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The Bariatric Foodie Survival Guide to Olive Garden

Olive Garden. When you’re here, your family, right?

Well…if your family consists of robust eaters and is headed by a mother who CONSTANTLY thinks you’re too thin (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and therefore insists on plying you with pasta, butter, olive oil and breadsticks…yes…that is very, very true.

For the rest of us, we kinda feel like that odd duck in the family who never quite fits in and thus fakes a cold to get out of family gatherings.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! You too can be part of the family at Olive Garden even after weight loss surgery and I’m going to show you how. For a downloadable version of this restaurant guide click here. For Olive Garden’s complete nutrition information, click here.

The Basics

In the interest of full disclosure I should say I’m not the biggest Olive Garden fan. Sure, I love Italian food as much as the next person, but I am starting to get annoyed with restaurants that continue to insist on ostracizing their healthy choices. I don’t understand why there has to be a special “menu insert” or a special section of the menu with healthier options. Yes, I know for some of us this makes them easier to find, but it also outs us as “away from the norm…” and I don’t like that. If healthy choices were integrated into a menu that has nutrition information for ALL its choices (and maybe some symbol that indicates it is low-fat, carb, etc.) I think I’d feel better about the whole thing.

My other beef with Olive Garden, newly developed from researching this piece, is that they give every piece of nutritional information on a food EXCEPT the protein count. Argh! In my notes below, I attempt to guestimate the protein count on my suggestions, but please be aware that those proposed numbers are NOT from the Olive Garden website. K?

What to Avoid

This is a good place to start because there are a few pitfalls just in how Olive Garden handles serving you food. In the world of non-ops, these same things are probably good, can save them calories and money. For us? Not so much.

So let’s talk about unlimited salad and breadsticks.

I heart breadsticks with the passion of a thousand infernos. BELIEVE ME when I say it pains me to say this but…if I were you, I’d skip them. If you’re going with a date who is also health conscious you can simply ask not to have breadsticks. If you are with a big group, make sure you push that bread basket as far away from your physical person as possible. They fill you up with carbs and fat and don’t leave much room for protein. Plus, if you’re like me, they make your tummy hurt.

The salad is a trickier thing. Cuz it’s salad, right? I won’t say avoid the salad. It provides some good veggies, some crunch and it’s just plain yummy. BUT if you know you have a small pouch capacity and your enjoyment of salad would impede getting your necessary protein, I’d say you might want to either minimize your salad intake OR wait until your food comes to get any salad so you can get your protein in before munching down.

DO NOT…and I do mean DO NOT attempt to do an “all you can eat salad” situation. There is no such thing as all you can eat for most post-ops. It shouldn’t be a school of thought to which you subscribe. Not now. Not ever. Period.

Good Menu Choices

So let’s get into the “meat” of what’s available, shall we? I’m organizing my suggestions somewhat around eating phase.

If you are in the full liquids phase…

Olive Garden has several soup choices that would work. Their minestrone is both tasty and very reasonable at 100 calories. My sense from reading the ingredients is that it is not terribly protein heavy but at this stage of eating, there is little on the menu that will give you the protein that you’d ordinarily look for in a serving of food. One warning. Since the minestrone has veggies and since you are new out, it will likely fill you up…for only 100 calories. At this stage in the game, that’s not necessarily a good thing so I personally would go for something that is a bit more splurg-y, like…

The chicken and gnocchi soup. It is 250 calories. While the protein content on soup is hard to measure, I will say that at this point, you should probably pick out the gnocchi which would lower the caloric content a little.

For you chicken eaters….

There are actually a few really good choices on the “Garden Fare” menu (grrrr….).

The Venetian Apricot Chicken sounds good. I’ve never tasted it so I had to do some consult with my good friend who is a self-proclaimed Olive Garden officianado. She claims to have tried EVERYTHING on the menu. She endorses this dish. I don’t know from their stats how much sugar is in the dish though. I know there is fruit but sometimes chefs add sugar to bump up the fruit factor. Ask your server to find out for you. Otherwise, this dish is served in lunch (280 calories) or dinner (380 calories) portions. From the serving size I’d guess the total dish probably has somewhere around 25-30g of protein in the lunch portion, 30-40g in the dinner portion.

The Grilled Chicken Spiedini also seems a good choice. It’s skewered chicken marinated in Italian herbs and olive oil (I assume extra virgin) with grilled vegetables. The dish is 420 calories and, I’d guess about 30g of protein total. This also seems to be the dish with the lowest amount of sodium at 990 mg. Notice that both of these dishes come WITHOUT pasta. That’s important. Many of us just can’t handle pasta. It’s heavy and doesn’t really benefit us that much.

