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Jun 24, 2014 08:53 AM

Eating out healthy: does this app exist?

I've been traveling a lot, and the classic problem when eating out all the time is that you can eat healthy, filling, or cheap: pick two.

To help solve this, here's the app I want to exist:

1. You choose a restaurant you want to go to. Say, Applebee's (stay with me here).
2. The app asks you what size meal you want: small/medium/large, or maybe by total calorie count. I'm eating dinner, so I want an 800-calorie meal or so.
3. The app sorts through the menu and the nutrition facts and gives you a series of options that combine menu selections in a way that get close to your "fullness" goal but also have a balance of fruits, vegetables, relatively low fat, etc. You can swipe through the options to find one that looks appealing to you.

Please say this app exists!

(Or barring that, how you handle this problem.)

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  1. There's likely no app out there that does all of what you want, but there are many apps that address "restaurant nutrition" the first one that comes up in Apple's App Store uses menus from 310 restaurants; others specialize in fast food choices.

    I'm not quite that health conscious, but I do feel your pain. Years back, I had to travel for business for long periods at a time, and despaired of restaurants on the road. Everything was fried, sauced, or cheesed; worse, some were two-fers from those choices.

    4 Replies
    1. re: mcsheridan

      You need an app for that? Really?

      I apologize for my impatience with this, but we rely way too much on machines to make our decisions for us. Like how much change we should get at the cash register.

      If you know what is basically healthy and what is not, you can make the right choices. Fried vs. grilled calamari. Olive oil and vinegar v. creamy salad dressing? Cake vs. berries? Cheese fries or brown rice? Stuffed baked potato or steamed veggies?

      Its not the description on the menu that makes any difference anyway. It's the portion size, the amount of fat and other ingredients that make up the nutritional information.

      And you might get some of that for chain restaurants (Weight Watchers app lists tons of chain meals), but many of us are lucky enough to have access to and preference for independent local restaurants which makes the whole exercise moot.

      1. re: chicgail

        Actually there are a number of salads at chain reataurants such as california pizza kitchen and cheesecake factory that have grilled chicken salads with 1200+ calories. Sounds healthy enough on the menu. So yeah, checking that you know the nutrition of the meal you're eating can be important with frequent dining out.

        1. re: Ttrockwood

          That's very misleading info, though, since it assumed you dump the entire, huge portion of dressing onto the salad. Scroll down and check the salads nutrition data with and without dressing. I've only ever eaten there once in my life (salad) and the salad was huge. As usual, I dipped my fork in the dressing and left most of it behind when done.

        2. re: chicgail

          It's not that easy. I was at an airport and the guy in front of me asked about the chicken parm and whether it was fried. He had just had surgery and had to be careful. The worker said probably not since they don't have a fryer there. I pulled him aside and told it it's typically fried. But how would someone who doesn't cook it know? There are plenty of foods I order where I have no idea how something is made. I was talking to someone about Bon chon chicken recently. I have no idea how it's done. If you're knowledgeable enough to know how all dishes are prepared, that's awesome. But, I'd say that's in the minority, I've been surprised to find out that Ruby Tuesday's grilled cheese has more calories than its cheeseburger.

      2. If such an app were to exist - it would probably be rather limited to chains that provide nutritional information. Which if you're traveling for business and constantly limited in options, then I could see why it'd be helpful for someone to tease out which chain would best serve their needs.

        However - and I say this as a non-tech person - I'd be fascinated to learn how one would write an app to search an extensive menu data base to looking for "balance of fruits and vegetables". Or even just to tease out that one kind of an appetizer (such as a salad with a protein) could suffice as a light meal whereas an eggroll type appetizer, calories aside - doesn't quite make "meal" status.

        1 Reply
        1. re: cresyd

          Yeah, I think the data categorization aspect of this would be the most critical part.

          You'd need to limit it to chains at the beginning, though I could see a future in which folks could help by tagging menu items by what they contain, just as a hint for the algorithm. The spinach dip appetizer would get tagged "vegetable", "cheese", and "high fat", for example.

          As far as building a balanced meal... I'm thinking you could use a combination of ingredient lists and nutrition data for that, along with nutrition best-practices. If the general rule of thumb is that you should get less than 30% of your calories from fat, well, that's an easy one. If you should try to get 2 servings of fruit/vegetable with dinner, that seems pretty straightforward too, given the right data.

          I'm tempted to just throw together a prototype and put it on Kickstarter.

        2. "Restaurant Nutrition"

          "Healthy Out"

          And I know from personal experience that the "Calorie Count" app has a ton of nutrition info for eating out. You just type in what you ate and it provides a nutrition breakdown.

          I've never seen an app with exactly what you describe, though maybe you could set it into motion somehow.

          As for how I handle that problem... I take my time perusing a menu and look through all areas--apps, salads, mains, sides, etc. and form a meal depending on what I want. I've been known to order a few sides (say, 2 veggies plus a starch or lean protein) if I don't want a full meal/heavy dinner. This works better at chain or more casual restaurants; I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that in a fine dining establishment.

          As for avoiding unnecessary fats, the usual recommendations still apply--get vinaigrettes instead of creamy dressings, and have dressings/sauces served on the side. Order steamed veggies over pan-fried (often in butter). Or when I was a teenager I was lactose intolerant and would ask that things be cooked in olive oil instead of butter, and restaurants were always happy to oblige. You might also just consider portion control... divvy up your plate as soon as it's set in front of you. You can put half onto an unused salad plate to pack up to go. Swap out French fries, mashed potatoes, pasta, etc. for a side of veggies or salad or fruit.

          1. My fitness pal is potentially the most comprehensive database of nutrition information. It doesn't function the way you want it to but you can use it to check your menu choices.
            Vegetables are always going to fill you up for the least calories, obviously be wary of heavy sauces, cheese, etc

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ttrockwood

              Or do what I do; eat the veggies the cheese, a bit of sauce/dressing and skip the rice, bread, potatoes, etc.

            2. Get in touch with these folks to see if they'd be interested in adding that data to the menu items database they're building: