive Garden is the breadsticks. And luckily, if you're eating healthily, you don't have to keep them off the menu entirely — as long as you're ordering them alongside something more nutritious, of course. 

That's why it's a good idea to enjoy your breadsticks as part of the Weekday Lunch Special, which supplies soup, salad, and a delightful baton of bread to make a meal that provides approximately 400 calories at its lowest end (per Olive Garden). The Minestrone Soup is definitely a winner in "The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian" author and registered dietitian nutritionist Rachel Meltzer Warren's eyes. "It has a ton of vegetables as well as northern beans to provide some plant-based protein," Meltzer Warren said in an interview with Everyday Health. She added that the calorie count alongside the salad and breadstick makes it "pretty impressive for a restaurant meal."

Just make sure that, if you want to keep things on the healthier side, you eat your breadstick without a dipping sauce. The large Alfredo dipping sauce provides an enormous 87 grams of fat, as well as 54 grams of saturated fat and 1,200 milligrams of sodium (per Olive Garden).

Grilled Chicken Margherita

The flavors of a Margherita are a thing of beauty, but for folks who are trying to cut back on their pizza, they can be hard to find. Well, not anymore. Olive Garden's Grilled Chicken Margherita delivers the taste of a classic Margherita, with fresh mozzarella, basil, and fresh tomatoes served on top of grilled chicken breasts and alongside a helping of broccoli (per Olive Garden).

This relatively healthy meal supplies approximately 540 calories per serving and 27 grams of fat (although folks watching their sodium may want to ask their server if they can reduce it at all, with 1,930 sodium per dish). And what's more, it won't disappoint on the protein front. The Grilled Chicken Margherita provides around 65 grams of protein for each serving, as Olive Garden says, and this protein is vital for a variety of bodily processes, from maintaining and building muscle to ensuring that oxygen is carried efficiently around your system (per WebMD). 

The high-protein, low-carb nature of the dish means that it's especially good for individuals following a keto diet, says Healthline, and splitting the meal into two portions can make it even healthier.

Cucina Mia

The menu at Olive Garden is pretty extensive, but if you want even more choice and control of your meal's nutrition, the Cucina Mia is the way to go. "The Cucina Mia gives you the freedom to mix and match your starter, pasta, sauce, and toppings, so you can choose what's going to give you the most bang for your nutritional buck," states registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Fishman Levinson (via Men's Health).

The Cucina Mia allows you to pick grilled chicken and sauteed shrimp as protein choices, with a traditional marinara sauce being both delicious and fairly healthy (per Olive Garden). If your Olive Garden branch offers whole-wheat pasta, that's a great choice. "It has more fiber, a key nutrient that helps curb your appetite, so you'll be less likely to overeat," states registered dietitian Paul Salter (per Men's Health). 

Shrimp and chicken will also deliver lean protein that can assist in keeping you fuller for longer, with higher protein meals being observed to increase satiety after a meal, according to research published in the journal Obesity. Just make sure you're not going for the Asiago Garlic Alfredo as a sauce, as this will cause the health of your meal to nosedive pretty quickly, says dietitian Ginger Hultin (via Men's Health).

House Salad with Low-Fat Italian Dressing

You might think it's hard to go wrong with a salad, but they're not all leafy goodness. Depending on how they're made, some salads can be the unhealthiest thing on the menu, with one salad from rival restaurant chain Cheesecake Factory delivering almost an entire day's worth of calories in one serving (per Prevention). Over at Olive Garden, however, the House Salad is one of the best things you can order. Providing a range of fresh vegetables, the House Salad with the Signature Italian Dressing delivers 150 calories per serving, with 10 grams of fat and 770 milligrams of sodium (per Olive Garden).

That's assuming you put all of the dressing on the salad, though, and as it's served on the side, you can decide how much you want to pour on top. If you choose the Low-Fat Italian Dressing, the salad comes to a mere 100 calories, with less sodium and fat. And, if you want to keep things super-healthy, opt for the salad with a serving of oil and vinegar on the side, as registered dietitian Kelly Kennedy does (via Everyday Health). That'll keep the sodium level even lower, which will keep your blood pressure in check, a vital component of good health (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Lunch Favorite Spaghetti

When we go out for a meal, no one wants to feel as though they're limited to certain things on the menu — but it's also prudent to consider the typically larger serving sizes of restaurant meals. That's where the Lunch Favorite menu at Olive Garden comes in, which has all of your favorite meals in lunch-sized portions that won't leave you feeling too full.