For the seafood lover in you…

The Seafood Brodetto is what I get on the rare occasion that I let myself be talked into going to Olive Garden. I actually like it a lot. It has 480 calories for the entire serving and is made of scallops, shrimp and tilapia in a spinach and mushroom white wine sauce with marinara-saffron broth. That all is from the website. I have no conception of marinara saffron broth nor do I care. All I know is it is good and every time I’ve gotten it, all the proteins are fairly tender. I’ve never had an “episode” with this dish. And that’s saying something as my pouch is as big a diva as my daughters are.

There is also a very nice looking herb grilled salmon that clocks in at 510 calories, 760mg sodium and, I’d guess, about 30g protein from the portion they show on the website.

My mom loves the mussels at Olive Garden. They are 180 calories. I am not sure on the protein on them, but thought they were worth noting.

Beef and pork people…

I poured over the menu looking for a lower calorie choice. Sigh…The lowest calorie thing I found was the Beef Toscano. For the dish it is 590 calories, but has 20g of fat and, get this, 1,460mg of sodium! (Keep in mind most of these dishes have a good bit of sodium. Drink a lot of water on the day you go to Olive Garden and stay the hell away from the scale the next day, k?) I don’t recommend anything with pork in it from Olive Garden. All the dishes pack a full days worth of calories and fat. Granted, you’ll only be able to eat a bit of it, but here’s the deal. To me, while restaurant food does provide more than one meal, if restaurant food is supposed to be a treat in moderation, I have a hard time seeing how eating it for the next six days accomplishes that. Your mileage may vary.

If you absolutely MUST have some pasta…

I will point out that the kid’s menu has a nifty little grilled chicken pasta with broccoli. It’s 310 calories and seems a reasonable portion. If you have a card from your surgeon’s office explaining your eating requirements, you might have to present it to order this dish for yourself.

Dessert…

Don’t do it. That is all.

Wait…no it’s not. Two reasons (besides the obligatory RNY warning about dumping syndrome). First, many post-ops can attest to the fact that dessert works differently after surgery. Dessert is not the end of a meal. It is a meal in and of itself. That being the case, I’d much rather you come home and make a nice low-cal dessert or even a yummy protein dessert than indulge in any of their offerings.

Beverages

They have the coffee, tea, diet soda, water combo. Yawn. They do have specialty espressos that come unflavored. That could be good, especially if your plan has a daily caffeine allowance. As always, I remind my RNY readers that your window for drinking is relatively short. Basically when you first sit down until your food comes, drink all you want. After you start eating, stop drinking!

So there you have it…the low-down on Olive Garden. I must admit there are a few more choices than I thought there were so maybe I’ll stop being so Olive Garden resistant. Maybe.

You ready? Now take it with you!

Click below to purchase your downloadable Olive Garden eating guide to take with you when you go! All proceeds from restaurant downloads benefit the “Global Foodie Fund” which keeps Bariatric Foodie contests and giveaways open worldwide!

Also, check out these other great survival guide posts:

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3 comments

  1. I love your restaurant review Nik….I am 4+ years out and have a friend who LOVES Olive Garden. A group of us get together for birthdays, etc so at least once each year we end up at Olive Garden when it is her turn to pick. I still do not eat regular pasta so there is just not that much on the menu that appeals to me but you have given me some options. I do agree with you that I don't really want my restaurant left overs for the next week….the last time we went I did try the seafood brodetto and it was very tasty….I would order that again! Thank you for all of your great help. I really appreciate all that you do for our community!
    ~Diane

  2. Hi! Just started reading your blog, love it and all the great info! Something I'll add about Olive garden is…they WILL replace any pasta with veggies. We don't go there often but when we are asked out to go there I like to get the Chicken scampi made with broccoli instead of pasta, sauce an all, I even did it with the seafood alfredo one time, they just tossed it all in broccoli instead of pasta. tasted delicious.

  3. Interesting to know its doable. In my surgeon's nutrition classes they gave us tips on restaurants, but for Olive Garden, they said many, many times NEVER TO GO THERE EVER AGAIN IN OUR LIVES.
    Of course, just prior to my surgery, we received $100 in gift certificates to there, so it was a little frustrating they'd go to waste. But now maybe I'll see if I can go following your tips.