Healthier Menu Options For Your Next Chili's Visit

Chili's Grill & Bar may not be the first place you'd choose for healthy eating, but the national chain does offer a selection of not-so-bad-for-you finds that are fairly nutritious and won't bust your diet. 

It takes a bit of patience and planning to navigate the minefield of choices presented on any restaurant menu — and it's no exception at Chili's. Restaurants post their menu and nutrition information on their websites, and that's always the first place you should start. The details gained online about the calories, fat, sugar, and salt content of each entree and side dish will provide everything you need to make smarter food choices (via American Heart Association). 

In general, focus on fish and lean meats that have been baked, broiled, or grilled, says WebMD. Fish will add omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat that reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, while chicken, flank steak, sirloin tips, tenderloin, or even boiled shrimp will help lower the overall calorie count. Chili's makes it easy to locate lower-salt, lower-fat items via its Guiltless Grill menu. You can find these picks quickly by looking for the entrees designated with a heart symbol. 

So now that you've learned some fast facts, here's your cheat sheet of some of the better selections at Chili's and how to tweak them to make them healthier.

Classic Sirloin (6 oz) with Avocado

Ahhh, a juicy sirloin really hits the spot. It's nice and lean (per the Mayo Clinic), and it's one of the items on the Guiltless Grill menu at Chili's. The meal as served tops out at 360 calories, and is dressed up with cilantro pesto, avocado slices, and a drizzle of pico de gallo. Plus, this dish is presented with the perfect accompaniment of roasted asparagus. 

Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian, says to skip over rib-eye on menus because that cut has the most fat; instead, go for lean cuts like sirloin, and always opt for smaller portions (via Runner's World). The guideline from the American Heart Association for healthy eating is just 3 ounces of meat per serving. Since Chili's smallest size is 6 ounces, we recommend adding on a side order of more steamed veggies or a side garden salad for extra bulk and nutrition, then taking half the steak home for your next day's lunch.

Ancho Salmon

It probably comes as no surprise that salmon is good for you. It's rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12, and it's loaded with selenium, which is necessary for your thyroid and reproductive health (per Healthline).

Chili's features its own twist on this delicious fish, serving it up seared and chile-rubbed for extra flavor, and adding a dollop of cilantro pesto and queso fresco for good measure. The dish, complete with Mexican rice and a helping of steamed broccoli, comes in at a respectable 640 calories on the restaurant's Guiltless Grill menu. On the downside, it's high in sodium at 1,770 milligrams (2,300 is the Food & Drug Administration's recommended daily maximum), so make this dish your main meal and steer clear of other salty or processed foods the rest of the day.

"Digging into at least two servings [of salmon] per week can reduce your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline," according to Jaclyn London, certified dietitian nutritionist (via Women's Health).

Margarita Grilled Chicken

Chicken is such a versatile meat, and grilling chicken not only brings out the meat's flavor and juiciness, but is also a healthy way to prepare it, says WebMD. At 630 calories, Chili's margarita grilled chicken is a simple but flavor-packed entree that includes a dash of pico de gallo on a foundation of Mexican rice, black beans, and a few tortilla strips for a nice crunch. Altogether, this Guiltless Grill entree keeps the calories reigned in, while providing 52 grams of protein. 

Fair warning, though: This dish is high in sodium, and at 2,280 milligrams, that means it represents a whole day's worth in just this one meal. For any entree that's high in sodium like Chili's margarita grilled chicken, one easy way of making a dish less of a salt bomb is by sharing or taking half home to eat the next day. "Splitting restaurant entrees is an easy way to reduce calories and cut back on sodium at the same time. Asking for sauces and condiments on the side [also] gives you control over how much flavor (and salt) to add," recommends Consumer Reports.

Grilled Chicken House Salad

Believe it or not, salads aren't always the most health-conscious item on restaurant menus, even if they may seem like it. Calories and fat can add up really quickly depending on what's going on that pile of greens. "Look for salads that are packed with nutrient-dense toppings like black beans, avocado, tomato, cucumber, low-fat cheese, corn, peppers, and other fruits and vegetables," Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author, told Today. "Grilled or smoked chicken provides lean protein without the excess calories and fat from frying and breading."

Chili's chicken house salad with tomatoes, red onion, and cucumber is one of the good ones — with a few tweaks. As served, Chili's version is listed as 420 calories, plus another 140 from the avocado ranch dressing. You can make this salad even healthier (and lower the calories) by skipping the included shredded cheese or asking your server if you can substitute it with a lower-fat type such as parmesan. The salad is also topped with garlic croutons, so be mindful of the quantity you consume. Croutons add unnecessary fat, salt, and calories (per WebMD) to salads. And here's another tip: always ask for salad dressing on the side, as this will allow you to control how much of it you drizzle on those greens.

Shrimp Fajitas, Lunch Portion

Feeling like fajitas? Who doesn't love this sizzling Mexican dish that comes packed with flavor and lots of veggies? At Chili's, we recommend the lunch-sized entree featuring seared shrimp, onions, and peppers, plus traditional Mexican rice and black beans. It comes with tortillas, plus a side of sour cream, avocado, pico de gallo, salsa, and cheese. 

Call this one a decadent choice, but you can lessen the impact to your system by opting for this smaller lunch portion instead of the full-size version. At 890 calories, it's not too bad as your main meal of the day, but beware that this dish packs a massive sodium hit — 3,450 milligrams. That's well over the Food & Drug Administration's recommendation of 2,300 milligrams per day. (But it's not nearly as bad as the dinner plate that's 4,260 milligrams of sodium.)

Cooking Light says you can reduce the negative impact of a salty meal (but not eliminate it entirely) by chasing it with lots of water, sweating it out later with exercise, or eating potassium-loaded foods like bananas, leafy greens, or white beans. "High-potassium foods [are] good because they are usually whole foods that are also naturally lower in sodium. However, those with kidney disease should monitor potassium intake and talk to their doctor," warns nutrition director Brierley Horton, a registered dietitian.

Santa Fe Chicken Salad

Chili's has several calorie- and sodium-conscious salads on its menu, and one of them is the Santa Fe chicken salad. This green salad, at 560 calories, is topped with spicy grilled chicken and served with pico de gallo, avocado, tortilla strips, house-made ranch dressing, and a drizzle of the restaurant's signature spicy Santa Fe sauce.

The salad is garnished with chopped cilantro, which WebMD says is an herb that has a lot of health benefits. Eating it regularly may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's. It's also effective as part of your overall diet for controlling blood sugar. 

But among all the good stuff like cilantro and grilled chicken, you still have to keep things balanced — so don't drown your salad in dressing. Take control and order it on the side, says Dr. Christopher McGowan, a physician who specializes in obesity medicine (via Today). "Dressing is going to be one of the highest calorie components of salads," he cautions.

Spicy Shrimp Tacos

Shrimp offers a ton of nutrients for the body, says Healthline. With this entree, you'll get three spicy chile-lime shrimp tacos in flour tortillas with pico de gallo, avocado, cilantro, coleslaw, and queso fresco, plus Mexican rice and black beans. It's a dish that's high in protein, healthy fats, and iodine, which is essential for thyroid function (per the American Thyroid Association). The addition of avocado will boost its fiber, vitamin, and mineral content, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

With that said, it's true these spicy tacos will set you back nearly 1,000 calories and add a significant 3,190 milligrams of sodium to your system (the recommended daily maximum is 2,300, per the Food & Drug Administration). So to lessen the sodium overload, Cooking Light recommends balancing out the rest of your day by consuming lots of water and eating unprocessed fresh foods, such as high-potassium bananas and leafy greens. If you're sensitive to salt, however, the publication urges you to check with your doctor for personalized advice and to avoid making these salty meals a regular indulgence.

Southwest Chicken Soup

A warm bowl of hearty chicken soup can sure hit the spot on a cold winter's day, and can also be a soothing remedy for what ails you (per ABC News). Chili's version is a slightly spicy Southwest chicken soup featuring white meat chicken. This signature entree, which comes in at just 240 calories, is perfect for pairing with a house salad, so you can reap even more health benefits from the added boost of nutritious veggies. 

Despite just being a liquid, soups have complexity, and are surprisingly satisfying as a meal. A study published in Physiology & Behavior shows that soups are perceived as much more filling than beverages, and are also helpful for weight loss or weight maintenance because they generally lead to fewer calories being consumed throughout the day.   

Another benefit to soups is they offer an effortless source of hydration, says Henry Ford Health. Soup infuses us with electrolytes, protein, and lots of water, confirms Healthline, but its high sodium content needs to be kept in check if you have hypertension or heart disease.

Shrimp House Salad

Adding a lean but tasty protein to your salad not only amps up the flavor, but also makes it a much more satisfying meal. If you're growing tired of eating chicken every day (and we know that feeling!), fish is a great alternative and a healthy way to mix things up a bit, according to WebMD.

Chili's makes a house salad that you can get with protein, and we like the shrimp option that altogether makes this salad only 340 calories and boosts it to a respectable 23 grams of protein. Along with the juicy grilled shrimp, this green salad comes mixed with red onion, tomatoes, cucumber, shredded cheese, and a few garlic croutons. But go easy on the croutons and ask for Chili's avocado ranch dressing on the side, which adds only 140 extra calories. 

"[Green salads] provide fiber, which is beneficial in many areas, including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health. Greens are also low in calories, but high in nutrients and volume, which can be helpful if you're trying to manage your weight," says Elisabeth Moore, a registered dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (via Harvard Health).

House Barbecue Ribs - Half Order

Remember the old Chili's jingle singing the praises of its baby back ribs? "I want my baby-back-baby-back-baby-back I-want-my-baby-back-baby-back-baby-back Chili's baby back ribs" (via TheClassicSports). Oh yeah, it had many of us drooling for the restaurant's star menu item, you know, the smoked ribs that are slow-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness.

At 720 calories, a half-rack of these fan-favorite ribs is a solid choice as a satisfying source of protein, as they're filling (49 grams of protein) and provide lots of good stuff for your body like iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D (via San Francisco Gate). The ribs come with two side orders, and that's where many of us go astray. Without requesting specific ones, you'll likely be served the standard fries and coleslaw, turning what could be a respectable high-protein meal into a calorie and fat bomb, per the restaurant's nutrition chart.

But guess what? You can actually have whatever sides you want with your ribs, though some will come with an upcharge. The steamed broccoli (we recommend a double order) is your best bet. It won't cost you anything extra, and it's nutritious and low in calories. 

Pepper Pals Grilled Chicken Bites

Chili's chicken bites are basically grilled chicken sliders. In other words, they're cute mini chicken burgers that are bound to please the kids at your table. 

"If restaurants are serious about children's health, they will make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for parents and the most appealing choice for children," says Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., research advisor specializing in public health at the University of Connecticut (via UConn Today).

These sliders are 320 calories and 27 grams of protein, so they're a pretty decent choice and are perfectly sized for smaller appetites. This entree comes as a complete meal with a drink and a side. Choose milk over soda (per The New York Times), and a nutritious side like steamed broccoli. Steer clear of the deep-fried, sodium-heavy french fries most of the time. The added fat from the deep-frying process results in excess weight gain without providing more satiety, according to the book "Fat Detection" (per The Washington Post). 

Let's talk sides

The sides you choose can make or break a meal. Order a healthy lean meat like chicken, but then pair it with Chili's homestyle fries or loaded mashed potatoes, and wham! Suddenly, your lean protein turns into a less-than-healthy splurge. 

The most wholesome sides at Chili's, according to the restaurant's nutrition chart, are asparagus and steamed broccoli. They're nutrient-dense and low in calories and sodium, Unsurprisingly, though, the sides that'll do your healthy meal plan the most harm are the loaded mashed potatoes and fries. One notable choice, low-calorie black beans, may initially seem like another great pick, but the sodium value is high at 710 milligrams, second only to the loaded mashed potatoes. 

"Dining out is tricky because restaurants add extra calories, fat, and sodium with oil, butter, and salt," says Shayna Komar, a registered dietitian with Piedmont Healthcare. "Unfortunately, this is a challenge for those who are trying to eat well."

Why sodium matters

It's a good habit to give up heavy use of the salt shaker, but unfortunately, it doesn't really make a huge difference to the sodium level of your meal when dining out. Most of the time, Futurity reports, restaurant meals are already high in salt before they're placed in front of you at the table. 

The Mississippi State Department of Health says that "three-quarters of the sodium we consume has been put into our food before we buy it." Chili's is no exception. Most of the dishes for a single entree with sides are heavy on sodium, sometimes exceeding established Food & Drug Administration guidelines by multiple days' values, per the restaurant's nutrition chart.

"The increased blood volume and constriction of the arteries puts extra stress on the cardiovascular system. That's why high-sodium diets can increase the risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems," says Sierra Peralta, a wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers (Sharp Health). So it's important to keep sodium content in mind overall, and always strive for balance.