The Lunch Favorite Spaghetti is one of our favorites here, with spaghetti and a meat sauce made from beef and sausage combined to make a filling meal. "I love Italian food, and this really satisfies me while keeping my portion size in check," says registered dietitian Kelly Kennedy (via Everyday Health). At just 360 calories, the Lunch Favorite Spaghetti provides 12 grams of fat per serving and a decent 530 milligrams of sodium. The vegetarian choice, with a marinara sauce, provides a lower amount of calories, at 290 calories per serving. The Lunch Favorite Spaghetti fares far better than some of the other lunch choices on the menu, with the Chicken Parmigiana delivering almost 2,000 milligrams of sodium (per Olive Garden).

Shrimp Scampi

If Olive Garden does one thing well, it's pasta. Unfortunately, though, a lot of the pasta options they have are not the healthiest in the world. But the Shrimp Scampi, part of Olive Garden's Classic Entrées menu, bucks the trend, delivering a light and flavorful meal that combines angel hair pasta with protein and vegetables (per Olive Garden). 

Registered dietitian nutritionist Keri Gans picks the Shrimp Scampi as her top choice on the Olive Garden menu, as "not only is it lower in calories than most dishes on the entire Olive Garden's menu, but the shrimp provides satiating protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids" (per Livestrong). Additionally, Gans points out the addition of tomatoes and asparagus, both rich in antioxidants, with asparagus also being an excellent source of potassium, helping to control blood pressure (per Healthline).

The Shrimp Scampi provides approximately 510 calories per serving, placing it on the lower end of the calorie scale when it comes to Olive Garden dishes. The dish also delivers around 54 grams of carbs and 29 grams of protein in each dish, with 20 grams of fat, as Olive Garden's nutritional information shows. The dish is a little higher in sodium, with 960 milligrams per serving, so keep that in mind when seasoning it at the table.

Zuppa Toscana

We don't think people talk about the soups at Olive Garden enough. While the chain is primarily known for its breadsticks (and for good reason, they are delish) and its pasta dishes, its soups are not only incredibly tasty, but they also provide a hearty meal while remaining nutritious. The Zuppa Toscana, an underrated option on Olive Garden's menu, does just that. Clocking in at 220 calories, the Zuppa Toscana is a combination of sausage, potatoes, and kale in a thick broth.

It's the kale that catches our eye here. This superfood has more health benefits than we can count, and is rich in vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, phosphorus, folate, and vitamin B, as WebMD points out. The high fiber content of kale also provides a host of health positives, assisting in controlling blood sugar, keeping you fuller for longer, and encouraging healthier bowel movements (per Medical News Today). This and the protein from the sausage in the dish make the Zuppa Toscana a filling choice, one that can be made into a healthy main meal when combined with the House Salad and a breadstick.

Pasta E Fagioli

Opting for a soup at Olive Garden is a great way to keep things healthy, and the Pasta E Fagioli is one of the best choices you can make. Allowing you to still achieve your pasta fix while enjoying a filling broth, Pasta E Fagioli contains "just two grams saturated fat and three grams of fiber," explains registered dietitian nutritionist and "Liz's Healthy Table" founder Liz Weiss (via Livestrong). 

The soup is also made with fresh tomatoes, providing both flavor and nutrition (per Olive Garden), and the dual combo of white and red beans in the dish "provides fiber, protein and B vitamins," says Weiss. Further protein is also delivered through the inclusion of ground beef, taking the total protein in this soup to 8 grams, a good amount for a meal with comparatively fewer calories (per Olive Garden).

And if you're trying to watch your sodium while you're dining out, you're in luck. While the sodium count isn't exactly low, it is the lowest out of any of the other soups on the menu, Weiss explains. She recommends complementing your bowl of soup with Olive Garden's House Salad, dressing it with a little vinegar and oil on your own to keep sodium levels low.

Lunch Favorite Fettuccine Alfredo

Let's not beat around the bush here. Now and again, all of us just want to lose ourselves in a creamy, carb-y mound of pasta. And luckily, while Olive Garden isn't short of options on that front, they also have a few that will allow you to do so while keeping things relatively healthy. 

We present to you the Lunch Favorite Fettuccine Alfredo, which delivers a truckload of cheesy goodness in a nutritionally-reasonable package, and is a favorite of Dallas-based registered dietitian nutritionist Emily Weeks. By ordering it, "you'll stay under 700 calories with 610 mg of sodium," Weeks states (via Everyday Health). With the American Heart Association recommending that you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, this dish will provide just over a quarter of that allowance. Ensuring that you're watching your sodium intake for the rest of the day should keep you in line.

The Fettuccine Alfredo also provides a hearty 15 grams of protein and a single gram of trans fats, as Olive Garden's nutritional information shows. It's worth pointing out, though, that this dish also delivers 27 grams of saturated fat, which certain individuals may want to keep an eye on due to its potential impact on cholesterol levels (per MedlinePlus).

6 oz. Sirloin

Eating red meat in higher quantities may not do you any favors, with research linking high consumption of red meat with a range of health considerations (per Medical News Today). In limited quantities, however, red meat can help to form a well-rounded diet, and beef in particular provides an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and essential vitamins like iron, as Healthline states.

And if you're hankering for some red meat, you might be pleased to hear that at Olive Garden, the 6 oz. Sirloin is one of the healthier choices on the menu, says registered dietitian Jessica Cording (via Men's Health). "When you grill your protein, you don't add any breading or excess oil in the cooking process," ensuring an all-around healthier cut of meat. The 6 oz. Sirloin forms part of Olive Garden's "gluten-sensitive" menu. It provides a large proportion of your daily protein requirements, with 46 grams per serving, as WebMD points out. 

Instead of pasta, the sirloin is served with a side of broccoli, contributing to its high-protein, low-carb nature. This makes it an ideal choice for anyone who's dining at the restaurant while also following a keto diet.

Fresh Brewed Iced Tea

If you're dining out with nutrition in mind, casting your eye over Olive Garden's drinks menu can be a little dispiriting. Sure, there are a lot of delicious choices on there, but between the 2-Liter Sodas and the ToGo Gallon of Raspberry Lemonade (which provides 1,810 calories, although we'd imagine you're not drinking it all yourself), it can be hard to find a healthy choice.

For a non-alcoholic drink that keeps things healthy, however, the Fresh Brewed Iced Tea is our top choice. This unsweetened drink provides a refreshing accompaniment to your meal and is calorie-free, with no fat, no sugar, and a negligible amount of sodium per serving (per Olive Garden). Additionally, drinking fresh brewed iced tea means that you'll be able to partake in the health benefits that tea provides, which are pretty extensive. Black tea in particular is chock full of antioxidants, which may benefit your cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of long-term conditions, as Healthline says. The beverage may also provide a boost to your gut health, keep your immune system strong, and have a positive impact on your blood pressure.

For kids: Kids Rotini with Meat Sauce

There's little doubt that uttering the phrase "We're going to Olive Garden" will delight your little ones, but you may not be feeling as joyful when thinking about what they're going to eat. Fortunately, though, Olive Garden has a variety of choices for your kids that are both tasty and nutritious, and the Kids Rotini with Meat Sauce has to be our top choice. 

One of the best things about this meal is the protein content, with 11 grams per serving, as Olive Garden's nutritional information states. This provides an ample amount for your growing young'un, with kids between 4 and 9 years of age requiring 19 grams of protein each day, and 9- to 13-year-olds needing 34 grams daily (per the Cleveland Clinic).

The meal also comes with a side of broccoli or grapes, helping your child get one of their five a day. The sodium content of this dish is also comparatively low, with 650 milligrams per serving. It's important to keep an eye on your child's sodium intake and keep it under 1,900 milligrams if they're between 4 and 8 years old, and lower than 2,200 milligrams for 9- to 13-year-olds, given the potential link between consuming excess sodium and high blood pressure (per the Mayo Clinic Health System).

Menu options you should avoid

While it's entirely possible to make healthier choices at Olive Garden, it's also very possible, and very easy, to make unhealthier ones. Unfortunately, Olive Garden's menu is rife with dishes that while delicious, may wreak havoc on your daily nutritional balance. 

One such meal to watch out for is the Chicken Alfredo (via Healthline). While the "chicken" aspect may conjure images of healthy white meat, the "alfredo" side changes things, loading cream, butter, and cheese into the dish to create a meal that provides 94 grams of fat, 95 grams of carbs, and almost 1,500 calories, with 1,950 milligrams of sodium to top things off.

Also lacking on the health front is the Steak Gorgonzola Alfredo. While this meal does have a little greenery in it thanks to the spinach, everything else about it is not the best nutritionally, with a pretty wild 2,810 milligrams of sodium per serving — way over the recommended maximum, and almost double the ideal limit for sodium daily (per the American Heart Association). The meal also provides almost 1,400 calories, with 85 grams of fat. And if you're watching your salt intake, steer clear of the Chicken Parmigiana, which contains nearly 3,000 milligrams of sodium in each serving.